V for Vendetta

by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

Cover image

Publisher: Vertigo
Copyright: 1988, 1989
Printing: 1990
ISBN: 0-930289-52-8
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 286

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"Me? I'm the king of the twentieth century. I'm the bogeyman. The villain. The black sheep of the family."

V for Vendetta is one of Alan Moore's revolutionary works in the comics field. Created in conjunction with David Lloyd and originally serialized in Warrior, it was left unfinished when Warrior was cancelled and finally picked up, reprinted, and finished under the aegis of DC. It is the story of Britain after a limited nuclear war that's left the nation under fascist rule, of a mysterious anarchist named V who is systematically killing government officials and undermining the government, and of a young, desperate girl named Evey Hammond who is rescued by V and who is drawn into his world and his fight. There are aspects of an adventure novel and a detective novel, the latter most notably in the person of Eric Finch, the government investigator who untangles V's past and intentions, but more fundamentally it is a story of oppression and learning how to fight.

The aspect of this story that most intrigued me is V's decidedly ambiguous status. He's neither hero nor anti-hero; he's more a force of monofocused human revenge mixed with anarchism. The world fell apart around the British, they're scared and insecure, they've sought refuge in racism and homophobia, and in so doing have ceded control to a fascist government that provides an illusion of security and control. The government here is extremely intrusive, making extensive use of video surveillance and wiretapping to watch the populace. This control is built on a vast computer called Fate, which is used as a symbol to the populace of reliable central control, down to regular radio broadcasts by a voice actor who is supposedly the voice of the computer. In this world, V, with his ever-present Guy Fawkes mask, 1600s tall hat, and floor-length cape, who blows up the Houses of Parliament on Guy Fawkes day, writes his initial in the sky with fireworks, and has a secret lair called the Shadow Gallery, is like the suppressed subconscious of the people. He represents adventure, danger, resistance, independence, and comfort with chaos and disorder from which the country has fled and now misses.

Evey, though, is the center of the story. Desperate for money, she starts the story by attempting to sell herself as a prostitute, happens upon the government police, and is rescued by V from being raped and murdered. She serves as a foil and audience for his musings, eventually an assistant, and then a challenge to his anarchist views and the moral lines he's choosing. She finally draws away from him and tries to return to her life, finding temporary refuge but discovering again how rotten the world is, leading up to the most startling and effective section of the story in which she learns the root of V's defiance and the core of dignity and defiance inside herself. This is a beautiful, amazing scene, the most memorable of the book, in part because it underscores V's moral ambiguity and simultaneously steps beyond it into a primal lesson that only someone that far outside of any social order may be able to teach.

The conclusion is a tour de force of unravelling mysteries, political maneuvering, and exploitation of vulnerabilities that Moore and Lloyd pull off to a satisfying conclusion but not without a few bumps along the way. The conclusion of Eric Finch's investigation was the biggest hole for me: his epiphany coming out of an acid trip felt too surreal and too hard to identify with. I think I was looking for something more understated and grounded. I also had serious problems throughout the story with the villains, who felt like a collection of cliches more than a realistic fascist government. The Leader in love with his computer to the point of being dysfunctional and the completely stereotyped female dominant were only the worst of the lot. Too much of the government failed the sniff test: in order to be effective villains, I have to believe that they were capable of taking and holding power and weren't stupid about it, and while I believe those quirks could exist in competent dictators, they'd need to be paired with an efficiency and effectiveness that wasn't shown. V's actions would have carried more emotional weight if the flaws he was exploiting had been balanced with more personal (rather than structural) capability.

That aside, I liked the subtlety, the lack of clear morality, and an ending that promises only hope and potential rather than solutions. There are also several masterpieces of storytelling: V's television speech is wonderful, "The Vicious Cabaret" musical interlude is both memorable and eery in how well it captures the plot, and V's careful construction of the dramatic ending is a beautiful piece of characterization. V for Vendetta takes one of the clearest bits of black-and-white morality that we have in our mythology, a rebellion against a fascist government, and makes it messy and disturbing without removing the idealism.

I haven't to this point said anything about the art; unfortunately, that's because, for me, the art didn't help the story. Lloyd uses an extremely traditional panel structure with little variation in size; this makes for effective pacing, moving the reader through the story, but offers no dramatic flair. V is an inherently dramatic and passionate figure who, in the course of the book, does some grand and stunning things, and some variation in panel layout, some vertical panels or images without panel boundaries, or even an occasional full-page image could have better captured some of that drama and presence. I know that's the attitude of a very experienced comics reader, Moore and Lloyd may have been working under publishing constraints, and a simple panel structure is much more readable for the casual reader, but the layout still felt claustrophobic and limiting to me.

The artwork also had a murky, smeared look to it that its coloring didn't help at all. There was an overuse of several techniques that I don't care for: monotone panels in yellow and red, strong wavy lines in the floors of rooms, and lots of deep shadows that make the small panels seem even smaller. Some of this is probably an intentional style choice to make the world feel more limited and closed-in, but the impression I came away with was cheap paper, blurry art, and a limited palette. The words are the highlight of the story and many of the best sections are told in captions and extended dialog, but even the dialog balloons are rarely crisp and occasionally lost in smears of color to the point where it's hard to tell who's saying what. Add to that the words under the music of "The Vicious Cabaret" being too small to read (thankfully they're also repeated in captions) and I was unimpressed.

Still, that doesn't take away from the power of the story. This is one of the classics of the comics genre and one of the stories that crosses genre lines effectively. It's a plot that's only become more timely and more relevant and the resolution is much more honest than one normally gets from stories of this sort. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-11-13

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21