Illustrator David Lloyd wants us to know in his foreword to the landmark graphic novel V for Vendetta that this book is not for people who switch off the television when something disturbing comes on. The truth is that reading V for Vendetta, much as I want to be the person who keeps watching, leaves me a little queasy, like I’ve just stumbled across an illegal video on the internet where some young girl has a numbed-out expression on her face that does not say consent. There’s no safe word for the character of Evey either once V has rescued her from an attacker and tucked her away in his underground rooms. She may not want to leave the safety of the Shadow Gallery, but she’s also totally under his control even to the point where he psychologically and physically tortures her in the name of freeing her mind. We are meant to understand this is necessary. It’s a dystopian world Moore and Lloyd put us in, and V. believes everything must be destroyed before anyone can be liberated. Evey is his protégé, and the lessons are very strict indeed.
It’s difficult not to be sucked into V’s take on anarchy because the book is so deeply right on so many things. Scratchy noir outlines of a fascist state that rises to power under the banner of “Norsefire” after a nuclear winter, jackboots, extreme police brutality, a Weimar-style cabaret of women forced into sex work by their circumstances—a lot of this world feels intensely plausible. If there were to be a nuclear war and Britain were to survive only to face extreme economic desperation, these would be the same conditions that led to the rise of the Nazi party after WWI. The rounding up of minorities and political dissidents and the suppression of any form of art and speech that does not serve the state would then seem inevitable. One of Moore’s flashes of brilliance was the addition of a computer named Fate that controls the entirety of the British people’s existence, a kind of mindmeld of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey with Soviet media control, which gets even creepier as we learn every branch of the government is named after a part of the body. It’s as if the state is a person that subsumes everyone living within its boundaries.
Under these conditions, V.’s terrorism takes on a heroic glow. There’s a thrilling moment early on where he tells the statue of Justice on top of Old Bailey that anarchy had taught him that “justice is meaningless without freedom,” just before the courthouse goes up in a giant fireball, and of course this is just one of many explosions. He kidnaps the actor who reads the voice of Fate. He kills the head priest, a vicious pedophile. V. picks off anyone who worked for the resettlement camp where he became superhumanly strong after being injected with experimental hormones. There’s an instinctive cheer that rises up in me as I watch him dismantle the state apparatus bit by bit and dole out retribution. In popular culture, V.’s heroism has in fact recontextualized the Guy Fawkes mask he wears, just as Moore and Floyd wanted, celebrating Fawke’s revolt instead of burning him in effigy.
Moore’s treatment of Evey is harder to stomach. There’s a real sympathy there for Rose, a fragile woman married to a high-ranking cop who sometimes points a gun at her head. The government gives Rose nothing when her husband is killed, and in the end, Rose becomes a cabaret dancer, hindquarters on full display. Evey’s story at first looks to be on similar lines. The government puts her to work in a factory, and at sixteen, she goes out on the street all dolled up to prostitute herself so she can get a little more to eat. She is so new that she solicits a policeman, and his crew of fingermen nearly rape and kill her. V. swoops her off to the Shadow Gallery and tells her, “Just trust me, Evey, and we can wipe it all away, all the pain, all the cruelty…we can start again.” This is where it gets seriously bewildering. He’s regularly tucking her in at night with a bedtime story and a teddy bear, but then there’s a giant gut check when she asks him if he would ever be interested in her sexually. His response is to put a satin blindfold on her, lead her up to the streets and abandon her up there.
In the larger throughline of Moore’s story, there is a dim core of sadism. As soon as V. gets Evey to trust him, he pulls the rug out from under her, and Evey falls more and more under his influence. After suddenly kicking her out, V. lets her become a gangster’s girlfriend up in the slums. When she falls in love with the gangster and loses him in a gang killing, V. kidnaps her again and puts her through most of the same psychological and physical cruelty he went through in the resettlement camps, minus the hormones. He tells her he did this because he loves her. She emerges in a supposedly transfigured state, freed from “the penitentiary we were all born into.” At this point, it seems she might have Stockholm syndrome. The one moment where she makes her own choice is when she refuses to participate in V.’s killing spree after she helps him bait the priest, but even that does not stick in the end. Almost her last act on the page is to roll his coffin packed with explosives into the heart of London and blow it up.
We are constantly told this is all part of her education, and the Marquis de Sade himself might not have disagreed. He famously was a huge fan of subversive attitudes towards sex and violence and tearing away at the power of the state. Many of Sade’s books express these ideas through forcing a young woman to undergo severe physical trials, though his are obsessively sexual. This is not totally at odds with the idea of anarchy—justice is nothing without freedom as V. tells us.
There is an important difference from Sade, however. V. does not express any overt sexuality, only violence. This distinguishes him from the rapists in the state police force and government. What he wants from Evey is the transformation of her mind through the traumatic experiences and confusion he puts her through. There’s almost an ascetism there, a mortification of the flesh that also feels solidly part of detective Finch’s journey when he finds the abandoned site of the real resettlement camps and takes LSD. He does this because he thinks he will be able then to think like V. and therefore figure out how to kill him. It does work, even though he does not undergo the same torture V. and Evey went through. The journey gives him mental liberation, but without the same concern for revolt. And he does not have the intense magnetism and need for control V. has.
It’s this need for control that puts V. in the lineage of Sade. He does not ask Evey if she wants to be transformed. She never gives her consent, and by the time she is asked to perform her duties as his successor, she has become entirely his creature.