Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Alan Moore - V for Vendetta

Noise is relative to the silence preceding it. The more asolute the hush, the more shocking the thunderclap. (p. 194)

Alan Moore's V for Vendetta explores power, morality, and responsibility, and it manages – incredibly enough – to do justice to all three themes. The novel is a powerful and intelligent story that's a classic of its genre, one that is far more complex than it seems (and it doesn't seem particularly simple to start off with).

[Note: the following review contains SPOILERS]

The first thing that has to be understood about V for Vendetta is that it’s a text filled with questions and bereft of answers, both on a large and small scale. Who is V? We never find out. We find out just enough to create a compelling theory, and we know the sensational parts of his back-story, but everything from his name to his childhood is obscured. V is an enigma, and he remains an enigma, the actual man insignificant when compared to what he represents. As he says: There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bullet proof. (p. 236) He does not fit the archetype of hero. His every action, from his outlandishly disguised identity to his quote-filled dialogue, is fit more for the stage than for the battlefield.

In mannerism, the character he most resembles is the Joker. Both came from backgrounds of chemicals and insanity; the joker (depending on your origin story of choice), some kind of deviant who fell into a chemical vat, and V a man sorely abused and altered by hormonal testing at a concentration camp. Each of them sport an almost comical grin whilst sowing chaos, and each is flamboyant in dress (a purple suit here finding its counterpart in long hair and cape) and actions. This Vicious Cabaret of V for Vendetta’s second act and the humorous man-as-employee speech of his is even similar to the Joker’s song in Moore’s Killing Joke (released shortly after V's serialized beginning). Of course, that’s not to suggest that This Vicious Cabaret is equivalent to the Joker's song or V to the Joker. Joker maliciously cackles and spouts discontinuities and absurdities; V soliloquizes and quotes Shakespeare, a Joker tied to an enormous and incomprehensible intellect and pitted against a foe so dark that the maniacal one of the pair is actually the hero. Norsefire, too, can be roped into the comparison. Completing the utter inversion of your archetypical comic book, the villain here is Batman. Batman and Noresefire both overpower their foes with technologies and are muted in tone when compared to the vibrancy of their antagonists. More importantly, both emphasize order over everything else; Noresefire perhaps being comparable to Batman’s utopia gone awry, crime prevented at all costs. Perhaps this was the end that Fox feared when Batman showed his technological mastery as The Dark Knight came to a climax.

So V is the good guy. But can you really call him that? V is a revolutionary and not in the blandly heroic sense. There are hard choices that must be made when overthrowing a society, and V does not hesitate to make them. He kills again and again over the course of the novel. Some of his victims are the high ranking fascists of Norsefire, and so the reader can, perhaps, give him a pass on that, thinking that tyrants deserve what they get. What’s harder to excuse are those that die along the way. V blows up several government installations, not only killing the leaders but every man inside from sadistic secret policemen to janitors. As we see in Vertigo (one of the two bonus chapters), V can even be sadistic in his pursuit of his goals, not only killing his enemies but striving to emulate their methods and degrade them even in the moment of their demise. Harder still to excuse is the psychological torture that V causes, both to Rose Almond and to Evey, whom he’d led to believe he would protect. V was made who he was through the brutality of Norsefire's concentration camps and experiments, yet he has no qualms about using the same methods to achieve his own ends; he has willingly embraced the effectiveness of the enemy in his attempt to bring them down.

In addition to taking Norsefire’s physical and interrogative methods, V usurps Norsefire’s symbolism. Norsefire was a fundamentally unapproachable dictatorship that communicated with the people by trying to make itself both unquestionable and down to earth. The voice of Fate accomplished both tasks, undoubtable due to its moniker and its lack of competitors and relatable by means of helpfully reporting the weather in the midst of its warnings. In order to compete, V needs to be more than a man. His guy fawkes mask becomes an icon, the mystery of his identity a larger than life dilemma that the government cannot solve. When he appears to the public, his tone is, as it almost always is, theatrical and humorous. Like the supposed voice of the computerized Fate, he sets himself apart from those he addresses even as he claims to have their own best interest at heart.

And yet one of Norsefire’s directors says that the the Noresfire regime never capitalized on symbolism, a statement that is simply bewildering. Norsefire is a totalitarian regime styled on the Nazis. Yet it claims to have avoided symbolism. How is such a thing even possible? Furthermore, the claim flies directly in the face of the regime’s use of the voice of fate. Thinking further, however, I realized that – with the exception of Fate – Norsefire is curiously devoid of the common trappings of an oppressive regime. There is no one unified style to the cities. The enforcement of law is left to openly acknowledged thugs recruited off the street, lacking even a recognizable uniform. Cameras are watching, yet we never see them do it. We’re told that Norsefire is evil and invasive, and we get proof of it to some extent in the first chapter’s sting operation (though, to be fair, such a thing’s not so outlandish that you need a fictional tyrant to conceive), but examples after that are hard to come by. Moore and Lloyd are so focused on depicting Norsefire’s fall that they essentially neglect its rise and reign. We see incredible brutality from flashbacks, but the present day storyline shows Norsefire as nothing much besides a tad invasive. Without ever seeing its effects on a significant number of characters, it’s hard to feel the organized evil that we are obviously intended to feel. Still, such things are easy to forgive. After all, the strength of Moore's writing isn't what it says about his fictional world but rather about what it says about our own.

V is an idealist. He is fighting for equality, yes, but he is not fighting for justice. V is, as he himself proclaims time and time again, an anarchist. This is not a sugar coated anarchism, soon evolving into democracy or whatever model of a just society you, the reader, happen to believe in. No, V’s byword is chaos, and disorder is his ultimate aim. As V asserts more and more of his power, and as the state crumbles around him, we are not entering a utopia. The dubious morality of the opening – prostitutes accosted, killed, and raped by secret policemen – is exchanged for a world of lootings and riots. Will this transition into something better, the security of Norsefire without the oppression? There’s no way to tell, but it’s plain that V could never bring such a world around, could not even stand aside and let it happen. That is why Finch, Norsefire's arbiter of justice, must kill him.

Finch is, in many ways, comparable to V. He shares V’s desire for equality and admits to himself that he knew that Norsefire was wrong, oppressive, and unjust all along. And yet he went along with them, joined them, played a part in leading them. Why? His own answer is weakness, but it’s not clear that things are so simple. V focuses exclusively on the big picture. In order to bring down Norsefire, he will do anything. On a personal scale, V commits horrible crimes. He is no common criminal, though, but rather a revolutionary; these small crimes are steps along the way. The people he killed entering the television station were necessary in order for him to broadcast his message and help the general good.

Finch chooses the opposite path. He is a police officer. For him, the personal crimes against individuals cannot be allowed to continue; he must hunt V down, no matter the cost or overall morality of the hunt, because V has killed those around him. In return, Finch does his best to turn a blind eye to the overall results of Norsefire’s actions. Unlike V, however, Finch is conflicted and unsatisfied with his choice. His world does not allow for the black and white absolutes of V’s. The regime he supports puts monsters on the streets and gives them guns and uniforms. It leads to rapes and murders on scales small and large, injustices that Finch cannot account or atone for. Pushed away from that society, however, Finch is cut adrift and wanders, aimless.

What will happen to society after V’s death? It is obvious that Norsefire was inimical to freedom and justice, and it is equally obvious that V’s perfect, utopian anarchy cannot last. But what is to replace it? We’re left, at the end, with Evey behind V’s mask, a new symbol to lead us into a new world. But what kind of person is Evey? The Evey of the novel’s beginning is obviously unsuitable for such a role. She bends her principles for her survival, an action too human to be grandly symbolic. Left without enough to eat, she tries to turn to prostitution, and only V’s timely arrival averts her untimely death. The Evey of the novel’s middle is, likewise, ill-fitting. She goes so far as to become happy with the enemy, living with one of Norsefire’s leading members and managing to turn a blind eye to the pain all around her. The Evey of the novel’s end, however, is a very different beast. Brought to and then over the brink by V’s molding, by his cruelty, she rejects her own wellbeing for the sake of her principles. She is, finally, fit to take V’s place. But is she fit to usher in a new world? She was, after all, made in the same way that V was. Is it possible to make two different creations with the same method? There’s no way to know. Our only hint to the positive comes when V offers her vengeance – and she declines. There is, as the novel closes, a chance that things will change for the better. And, of course, a chance that they will simply deteriorate further.

Towards the novel’s end, V says: There is no coincidence, only the illusion of coincidence. Though V seems like a reactionary beast, ala the Joker, he is actually a deep planner, though there's no way to tell exactly what was planned and what was a welcome coincidence. Every layer seems more impossible than the last, and yet each seems to support itself. However far down his machinations go, V is a master manipulator, and he plays the characters of the novel like puppets. Though he does, on several occasions, fight himself, V is not an action hero. Once the initial stage of violence has passed, V’s plan turns to one of building tensions and turning the hierarchy of Norsefire against itself.

When a key portion of your plot is concerned with the gradual changes in the relationship of a large cast, it’s obviously instrumental that that cast be both expansive and, more importantly, distinctive. The cast list seems to grow exponentially as the novel progresses, and some of the minor players can be hard to keep track of, but the various character driven twists of the ending feel organic and natural. Moore proves capable of characterization with only a few words, and the juxtaposition of scenes is excellent, though not quite to the degree of Watchmen. One scene shows various key Norsefire members conspiring in the pews while a preacher gives his oration, his words manipulative and apocalyptic while the various members of the directorate muse on V’s actions and their own.  

V for Vedetta doesn’t distribute its pages equally among its characters. There’s always one dominant storyline running, and other characters either appear in the periphery or not at all. As to what that dominant story is, the focus shifts considerably over the course of the novel, and there are quite a few sections focusing on events almost unrelated to V (though generally caused by him). These subplots are given their own space to develop, which makes the individual issues/chapters satisfying in their own right. On the other hand, some events that are never given the spotlight end up coming out as shallow. The head of Norsefire’s dependence on Fate is well established, but how quickly he turns into a slobbering mess after Fate is gone makes it hard to imagine him ever coming to dominate a high school technology class, let alone the UK.

Lloyd's art style is a dark one, realistic in feel for all but V, who struts across the page while fitting in as (brilliantly) poorly with his background as he does with his world. The best part of the art is that it is mature. This is a gritty text, devoid of the juvenility of sound effects and their ilk. All that being said, Lloyd seems to struggle with the volume of characters. I can’t conclusively say how much is the fault of his style and how much is a simple result of my relative unfamiliarity with the graphic form, but the secondary and tertiary members of the cast easily blend together, and a few main characters are, at times, difficult to distinguish. This is especially bad for the female characters, and that’s magnified further still by the scenes taking place in the more stylized location of the nightclub; I’ll admit that I had to reread an entire section because I wrongly identified the acting character in just about every frame of it.

If you're looking for a heroic read, something filled with heroes for whom you can stand up and cheer, V for Vendetta will fill your expectations for a handful of pages before leaving you cold and alone, sickened by what's passed. This world is sprawling, both alien and familiar, and it’s cast is treated horribly, often by the very people who (supposedly) have their best interests at heart. Though Moore isn't always successful at displaying life under Norsefire's regime, he's a master at showing how his characters attempt to cope with such a reality. In interviews, Moore's said that the inspiration for the book was his unease with Thatcher's government. Nowadays, in a world scarred by the twin towers burning, it would be perfectly justifiable to read the text as an examination of terrorism and the methods used to combat it. I predict that, decades from now, other potential readings will appear and will be just as valid, because what Moore's created here truly transcends the years in which it was written and the paper that it's written on.


Craig Klein has a fantastic and information filled "shrine" to V for Vendetta here.


  1. I re-read V after the movie came out. I actually liked the movie, it was what it was.

    V feels like a child of its time. Very English, wearing its concerns on its sleeve.

    I know it's quite popular with many American Libertarians of a particular ilk, which I suspect Moore would not be comfortable with.

  2. Oh, meant to say. I think V is basically Captain Ahab. Of course I'll say that about just about anyone. Eventually it's going to stick...

  3. I saw the V movie a while before I read the book. Thinking about it, I should really see it again. It was, from what I can remember, quite good.

    As for Captain Ahab...I actually have not read Moby Dick. Much as I should have and should. It's on my list of Books to Read Eventually, for what little that's worth.

  4. Unfamiliar as I was with the Guy Fawkes stylized depiction when the film was released, my first reaction was that he was Zorro with a face mask instead of a bandanna. In many ways they are alike: The "Z"/the "V"; defending the peons against their masters/rousing the public against their dictator; the swashbuckling attitude;the use of a close-range weapon(sword/daggers). It had to occur to the writer and director that Zorro was a far more well-known character internationally than Guy Fawkes was.