Surprisingly, the above quotation does not come from V for Vendetta, but from Alan Moore’s 1988 introduction to the graphic novel for the original DC Comics run. At the time, Margaret Thatcher was entering her third term as Prime Minster of the U.K., and Moore was despairing about, among other things, the treatment of homosexuals and AIDS sufferers and the proliferation of riot police and video surveillance in his home country. One could argue that, in some ways, England has advanced in the last 34 years, but I imagine Moore must be positively apoplectic over Boris Johnson. (A quick internet search informed me that Moore still lives in England, and in 2018 he poetically skewered Johnson over the Grenfell fire).
The reason I began with that quote from Moore is because that despair, that utter pessimism about the “cold and mean-spirited” state of civilization encapsulates what I felt while reading V for Vendetta. Moore’s personal musings perfectly set the stage for what’s in store for the reader.
Set in a dystopian near-future (well, late 90s, because the novel was written in the 80s), England is suffering the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia that left England in a state of lawlessness. The totalitarian government keeps the people under control by means of government agencies aptly named after body parts: the Head, the ruling body; the Eye, the surveillance arm; the Ear, audio surveillance; the Finger, law enforcement; the Mouth, propaganda; and the Nose, the police force/investigative branch. The novel opens on Guy Fawkes Night (That’s November 5, for us Yanks), when a mysterious cloaked figure called V rescues 16-year-old Evey Hammond from a group of “Finger” agents who are threatening to rape and murder her. V follows up this act of chivalry by blowing up the Houses of Parliament before taking Evey to his lair, which he calls the “Shadow Gallery.” This is all moving kind of quickly for a destitute, orphaned 16-year-old, so you can image Evey is experiencing some complicated emotions.
V then embarks on a journey of vengeance against several key political figures who were all involved in experiments at an extermination camp. Only Detective Eric Finch, the seemingly decent head of the police force, suspects that there might be more to V’s activities than simple revenge. As Part I closes, Finch worries that the vendetta angle is a cover for a terrorist attack on a much grander scale.
Fascism, justice, freedom, and anarchy are all central themes. In what seems like an effort convince himself, Finch muses, “If I’d known this was happening, would I still have joined the party? Probably. No better alternatives. We couldn’t let the chaos after the war continue. Any society’s better than that. We needed order. . . or at least, I did.” Similarly, in a broadcast to the populace, V accuses, “We’ve had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars, and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. This is plain fact. But who elected them? It was you! You who appointed these people! You who gave them the power to make your decisions for you!”
I’d been wanting to read this graphic novel for some time, and for me, it’s lived up to the hype. While probably not as strong as Watchmen, it has several things going for it. For one thing, it’s morally complex in that V is not a clear-cut hero; his actions are questionable at best. Second, it presents ideas without telling the reader what to believe: Finch is still a good man, even if he was willing to trade freedom for law and order; V, on the other hand, argues that chaos is not the same as anarchy. Finally, it serves up several strong female characters–some are victims and some are villains, but they are drawn with as much depth as their male counterparts (one of my complaints about Watchmen).
I do have one complaint about this book when it comes to the artwork. I don’t know whether this is an issue with the original, as I have one of the re-release versions, but some of the artwork is so dark that I had a hard time distinguishing characters and sometimes even the action. I know the style is supposed to be dark, but there were a few times when I actually said to myself, “What the hell is happening in this frame?”
The novel does offer some hope at the end, but overall the outlook is pretty dim. And yet, I don’t think anything in it made me feel as glum as the author’s introductory words, because they forced me to view the novel through 2022 spectacles. While I’m not advocating for anarchy, V for Vendetta is a relevant reminder of what complacency could cost us. As V proclaims, “While I’ll admit that anyone can make a mistake once, to go on making the same lethal errors century after century seems to me nothing short of deliberate.”