Throw together an English Roman Catholic terrorist from 1605, a 1930s noir atmosphere, a damsel who is only somewhat in distress, a government that makes Ingsoc look humane, some psychedelics, some fortuitous but random evangelical proof texting of The Collected Works of William Shakespeare, some references to the mass killings of the twentieth century, a bit of Ray Bradbury, Max Ernst, and Patrick McGoohan, a rather tame lesbian romance, some raging pagan will power, a fictional 1980s that went exactly against what actually happened, some inspiration from William Butler Yeats and “anarchy loosed upon the world,” and two young cocksure perfectionist English artists who wanted to avoid mimicking their American counterparts. You probably still would not end up with the disturbing masterpiece that is V for Vendetta.
Written in the first third of the 1980s but not published as a graphic novel until 1988, V for Vendetta broke into the cultural mindset of the intellectual rising generation like nothing else.
For someone coming of age in that decade—with New Wave, Blade Runner, Ronald Reagan, The Day After, Rush, Macintosh, Red Rain, and Nuclear Winter—V for Vendetta took the extreme desires and fears of a whole generation and made them into a coherent (mostly) tale.
If John Hughes captured our most adolescent suburban libertine longings, V for Vendetta re-made them into our most terrifying libertarian nightmare.
The story, written jointly by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, takes place in the late 1990s. In 1983, a Labour government replaced the Tories, kicking out the American nuclear missiles, and thus leaving the U.K. free from atomic destruction. Soon, the Americans and the Soviets went after each other, desolating America.
The resulting economic turmoil in Europe led to the rise of a National Socialist/Fascist government in Britain. Though the leaders personally gave into every perverse and lewd pleasure, in and out of their bedrooms, they outlawed homosexuality, non-whites, and non-Protestant Christians. Imagine Cromwell morphing into a hyperweaponized Jim Bakker, and you come close to the “Dear Leader” of fascist Britain.
Those persons who were neither deported nor executed found themselves in prison camps, the playthings of progressive eugenicists, willing to see the body contorted and deconstructed in every possible manner to “perfect the race.”
Under the slogan “England Prevails,” the fascists maintain control through mass surveillance as well as through armed thugs known as “Finger Men” who have the power to kill, rape, and pillage at will, all in the name of England. Signs litter the streets with the hypocritical propaganda: “Strength through Purity; Purity through Faith.” Superficial TV programming—such as the story of “Storm Saxon,” a thinly-veiled Mike Hammer character, full of white racial pride, fighting back African invaders in the year 2501–keep the masses entertained and distracted from food shortages and poor health care. “Die you black cannibal filth! Die! Die! Die!” he screams, as he opens fire upon some non-Anglo Saxons.
Of the internment camps, one of the most brutal was the Larkhill Settlement, out of which emerged the anarchist anti-hero, V. The authors intentionally keep his identity hidden, as he represents an idea more than an individual person. Toward the end of the novel, when confronted by a government agent, V explains, “There. Did you think to kill me? There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bullet proof.”
Still, the reader does come to know that V had been interned and had survived the experiments. In some way, never explained, the experiments made him more human than human, endowing him with extraordinary powers of resistance to bodily harm, astounding concentration and memory, and near perfect agility. It would, however, be better to describe the final product of the experiment as the creation of a Batman rather than a Superman. The only one of the test subjects to live, V, gained the favor of his captors, set the camp aflame, and escaped.
The main story takes place years after the destruction of Larkhill. Now, one by one, every person who ever worked at Larkhill is being systematically murdered. Though, the more appropriate term would be “assassinated.” V, of course, is proudly the killer. Looking a bit like an early-seventeenth century Batman, he wears a Guy Fawkes mask, a buckled hat, and a massive cloak, under which he hides an assortment of bladed weapons. V not only kills his victims, but he does so with immense poetic justice. Each person assassinated—reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno—dies according to his or her vice.
He can temper his killings with mercy, but he kills nonetheless. When confronting Dr. Delia Surridge, once so disgusted by all deviations from the norm but now repentant, V murders her without pain.
No. No, I thought I would be [afraid], but I’m not. I’m. . . relieved. Oh, God, all these years, all this waiting. You see, I always knew you’d come back. When I saw you that night. . . The night you escaped, you were standing against the flames. You turned and looked straight at me. I knew then that one day you’d come looking for me, that you’d find me. What. . . what we did, what I did at Larkhill. That terrible knowledge. It’s been with me so long. That I could do things like that.
In her admission, she recounts a study conducted in America before her fall. Students had volunteered for an experiment to administer shocks to victims when commanded. The victims were actors, but the student volunteers did not know this. They believed themselves to be administering immense pain. “Nearly 80% of those tested carried on administering shocks after the ‘victim’ begged them to stop. Nearly 60% continued even after they believed that they’d killed him.”
Her explanation for such horrors: “They were ordinary people and they were prepared to torture a stranger to death just because they were told to by someone in authority. Some them said they’d even enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed what I did at the time. People are stupid and evil. There’s something wrong with us. Some hideous flaw. . . we deserved to be culled.” As she fades peacefully from the world, she asks V to remove his Guy Fawkes mask. “It’s beautiful,” she ejaculates as she dies.
The entire story of V takes place over a period of a little more than a year, November 5, 1997, to November 1998.
The People Choose
V’s philosophy of resistance and rebellion offers a rather coherent if not always enticing complexity to it. It’s difficult for the reader to know just how mad V is. Certainly, he’s brilliant, trans-human (as tampered with and modified), and suffers from extreme paranoia as well as OCD. This, of course, does not mean his interpretation of events is wrong, only that it comes from the mind of someone on the brink of total insanity.
During the middle of the story, V gains control of government TV. As he does, he recounts the history of tyranny in the twentieth century. “And what about the children? It’s always the children who suffer as you’re well aware. Poor little mites. What are they to make of it? What are they to make of your bullying, your despair, your cowardice and all your fondly nurtured bigotries? Really, it’s not good enough, is it? And it’s no good blaming the drop in work standards upon bad management, either. . . . though, to be sure, the management is very bad. In fact, let us not mince words. . . .The management is terrible.”
During V’s soliquy, images of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini flash upon the screen.
We’ve had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. This is plain fact. But who elected them? It was you! You who appointed these people! You who gave them to the power to make your decisions for you! While I’ll admit that anyone can make a mistake once, to go on making the same lethal errors century after century seems to me nothing short of deliberate. You have encouraged these malicious incompetents, who have made your working life a shambles. You have accepted without question their senseless orders. You have allowed them to fill your workspace with dangerous and unproven machines. You could have stopped them. All you had to say was ‘no.’
For Moore and Lloyd, democracy has proven incapable of sustaining the good life. When questioned as to why V would not proceed through the political system, he replies, “It does not do to rely too much on silent majorities, Evey [the female protagonist], for silence is a fragile thing. . . . One loud noise, and it’s gone.”
Though the story is terribly violent at a personal and societal level, there are moments of sheer beauty. Toward the end of the story, as V knows that he must go into battle openly, he tells Evey, “Persevere, Eve. Understanding music, we may hear the music that there is in life from its first insufficient trills . . . unto its closing minor chords.” Whatever the violence, he continues, never forget the pleasure of knowledge, the pleasure of creativity, and the “higher attributes of reason, love and culture.”
V for Vendetta is a beautiful if terrifying work of art. Though a graphic novel, it is most certainly NOT for children. In its ability to explain the human person as well as the horrors of Leviathan, it rivals 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.
What is V? Victory? The Roman Numeral 5? Vendetta? Vengeance? Beethoven’s Fifth?
The author’s never explain. But, with a story of this depth and breadth, we wouldn’t want too much thrust into the face. A little mystery is good for all of us.
Far more than a penny for the old Guy.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.