I without a Face

‘V’ for Vendetta: written by Alan Moore, illustrated by David Lloyd (1981-89; collected 1990): Now that V’s Guy Fawkes mask has been appropriated by both the Occupy movement and Anonymous, it’s getting hard to remember what a violent, anarchic fellow Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s original character was. The dystopia of the graphic novel is about ten times worse than that seen in the movie adaptation, and V himself (herself? itself?) ten times more violent and ten times more problematically justified in that violence.

The story started life in the pages of England’s Warrior comic magazine in the early 1980’s, alongside Moore’s other early opus Marvelman (aka Miracleman). If Miracleman was Moore’s push-the-limits take on Superman, then V was his Batman: a Batman fighting a dystopic future Britain that strongly resembled the world of George Orwell’s 1984. A Batman whose true face and true identity remain forever hidden from the characters in the story and from readers as well. When you put on a mask, you become a symbol.

Moore was initially reacting to the heightening nuclear tensions of the early Reagan/Thatcher era, and to the ruthless economic and social policies of those two genial abominations. The dystopia of the graphic novel is a Great Britain that avoided direct nuclear conflict thanks to its Labour Government severing all nuclear ties with the United States in the 1980’s.

The U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. are presumably smoking, irradiated ruins. Great Britain fell into chaos and was soon under the control of a far-right party which now rules with an iron fist and a hatred of civil liberties and anyone different. There are no non-white ethnic groups left in this Great Britain; gays and lesbians have also been exterminated or forced underground.

And so rises V, a mysterious, anarchic freedom fighter who possesses the improbable fighting and planning skills of Batman and the homicidal justice-seeking of the Shadow. Also, he loves Motown music and Thomas Pynchon. He’s Anarchy personified, set against Fascism. And he knows he’s a monster, which makes him oddly sympathetic, and the ending quite moving. Moore has given him some of the qualities of Mary Shelley’s hyper-educated Creature in Frankenstein.

The reactions to the book have been quite telling over the years — this is, ultimately, a book with a terrorist as its protagonist. But he’s a terrorist fighting a terrorist government, a monster set against monsters. And Moore is fairly clear throughout that V’s violence isn’t to be romanticized, and that there must a price, a price V knows. Having lost his essential humanity at some point, V fights now to allow people the Free Will to choose their own humanity. But Moses cannot enter the Promised Land.

In any case, this book remains thrilling and bracing today, and perhaps even more relevant in a world of perpetual war with shadowy terrorist groups. David Lloyd’s moody art hits the right notes, though the book would be better if the entire thing was done in the Black and White of its early Warrior episodes: colour really does nothing to improve Lloyd’s art, and indeed somewhat mutes it at points. Highly recommended.

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