There’s no denying that Alan Moore is a force to be reckoned with in comic books; his work has produced a number of very famous books (Watchmen and V for Vendetta being two notable examples that have also been turned into major films) and popularized the “graphic novel” format. At the same time, one can’t help but find, eventually, that Moore’s strangeness, preponderance of imagined dystopias, and penchant for oddity, to be somewhat laborious.
Still, it must be said that, at least in a few well-known cases, Moore manages to make compelling stories, whose narrative complexity, breadth of allusion, and characterization easily outstrip those of “real” novels. I have never been a follower of comic books, but the few graphic novels I’ve read in recent years have instilled a fondness for them in telling certain kinds of stories. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine The Watchmen as a novel; V for Vendetta likewise strains my creativity in pondering an alternate universe where is a standard novel. It could be done, surely, but would it not be a fundamentally different work? Also, we’d be left without the familiar anarchic symbol of the Guy Fawkes mask, recently co-opted by Anonymous.
For those unfamiliar, V for Vendetta tells the story of a near-future England, run by a white supremacist movement called Norsefire. This dystopia encompasses a number of fatalistic ideas of Moore’s: the first is the reemergence of institutionalized racism and eventually ethnic cleansing, and the second is the growth of a police state, wherein liberty is traded for perceived security. After a nuclear war and a plague that may or may not have been real, England is one of the few nations in the world to be relatively prosperous, in part because of the election of the Norsefire Party, which quickly revitalized the nation at the cost of pretty much everything a civilized people hold dear. Non-whites are rounded up and terminated, homosexuals are driven into hiding or outright exterminated, and all items of cultural relevance—books, records, art, &tc.—are declared contraband and destroyed. Imagine a melange of Nazi Germany with handful of Stalinist USSR mixed in; it’s one of many recent works which borrow heavily from Orwell’s 1984.
Enter “V”, a masked outlaw who seeks to overthrow the incumbent regime. After blowing up an important landmark, he saved the life of Evey, a young girl about to be sexually assaulted and likely “disappeared” by the secret police, known as “The Finger”. Thus Evey becomes a part of V’s plans, which include the assassination of a number of prominent politicians and public figures. V’s plans themselves become an issue as readers are made to wonder where his personal revenge stops and his battle to overthrow the fascist government begins.
The language of the graphic novel is not particularly realistic, at least where V himself is concerned. There’s a lot of flowery narration on his part, solemn intonations, and poem-perfect turns of phrase that nonetheless seem to work because Moore wants us (initially) to see V as supernatural. The issue of mortality, when it does arise, is superseded by the notion that ideas are immortal when not invested in a single mortal man. “Did you think to kill me? There’s no flesh and blood within this cloak to kill. There is only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.” Thus, it is not simply V’s design to destroy, one by one, the institutions and leaders of Norsefire; rather, his aim is to convince England’s citizens (who, you may remember, elected Norsefire in the first place) to overthrow the government themselves. His narrative proxy in this is young Evey, whom he draws into his plans and into whom he instills his anarchic ideas; her slow progression from fear to uncertainty to acceptance, we are to take as a synecdoche for all of England.
I’m told that V for Vendetta was originally inked in black and white; the version of the graphic novel I read was in color, but a terrible washed-out palette of mucous and menses that simply made the panels muddled and the characters difficult to differentiate. It was actually confusing at times which identically-dressed government agent was which. Then, too, I had my own quibbles with Moore and Lloyd’s work itself: the leader of Norsefire has a strange and fetishistic obsession with a computer network called FATE, which makes it too easy to dismiss the man as a raving lunatic; villains who are insane are generally cliché, and do nothing for a story. The movie version wisely omitted this small and insipid subplot.
Though Watchmen was partially a black comedy, V for Vendetta has very little comedic elements, darksome or otherwise. Though one could say it has a happy ending, it is largely a long funeral dirge; a succession of death and dismay. For all that, it is difficult for those with rebellious minds not to feel a stirring in their hearts at the righteous anti-authoritarian sentiment.