It goes on a bit, and inevitably contains a wealth of SPOILERS for the book (and therefore also the film).
The Alternative Present in "V For Vendetta"
It’s a comic. It’s twenty-five years old. It’s set in a 1990s that never happened. Why bother with it now?
First, a little background. The plot: a decade after a nuclear war, England in 1997 is run by an oppressive and authoritarian fascist government. On the fifth of November, a masked vigilante, begins his attack on the regime by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. His name is V (for clarity, I'll refer throughout to the comic itself in full, and to the character as "V"). The same night, he rescues a sixteen year old girl, Evey, who, over the course of the novel, he encourages to appreciate the practicalities of anarchy.
The comic: originally serialised in black and white in the UK magazine, Warrior (1982-3), V For Vendetta was only two thirds of the way through when Warrior folded. DC Comics later commissioned Moore and Lloyd to complete the tale, which was published, in colour, in a ten-issue comic series (1988-9), including two short interludes and "Behind the painted smile" - a text article by Moore on the genesis of the story.
DC - a large US company - are best known for comics characters that have become icons of popular culture: ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’. The main character of V For Vendetta, and the story itself, is influenced by the traditions of the costumed super hero genre, but the novel deconstructs and reconfigures many of the ideological elements of that tradition.
V is a costumed hero. "The appearance of a costumed character in a story will generate a specific set of expectations - a state of affairs which the writer and artist can work with or against," says Richard Reynolds in "Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology". Clothes can be read like signposts, and the costumes of super heroes signify ‘super-heroism’.
The styles and colours of this clothing are also signs of kinds of super heroism. "Batman’s dark, bat-like costume is one utterance within the code [of super hero attire] that elegantly speaks the proper range of associations: night, fear, the supernatural. It also suggests Batman’s mode of operation: stealth, concealment and surprise," says Reynolds.
V wears a ‘Guy Fawkes’ mask, period clothes, cloak and hat. This not only serves to contrast him with the functionally dressed ‘ordinary’ people in the story. His clothes also conjure a sense of theatre and of history to the reader.
Theatre is crucial to V. In the opening panels of the story, we witness V dressing himself. Around him are theatrical props - further signifiers. He dons his costume at a dressing table, which has a long wall mirror surrounded by light bulbs: vaudevillian. There are posters for old films on the walls. This contrasts with Evey; who dresses herself in a ‘seedy’, ‘real world’ way; as a prostitute.
V’s clothes also connote history. He uses daggers not guns. The 17th century clothes may hark back to historical values and politics. Moore admits in 'Behind the painted smile' that V’s mask configured him as a "resurrected Guy Fawkes". The Gunpowder Plot in 1605 began a century that saw the Civil War and the beheading of King Charles I for tyranny. Both attacks on English government construed the government as repressive. The first few pages of Moore’s novel show us more directly the ways such associations link to V.
Richard Reynolds has compiled a working definition of super-heroism, constituting seven contingents all of which V fits. V is marked clearly out from the rest of society. His devotion to justice is above his devotion to law. The ‘extraordinary’ V contrasts with the ‘ordinary’ people. He is above the law, yet capable of patriotism and moral loyalty to the state, though not to the letter of the law. The story is mythical, and uses science and magic indiscriminately to create a sense of wonder. I will deal with both this ‘convenient’ use of science, and V’s political aspirations, shortly.
The remaining two qualities of super-heroism are also relevant to V, though less directly. V does not have super-human powers, nor does he act like an earthbound God. However, he can also get into almost anywhere - no matter how secure. He can apparently do anything he pleases, and for most of the novel seems immortal. He has access to materials and information, including his own version of the government’s Fate super-computer - the system that maintains the government’s panoptic surveillance of London.
In fact, he is equipped in much the same way as many other non-God-like super heroes, perhaps most obviously Batman, with his Batcave. Thus, while not a super-human, he is a super-able human.
The last of Reynolds's defining factors is conflict caused by the super hero’s ‘mundane’ alter-ego. Such is the genre expectation that the anticipation of V’s unmasking is a major element of the narrative. This expectation is frustrated. We never discover his ‘true’ identity. In fact, the narrative purposefully reveals his identity to be unimportant. This, again, has serious implications.
But despite its theatrical and almost magical lead character, the narrative is continually based in gritty realism. There is a definite sense of logical cause and effect. There is a very definite sense of pain. Violence is seen as horrific rather than titillating, as is so common in super hero comics. Characters’ actions have very real, often very unpleasant consequences.
Even the theatrical and enigmatic V, while not unmasked, is to some extent explained. We learn to recognise rooms and the connections between them in his initially estranging home, ‘The Shadow Gallery’. On pages 104-5 of the main text, as well as in the interlude, ‘Vincent’, we see him stealing documents and artefacts connected to his inspiration, Valerie. This is the only evidence we are given as to the way in which he has stocked his home. It suggests he’s assembled his collection of books, music and paintings through tangible means.
We are even, finally, able to locate the mysterious Shadow Gallery in ‘our’ world: the detective, Eric Finch, finds his way in from Victoria Underground station. We see V’s own version of the government’s Fate computer, and thus appreciate how he has been able to operate. We see ‘behind the scenes’ of the mythic presentation he makes of himself, even without actually knowing who he is. We learn what he is and how he does what he does. All the flamboyant and rather magical tricks he has performed for us throughout the story are ultimately explicable. Thus is it possible for Evey to take his place.
David Lloyd’s illustrations for V For Vendetta are also ‘realistic’ - not the muscle-bound exaggeration typical of traditional super hero adventures. The proportions of the people we see are ‘normal’ rather than ‘improved’. Even the colouring of the originally black and white pictures is stark and simplistic, with a plain mix of tones.
V For Vendetta is presented in a very cinematic form, using elements of cinematic story-telling rather than conventional comic story-telling. John Byrne used a similar technique when drawing the super hero comic, The X-Men, between 1977 and 1980.
"Byrne employed a sequential art that was ‘cinematic’ in the sense that it constantly interpreted each panel and each segment of the narrative from an implied and subjective point of view. The reader was drawn in, invited to take sides in the characters’ conflicts."
Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, p. 86.In V For Vendetta, however, these ‘cinematic’ qualities are taken further. Much of the story is told through silent panels and dialogue. Often, there are pages, occasionally even whole chapters, with only one or two captions. There are no thought balloons or sound effects whatsoever. This adds a seriousness and bleakness to the narrative.
Thought balloons in comic strips make blatant a character’s feelings. Moore had been concerned that this self-imposed restriction would make it impossible to confer what he calls (in "Beyond the painted smile"), "nuances of character". Rather, it means that instead of being ‘told’ what characters are feeling, the reader must scrutinise the dialogue and illustrations for such inflections. Sound effects highlight narrative peaks. V For Vendetta has to express these elements within the dialogue and framing of the scenes.
This all means that the reader must be more active in decoding and negotiating the story - reading the panels carefully to follow the characters’ responses. Readers are ‘shown’ the characters’ emotional responses rather being than ‘told’ them. This also makes the text more ‘real’.
While reality is important to the narrative, there are, however, a number of implausible aspects. There are several plot-holes that we can nit-pick. For example, V’s own abilities and provisions are extraordinary. While we see how he has stocked the Shadow Gallery with material with regard to Valerie, it is altogether harder to accept that he has constructed his own working version of the government’s Fate computer. Evey replaces V apparently without anyone else noticing. Yet she is clearly shorter than he, of a different build and has, presumably, a different voice. V has already caused great problems for the government by removing the ‘voice’ behind their news broadcasts. We see listeners shocked because ‘There is something wrong with the Voice of Fate’ (p.36). V’s iconography suffers no such propaganda upset.
The England of V For Vendetta is perhaps just as unlikely. It is difficult to understand how the regime operates. It makes great use of the video cameras it has on every street corner and in many rooms, but surely these can only be used in London and urban areas. What about in the country? A television programme addresses ‘senseless terrorist acts’ in Aberdeen and Glasgow, and the announcer promises that the next edition of the programme has ‘satellite pictures of the Soviet wheat-crop failures and asks Is Russia Facing Another Revolution?’ (p. 110). V comments that ‘riot-zone soap operas’ still broadcast after he has sabotaged the state’s broadcasting (p. 220).
Despite this acknowledgement of a chaotic world outside the unnatural city, it is not substantial. We see very little of the world outside London. Finch visits both Norfolk and Larkhill, but both have been deserted for years. We see little of the economics of the alternate world, get no idea, for example, where food comes from. Only the city - the realm in which V operates - is available to us.
More importantly, this whole post-holocaust locale of the story is at best, ‘convenient’. Moore admits as much in his introduction to the DC edition of the novel. "Back in 1981, the term “nuclear winter” had not passed into common currency," he says (p. 6). As a scientific study of the climatic effects of nuclear war concluded,
"... even in regions far from the conflict the survivors would be imperilled by starvation, hypothermia, radiation sickness, weakening of the human immune system, epidemics and other dire consequences."
Richard P Turco, Owen B Toon, Thomas Ackerman, James B Pollack and Carl Sagan, ‘The Climatic Effects of Nuclear War’, Scientific American, Vol. 251, no. 2 (August 1984), p. 23.Through Evey’s memories - of a ‘yellow and black’ sky, and of the disintegration of civilisation (‘There was no food. And the sewers were flooded and everybody got sick. Mum died in 1991’ (p. 28).) – there’s some appreciation of the difficulties involved in surviving nuclear war.
However, Moore doesn’t go far enough, and his idea that a nuclear war of a scale enough to destroy Europe and Africa could have left a demilitarised England hungry but alive is not at all likely. The global debilitation of major nuclear conflict had been explored in novels such as Neville Shute’s On The Beach (1957), subsequently made into a film.
This raises the question of plausibility. In his introduction to the DC edition, Moore goes on to argue that nuclear war is not necessarily what will push England into the fascist state he depicts. His contention, writing in 1988, is that we are headed in that direction anyway. In our own world, according to Moore, "the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating cameras on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against," (p. 6).
In the twenty-first century, elections have been dogged by race riots in various English towns and cities, even before we mention the attacks on buildings in the US [NB this was originally written prior to 11 September, 2001]. That’s not to say that there are direct correlations between the book and the real world of today, but rather that many of its key features remain pertinent and terrifying.
When it was begun in 1981, the novel was a projection into the future, starting out on the near-future assumption that Labour would win the 1983 General Election. Even before the story had finished being written however, this scenario had been ruled out by history. The narrative was no longer a future projection but an experiment in alternative history.
Alternative histories are interesting because they are about considering other possibilities. The world as we know it is logically reconfigured from some point in history. As one historian has put the case,
"To understand [the world] is to make it coherent. The coherence is ours and in it, the loose ends of mere possibilities have no place."
Carr’s argument, as cited in Geoffrey Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences (Cambridge, 1991), p. 9.That totality of coherence is likely an ideal rather than achievable goal. Alternative histories rethink the ‘coherence’ with which we ascribe our world. By rethinking the choices made, they reconsider what our society is and how it has come to be. They are a philosophical exercise in practical history, working in gaps left by absolutist historians.
As Moore’s comments about contemporary government mirroring the nightmare regime of his imaginings show, the politics of the novel are relevant to the present, despite the debunking of the novel as a plausible future. V For Vendetta is an alternative present. It is set between November 5th, 1997 and November 10th, 1998, but it is ‘present’ because it’s about a way we could be living now.
That it offers a world we recognise to be ‘wrong’, to be clearly different to the world we exist in, is crucial. The alternative present compels the reader to compare and contrast the ‘real’ present and the ‘alternative’, to acknowledge (and critique) the ways in which our own society operates.
This intrinsic questioning of the constructs of our own ‘present’ is key to V’s mission itself. V encourages the people of England to question their government. The alternative present therefore echoes V’s own political mission. And because it is this concept that is crucial to the novel, the authenticity of the location, the plausibility of the chosen divergence, is unimportant. The parameters of the alternate present are set, we require only some basic explanation of the divergence.
What is important is that by following through the consequences of this difference, and doing so ‘realistically’ and in a way that involves the reader actively, it is conveniently possible to explore a range of contemporary political issues. The settings and solutions of the story are cataclysmic. The oppositions in conflict are foregrounded by the alternative present setting.
This makes the issues very evocative and effective. In reality, the conflicts are not so obvious. As Moore acknowledges, however, the kind of fascism he depicts is still visible in the ‘real’ world. More than ten years later, and despite a change of government, for example, legislation on homosexuality, such as Section 28, is still (contentiously) in place. As the report into the climatic effects of nuclear war concludes, it is long-term environmental damage that,
"... might in the end prove even more devastating for the human species than the awesome short-term destructive effects of nuclear explosions."
Turco, et al., p. 33.It is, however, convenient to highlight the ideological conflicts in a more immediate setting. This is what V For Vendetta is essentially involved in. As Moore asserts, "Since both Dave and myself share a similar brand of political pessimism, the future world [is] pretty grim, bleak and totalitarian, thus giving us a convenient antagonist to play our hero off against," ("Beyond the painted smile", p. 270).
For the state itself to be the enemy of the costumed super hero is a radical departure from traditional comics. In the adventures of traditional super heroes, says Reynolds, "the initial plot development predictably leads to a violent confrontation with a costumed villain. A five-page fight scene is the obligatory result," (p. 50).
Yet V is not defending the regime from super villains, he is defending ‘the people’ (in the opening chapter he saves Evey from the police, as the novel progresses, he frees the people of England) from the regime itself. This is a much more serious and politically charged theme than usual for a costumed super hero.
Ideologically, this is radical for the genre. Mostly in super hero stories, "the villains are concerned with change and the heroes with the maintenance of the status quo" (Reynolds, p. 51). V is not the ‘traditional’, passive figure, reacting only when provoked by the villainous actions of others. He is the instigator of change, disrupting the status quo, from the beginning of the novel destroying the icons with which the regime has presented itself.
V consciously lives what in the 1990s was referred to as the ‘DIY lifestyle’, wherein,
"... new agendas are being set, often outside the traditional framework of British constitutional politics, and employing and developing strategies of direct action"
George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties (London, 1996), p. 1.V belongs to the traditions of counter-culture and oppositional politics of the late 70s and early 80s. The ‘slogans of resistance’ over these years - 1970s: Reality is a substitute for utopia, 1980s: Fight war not wars, power not people’ (cited in ibid., pp. 5-6) - might be seen as V’s own agenda.
We might also argue that V uses similar strategies as those of ‘punk’ to spread his message amongst the people: scandalous broadcasting, self-conscious explanation of his motives, iconography, even something of "a streak of English Puritanism" (McKay, p. 78, while studying the anarchic bricolage used by punk band ‘Crass’ pp. 78-90). While V is not himself a ‘punk’, he uses similar means to spread his political agenda. His attributes are iconic: easily recognisable and repeatable.
V is emblematic. Items associated with the letter ‘V’ itself, are left behind him. As the title of the novel tells us, the letter ‘V’ stands for the vendetta against the state. The encircled ‘V’ that V graphities beside his victims itself reminds us of the encircled ‘A’ of anarchy. All we know of him is that at the concentration camp in which he was incarcerated, he was ‘The Man in Room V’ (‘Five’ in Roman Numerals). Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony plays in the background as he kills the Bishop of Westminster - as Finch points out, the "da da da dum!" is Morse code for the letter V.
Extra-diegetically, this stylistic can be found in the novel’s chapter headings, for example, ‘The Villain’, ‘The Voice’ and ‘Victims’. These constructs confer mythic significance to V. The icons of V are adopted by the people. One young girl spray-paints the encircled V logo symbol alongside the word ‘Bolucs’ in defiance of the sabotaged street cameras (p. 189). A strip club has a character in a version of V’s costume placing a banger into the knickers of characters in approximated military uniforms (p. 192).
But because V has no ‘mundane’ alter-ego, these iconic elements, the ‘myth of V’, are all there is to him. Thus there is not so much a character to V as an idea. This iconic concept of V is far more effective in spreading itself than any ‘mundane’ individual. As he says to Finch after being shot, "There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bullet-proof,"(p. 236).
And because the importance of V is not ‘who’ he is, but ‘what’ he is, as Evey discovers, it is possible for her to succeed him. She, in turn, takes in her own eventual successor. V is not so much an individual as an inheritance.
Even gender is not important to the ‘idea’ of V. It is Evey, a young girl, who becomes V’s undisputed replacement. We know that he is male, but V is sexed not sexual. Evey suspects him to be her long lost father on the basis that he has made no sexual advances on her. She has lost this prejudice by the end of the novel, and comes to realise why she must not know who V is. Her - and everyone else’s - ignorance of his individual identity ensures his immortality.
The ‘mythic’ V confronts the myth of the state. In Althusser’s definition of ideology,
"... in order to ensure that political power remains the preserve of a dominant class, individual ‘subjects’ are assigned particular positions in society. A whole range of institutions, such as the Church, the family and the education system, are the means through which a particular hierarchy of values is disseminated"
Althusser, cited in ‘Ideology’, Marion Wynne-Davies (ed.), Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, The New Authority on English Literature (London, 1989), p. 615.Those that the government sees as threatening ‘other’ - the socialists, the minorities such as Blacks, Asians and homosexuals - have been forcibly removed. The remaining populace are continually monitored and coerced to adhere to the system.
V’s attitude to this compartmentalisation is clear. "Authority allows two roles: the torturer and the tortured; twists people into joyless mannequins that fear and hate, while culture plunges into the abyss. Authority deforms their children, makes a cockfight of their love..." he says (p. 199).
The novel gives us plenty of evidence for V’s assertions. We see a large and diverse dramatis personae, all finding the society in which they live difficult and imposing. At the start of the novel, Evey is at the bottom of the hierarchic pyramid, and is forced into attempting prostitution, being so short of both food and money. Policeman (and thus agent of the state) Derek Almond is bitter and abusive to his wife, and it’s inferred that this comes from the pressure he’s under to rise in the hierarchy.
Crowds cheer and wave as the Leader, Adam Susan, is driven past – but they only do so when made to at gunpoint (p. 232). Susan is at the time in mid-soliloquy as to his elite status, disassociated from everybody else. He is emotionally detached and has admitted earlier the Spartan nature of his position:
"I am not loved. I know that. Not in soul or body. I have never known the soft whisper of endearment. Never known the peace that lies between the thighs of a woman. But I am respected. I am feared. And that will suffice."
Adam Susan, V For Vendetta, p. 38.The mythic ideology serves only to be self-fulfilling. Nobody is happy. Nobody is fulfilled.
"Social change occurs when the ideology of the dominant class is no longer able to contain the contradictions existing in real social relations,"
Althusser, cited in ‘Ideology’, Marion Wynne-Davies (ed.), Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, The New Authority on English Literature (London, 1989), ibid.Thus, the emotionally debilitating effects of the fascist regime are made apparent through the relationships and interactions of a massive cast. We do not just follow the story of V and Evey, we have repeated insights into the lives of Adam Susan, detective Eric Finch, the adulterous Helen Heyer, the widowed and impoverished Rosemary Almond, the thug Harper, and many more. Even V’s victims are given depth.
The cast are assigned characters as well as roles in the narrative. These interact continually throughout the novel. While we see little of the outside world, the people of London in V For Vendetta express themselves as a convincing social body.
We can navigate a whole series of causes leading to different effects, perhaps most notably the butterfly effect by which the widowed Rosemary Almond, un-provided for after her husband’s death, kills Susan, the Leader. We have followed this progression of emotional and physical events, and appreciate why she has taken this action.
In this way, the novel suggests something about the way society operates in general. After Moore’s comments on the ‘real’ England of 1988, it is no great leap to recall Margaret Thatcher’s infamous "There’s no such thing as society" comments made the previous year. The structure of V For Vendetta would rather suggest otherwise.
However, in her autobiography, Thatcher is keen to point out that her comments have been widely misrepresented, and goes on to qualify the point. Rather than society, she continues, in neo-classical vein,
"there are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour"
Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London, 1993), p. 626.She sees society as an excuse rather than an obligation. Thatcher’s problem is with what she calls the ‘dependency culture’, whereby the population expect the state to take care of them. V is also involved in motivating the populace, but in a diametrically opposed way. Rather than belittling the problems and unhappiness people visibly suffer in the social body in which they live, V encourages those who are not happy to protest.
Thatcher’s argument is that government shouldn’t exist to provide for the people. V’s argument is government shouldn’t exist. George McKay sees the 1990s DIY lifestyle I’ve already linked V to as constituting "a politics of the disenfranchised, wherein the youth and marginals left out of Thatcher’s revolution find their voices and use them to express their resentment and opposition," (McKay, p.1).
Because the government has become separate from the civic society, the excluded develop a new mode of political expression. Un-provided-for and desperate widow, Rosemary Almond is perhaps the most drastic of those V has liberated. Like Evey, she has stood up to the disenfranchisement imposed upon her. V has given her the freedom to express herself profoundly.
The ending of the novel concretises the issues here. Frederic Jameson argues that, through plot, science fiction dramatises the contradiction between the need for narrative totality (the need for a clear ‘ending’) and the fact that,
"closure or the narrative ending is the mark beyond which thought cannot go,"
Frederic Jameson, "Progress Versus Utopia, Or, Can We Imagine the Future?", Science Fiction Studies #27, vol. 9, part 2 (1982), p. 148.This is because, he continues, science fiction’s intrinsic "vision of future history cannot know any punctual ending of this kind, at the same time that its novelistic expression demands some such ending". His argument is that an ‘ending’ closes the speculation that the science fiction genre requires fundamentally.
V For Vendetta remains open and speculative. It ends ambiguously. Despite all the various characters reaching novelistically satisfying ‘end points’ in the narrative, there is still no certainty about what the future will bring. This is exemplified by the final images of Finch walking out of rioting London, and away up the M1. As we have already seen, there’s little clue as to what lies outside London, of what Finch will find in Hatfield and the North. If anything, the characters we have been following as central to the plot are no longer of individual importance to the anarchy V has provoked.
Either through death or marginalisation, each member of Moore’s huge dramatis personae is removed from the limelight. Even Evey, who takes on V’s mantle, is rendered no longer individually important. She merely takes her place as figurehead of the ideal. She maintains the all-important V iconography.
What V has done is turn the balance of power away from those who lead - the fascist elite - and, in doing so, passed it over to ‘the people’. It is no longer the ‘extraordinary’ V who must stand against the regime for the benefit of the oppressed. The oppressed must make the stand. V does not deal with the Leader of the regime, it is the ‘ordinary’ Rosemary Almond who kills him.
Thus Finch walks out at the close of the novel into a future that, while it is still dark, violent and uncertain, is no longer mediated by people determined (ideologically) as having ‘importance’. As V reassured Evey at the start, "Everybody is special. Everybody," (p. 26). All are equal. Effectively, V has turned the future over to everybody else. This includes the novel’s readers.
Jameson believes that the "most obvious ways in which an SF novel can wrap its story up - as in some atomic explosion that destroys the universe, or the static image of some future totalitarian world-state - are also clearly the places in which our own ideological limits are the most surely inscribed," (ibid). As he later argues, science fiction is not a way of imagining the future, but is intrinsically "a contemplation of our own [contemporary] absolute limits," (ibid, p. 153).
V For Vendetta’s ambiguous ending merely confirms that our ideology/ies are only limited so far as we allow them to be. Nancy A Collins believes that the novel,
"... should be on the reading lists of all those genuinely interested in the accessibility of alternative philosophies in popular culture,"
Nancy A Collins, "Eye Tracks: reviews and opinions", SF Eye, vol. 2, no. 7 (August 1990), p. 84.It is not only an alternative, ‘nightmare’ version of our present, it offers our present an alternative political agenda - actively involved, oppositional and anarchic.
"Anarchy wears two faces, both creator and destroyer. Thus destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world."
V, p. 222.
(If you're still reading this far, there's plenty more analysis at the V for Vendetta Shrine.)