As historians look back upon this decade, the Guy Fawkes mask will surely be one of the iconic images of our times, thanks largely to the hacker collective Anonymous. That’s almost certainly how you know it best.
You may also know that frozen, smiling face from the 2006 film V for Vendetta-itself an interpretation of a groundbreaking work of comics art by the same name that first started to appear in serialized form in 1982, though it’s best known in its collected form.
V for Vendetta was first published in black and white in a U.K. comics anthology called Warrior. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, the story is hard to categorize. Or rather, it’s too easy to categorize in multiple genres, and impossible to pin down to one.
It’s dystopian, that’s for sure. I’ve often said that V is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read in any medium or genre, and unquestionably a more finely crafted piece of literature than the most often referenced work in the genre, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It’s also a thriller, a mystery, and, in some respects, science fiction. It contains nods to (more accurately, a deconstruction of) a superhero archetype, that of the masked, costumed vigilante. Not so surprising, considering its author also wrote Watchmen, an unflinching look at what superheroes might be like if they lived in the real world. Synopsis: a bunch of psychologically imbalanced weirdos in costumes, notable for all their all-too-human failings, and one genuine superbeing, the scariest and least conventionally moral of the whole bunch.
For me, Orwell’s book is most memorable for the comprehensiveness and plausibility of the dark future it describes. So powerful and compelling is Orwell’s dystopia that most people forget that it’s not that well written and is unrelentingly depressing, in a way that sticks to you unpleasantly for at least a week after you read it.
V for Vendetta starts off with a premise similar to Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s: the pressures of changing times create a vulnerability in society, a fear and uncertainty, that can allow fascism and the more brutal forms of nationalism (and fundamentalism) to rise. These ideologies provide a sense of constancy and clarity that appeal to a scared and easily dominated populace, and once they’ve truly taken root, fear of the oppressor transforms whole populations into obedient and fearful cattle. The rest is all a carefully choreographed dance of violence, secrecy and propaganda.
And it goes in cycles. As Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (which later became Cabaret) shows, a liberal society is no proof against a conservative backlash that blooms into fascism. Berlin in the 1930s was in many respects a more liberal and tolerant society than ours is today, and was showing no signs of becoming less so. Terrifyingly brilliant and opportunistic, the early Nazi leaders preyed upon fears of war, economic instability, and a growing discomfort with the hedonistic nature of early 20th century European society. Within a decade, the Third Reich was a force powerful enough to be a contender for world domination.
Orwell, writing in 1948 (1984 is a simple transposition of the date of the book’s publication), was fascinated by what had happened in Germany so recently. He studied how an otherwise rational and evolved people could fall so quickly and inescapably into the thrall of the evil and fundamentally corrupt ideas the Nazis espoused-how simple folk and educated people alike turned away from horrors taking place under their own noses. (He also looked at Stalin, Robespierre, and a number of other “revolutionaries” that staged coups d’état in unstable times, and all these charismatic tyrants made their way into his Big Brother.)
Orwell was terrified that British democracy would be replaced by fascism or socialism-to him, virtually one and the same, for the level of control they exercised over society. This didn’t come to pass, but it could have, many times over, as indeed it has in many places not too far away from England.
Nineteen Eighty-Four comes up a lot these days. Right now, in a climate of global volatility, revolutions sparking off everywhere, economic meltdowns, growing religious fundamentalism in a dozen different and deadly flavors, and increasing social upheavals, we’re actively questioning whether we might actually already be living in a far more invasive, tyrannical, and oppressive society than we ever realized.
The potential for a totalitarian overthrow of democracy was very real to Alan Moore, since he was writing in the Thatcher-tainted 1980s. From Moore’s introduction to the collected work published in 1988:
Back in 1981 the term ‘nuclear winter’ had not passed into common currency…the fact remains that the story to hand suggests that a nuclear war, even a limited one, might be survivable. To the best of my current knowledge, this is not the case. Naiveté can also be detected in my supposition that it would take something as melodramatic as a near-miss nuclear conflict to nudge England towards fascism.
But though such worries preoccupy us greatly today (tell me I’m not the only one wondering whether the NSA is reading my admittedly boring Facebook feed), and though comics, particularly of this type, speak to all these issues and our fears around them, this is not a political column.
So back to V for Vendetta.
Moore built upon Orwell’s rogue’s gallery of tyrants by reaching into the works of writers who created dystopias after Nineteen Eighty-Four’s publication: Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Pynchon. A “nationalist” party takes over the U.K., starting with rhetoric about how “England prevails” and moving swiftly into rounding up undesirables: anyone who isn’t white; homosexuals; non-Christians.
While Moore spends plenty of time examining human failings, he didn’t go Orwell’s route of choosing a weak anti-hero. The story’s protagonist, whom we know only as “V,” is the product of Nazi-like medical experiments performed in a concentration camp. The book never reveals to us exactly what got him rounded up and condemned by the fascist regime, and it makes the point that it doesn’t really matter. V, whomever he originally may have been, is transformed by the experiments and, arguably, goes insane. But that insanity allows him to see his society for what it really is, through the veil we all put over our eyes to get through the daily grind while our governments commit atrocities we’d rather not think about.
At the core of Moore’s story is a thing that makes it profoundly different from Nineteen Eighty-Four. While it is very frank about the things human beings are capable of doing to survive, and how any of us would be (as history has shown us, repeatedly) more likely to buckle under oppression than to fight it, V is fundamentally a story about morality, courage, and transformation. And where Orwell illustrates human weakness and creates a sense of futility around fighting a regime, even up to the last line of the book, Moore places the responsibility for degraded societies where it belongs: squarely at our own feet.
One of the greatest pleasures of reading any of Moore’s work is its multidimensionality; he’s infamous for writing pages and pages of script for even the tiniest panel of artwork. Even V’s name is layered. Yes, he’s a vigilante, but the “V” means many other things besides, as we see the story unfold. The letter (and Roman numeral) V naturally turns up all over the story, echoing and reverberating throughout each chapter.
A shallow reading of the story may suggest that Moore is endorsing anarchy, or even terrorism. Many of V’s actions in the story fit our modern working definition of what constitutes a “terrorist.” But really, Moore is doing something vastly more complex: he’s showing that some societies can become so oppressive, so tenacious, that unthinkably extreme measures may be the only way to unseat them for the greater good.
I’ll be honest: there are parts of the book that are downright brutal. And yet, reading it, I’ve had some of the most profoundly emotional experiences I’ve ever had reading anything. I can remember three points in the story that literally made me cry the first time I read them.
V is far too complex a character to describe here-and please, don’t form any opinion about him from the film. Add this book to your library and get to know him for yourself. (And while it’s a compelling story just to read, Moore’s work is so dense that it’s often helpful to read along with a guide or annotations, like these, which were created by a diligent scholar who’s assembled notes on all the literary and cultural references and points out interesting details that might otherwise be missed.)
The book is not merely recommended. Consider it required reading and a cautionary tale that hasn’t lost its relevance-particularly in these confusing and dangerous times.