When I wrote this review, I hadn’t yet seen the film V for Vendetta (2005) starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving but I just finished Alan Moore’s and David Lloyd’s graphic novel (originally a ten-issue comic book series) and thought, given the wide use of the Guy Fawkes mask by “hacktavist” group Anonymous and some protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement (which is worn in both the comic book and film versions of the story by the main character), that it was high time to look at the source material for these modern, real-life responses to what we think of as oppression in our world.
The original comic book series was developed and published in 1985 by writer Alan Moore, a self-proclaimed anarchist, and artist David Lloyd. Essentially it is one in a long series of dystopian dramas set in the near future (the late 1990s in the comic book series), this time in England. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the developed nations of the world but left England untouched, at least directly. In response to the war, a totalitarian government has come to power, styled after the Nazis, and has seized total control of the country. Much like Orwell’s 1984, omnipresent government surveillance observes the public, while a propaganda campaign continually feeds the citizens the usual “the government is on your side” messages, underscored by threats for thinking otherwise. Headed by “the Leader” who uses organizations called “Nose,” “Ear,” and “Mouth” as detection and communication conduits, and an information system called “Fate,” every aspect of an individual’s life is monitored and controlled.
Anyone belonging to virtually any group one might consider oppressed, including people of color and the LGBT community, has long since been rounded up, put in camps, and ultimately eliminated. It is out of one of these camps that the anti-hero known simply as “V” has emerged. It eventually comes out that V is a brilliant but mentally disturbed person who was “created” in one of the camps; a victim of chemical and psychological experimentation (sort of a fusion between Batman and the Joker). Over a period of years, almost everyone associated with his camp (which has since been destroyed) has been eliminated. Finally, V in full mask and regalia, “goes public” with the rescue of a 15-year-old girl from government police who were about to rape and murder her. As his sometimes unwilling protegé, Evey descends into V’s shadowy world, learning all but his greatest secrets and even unwittingly, trying to counterbalance his darkness with her drive toward the light.
The story is complex and even a little confusing at parts and I won’t attempt to recount the plot in any sort of detail. At first, it seems as if V is attempting to murder those last few who could possibly identify him from the camp, but once they are gone it becomes clear that he has a much greater agenda; to disassemble all organized government control of the populace and to throw England into a state of chaos and finally anarchy. Obviously this is something of a reflection of Moore’s philosophy (hopefully exaggerated given the level of violence employed by V), sort of an anti-version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (fortunately Moore isn’t nearly as long-winded and boring as Rand).
Through a long series of twists and turns, V goes increasingly higher up the governmental chain of power, destroying the video and audio spy devices, empowering the population (through threat of mass murder) to take back control of their lives and holding them responsible for voting their oppressors into office and then following their orders (interestingly enough, a very libertarian perspective, speaking of Ayn Rand), with the final goal of completely destroying the governmental infrastructure, leaving only human beings to pick up the pieces.
V’s tactics against not just his enemies, but the people he’s supposedly freeing are equally as brutal. I was constantly reminded of just how dangerous and insane V was, and how at any moment, Evey could be his next victim. At one point, he abandons her on the street and only after she re-establishes herself with another protector (only to watch him be murdered), does V enter her life again…without her knowledge. Believing she has been imprisoned by the police for attempting to kill the man who murdered her lover, V tortures Evey in an apparent attempt to get her to betray…V. She endures it all and continues to refuse to “confess,” even when she believes she will be killed. Finally, V reveals himself and tells her that he has been putting her through these trials to free her from the “prison” of her mind (I was reminded of the Matrix  and how the mind creates illusion, prison, and freedom inside the machine).
But Evey has a very special purpose and there is a sort of logic to V’s madness. He knows he is the destroyer, but that’s only one-half of the task at hand. Once government has been reduced to ashes and rubble (literally), someone has to assume the mantle of V and rebuild (again, reminiscent of the end of Rand’s novel). V (the original) allows himself to be morally wounded but remains alive long enough to give Evey her final instructions. He dies but the reader is only allowed to see different versions of how Evey imagines removing his mask. Only Evey knows for sure that V is dead. His true face is never revealed.
Then, in donning the Guy Fawkes mask and appearing as “V” to the public, do we realize that everyone has the capacity to be a “V” in some fashion. In Evey’s case, it was as the rebuilder, the one who gives a future to a fragmented humanity. I suppose this is why people in the world today sometimes wear “the mask” during protests, to represent the opposition of oppressive organization and the power of the people to fight back.
I don’t know if Moore meant to suggest anarchism as a sustainable social movement or if this was all allegory to (once again) expose the dangers of totalitarianism and particularly politically and socially conservative totalitarianism. In any event, after every revolution, when every oppressor has been killed or exiled, whoever is leading the revolution becomes the next dictator. Maybe that’s why V had to have a more benign successor. V himself, given the lakes of blood in which his hands were soaked, would certainly have been no kinder to England than the government he obliterated.
Was it worth my time to read? Relative to the impact V for Vendetta continues to have on modern protest movements (maybe just the Guy Fawkes mask at this point), yes. However as social commentary, this story has been told, before and since, about a million different times in a million different ways. It didn’t seem like anything new. Dystopian stories are like street cars. There’ll be another one along in five minutes.
One final note from the present. I suppose this review is timely given Alan Moore’s recent announcement that he’s retiring from creating comic books.