There aren’t many cheeky, cheery characters in V for Vendetta… and it’s for people who don’t switch off the news. >V for Vendetta… and it’s for people who don’t switch off the news.
— David Lloyd, introduction to collected edition of V for Vendetta
When Alan Moore began his what-would-become-epic dystopian V for Vendetta, I was barely a year old. By the time it was completed, in 1988, I was nearly seven. Had I read — or even known — of the existence of Moore’s tale of social uprising amidst fascism and totalitarian government in ’88, my pre-teen brain wouldn’t have been able to process or comprehend it as anything more than a crudely drawn, dense comic book — the politics and caution of V would never have made it from the page to my brain. Concepts like mass genocide, imprisonment of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and sweeping authoritarianism on the part of the government — and “terrorist” responses by a very vocal, very small minority — just aren’t things that occupy the thoughts of an American adolescent growing up in the Reagan ’80s.
And, truth be told, they aren’t things that are very present in the mind of a teenager coming of age intellectually in the Clinton ’90s. Had I read V in 1998, say, when I was more mature and aware as a reader, those things that have allowed Moore’s work resonate with readers years beyond its publication probably wouldn’t have impacted me beyond the cursory “this is a cool story” thought. Kind of the way I felt about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and George Orwell’s 1984 after I watched/read those things for the first time.
In short, while I wasn’t switching off the news I wasn’t really watching it, either.
Reading V now, though, is a revelation. In the midst of George W. Bush’s second term as president, along with a cultural climate of the growing fear of unchecked growth of sweeping governmental powers and the flagging support of fragile civil rights, the themes and tenor of this graphic novel hit home — hard.
At the center of Vendetta is the masked vigilante, V, wreaking havoc on the totalitarian British government in 1997. Clad in all black, with long, bobbed hair flowing out from under a hat, and wearing a smiling Guy Fawkes mask that conceals his face, V operates from an underground lair adorned with the last vestiges of art and culture which have been eradicated by the world nuclear war and the ensuing rise of iron-fisted government. Music, sculpture, painting, and film and theatre posters grace his lair — and Evey Hammond, brought to this place by V after he saved her from some government roughs, revels in these previously unknown pleasures.
But what V shows Evey, and teaches all of England as his guerilla war against the government persists, is the one thing that has been utterly eviscerated from the landscape: free-thought and expression. That sounds a bit trite and canned, as if it were a movie trailer tease spouted out by one of those chain-smoking voice-over guys.
So what does that mean for the new film version of V if, in the attempt to whittle the plot of V down to a single sentence, that sentence seems like a trailer for a bad action movie? Hopefully nothing, but it’s a mighty task adapting something as dense and textured as Moore and Lloyd’s future-shock dystopia.
The characters, from V and Evey down through various members of the government are both sympathetic and simply pathetic. They’re also amazingly realistic. During the early ’80s, there wasn’t the kind of market for the types of characters you find in graphic novels today, a kind of character that V is prototypical of. Rather, you’d find larger-than-life superheroes and dastardly evil-doers battling for control of the universe. And while they existed in worlds with real-world-ish concerns, like nuclear weapons and global war, the overriding concern was to take readers outside the real world into a more fantastical one.
What Moore and Lloyd did was take the reader into the realm of the fantastic, but then hold a mirror up and say, “You might look around and see the unfamiliar, but this, what’s in front of you, is what’s important.” And that image could very easily be a reflection of freedom or oppression — especially given that Moore conceived of V as the logical extension of the threat posed by England’s hard-right shift under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Moore bridged the expanse between reality and the fantastic with V, giving the creators of tomorrow — the talents behind some of today’s best graphic novels — the opportunity to do new and exciting things within the comic medium. And he did this by taking standard comic vigilante archetypes — there is no way you can look at V and not see more than one shade of Batman — and thrusting real world concerns onto them.
V is a trailblazing piece of work, but as Lloyd states in his introductory remarks to the collected volume of the series, this is a work for people who don’t turn off the news. And that’s the rub with V when it comes to adapting it to the big screen, it’s too of-the-now and, more importantly, confrontational.
How will the screenwriters the Wachowski Brothers — the visionary minds behind The Matrix who, according to adverts, bring to the screen another uncompromising vision of the future (which is bollocks, since it’s not their story; of course, Moore has disowned both the graphic novel and film, but that’s beside the point) — reconcile that this film must essentially glorify what is now deemed terrorism? And how far will they take Moore’s unrelenting criticism of unchecked governmental powers?
In a recent New York Times interview, Moore said he has no interest in the film because, basically, it can be nothing but a disappointment. Some will chalk this sentiment up to an over-protective creator, but given the material being put on screen, it’s easy to sympathize, especially in today’s cultural climate. Moore and Lloyd are the ones that crafted an uncompromising vision of the future because, today, it seems so likely that civilization presented in the pages of V could someday soon become a reality. And there’s a very good possibility that what they created could be put through the Hollywood grinder and come out stringy and fatty rather than lean and mean, the way it stands as a book.
Despite being close to 20 years old, V for Vendetta feels in no way dated. It might take a little time to reach a level of maturity to fully grasp the concepts and ideas, but it’s like a bottle of fine wine that, when it peaks, there is nothing that can compare to it. And it never goes away — at least, it hasn’t yet. You can return to the tap and drink until you’re satisfied, then return to drink some more.
V for Vendetta was an amazing, compelling, scary, and exciting read in 1988, and it still is today And, for better or worse, it’s still for people who don’t switch off the news.