It’s peculiar that V’s mask from Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel V for Vendetta has become an iconic representation of the ‘Anonymous’ organisation, a real-life anarchic group operating mainly online to disrupt elements of what it perceives as the establishment. Peculiar, because the graphic novel itself isn’t a simple moral allegory about fascism and anarchy, but a complex metaphor, operating on many levels.
The story begins with a scene for which Moore later apologised: a classic ‘good guy versus bad guys’ superheroic scene in which the masked V rescues the helpless Evey from the clutches of corrupt ‘fingermen’ in a punch-up. This is the ‘hook’ which leads the reader into the tale on the illusory basis that it is simplistic, that V is a hero and the State is the villain: in other words, we are tricked as readers into believing that we are reading an Epic, a straightforward tale of good versus evil, with a heroic protagonist and an utterly villainous antagonist.
But V for Vendetta is an Irony: things soon become much more blurred and mixed up than they at first appear. Moore and illustrator David Lloyd undoubtedly enjoyed putting together this vision of a fascistic Britain, ruled by the ‘Norsefire’ party after a nuclear winter, complete with jackboots, extreme police brutality, women forced into sex work, extreme economic desperation, the rounding up of minorities and political dissidents and the suppression of any form of art and speech that does not serve the state. This is further fleshed out with a super-computer called Fate which controls the entirety of British society and a government in which every section is named after a part of the body. It’s a creative, almost plausible and well-drawn picture that presents the state as so evil that readers cry out for a protagonist heroic enough to oppose it.
And we think we have one in V. He’s witty, competent, and performs spectacular acts of terrorism which satisfy our need for this sinister state to be challenged effectively by someone. V kidnaps the actor who is the voice of Fate, kills the pedophilic head priest, assassinates anyone who worked for the resettlement camp where V became superhumanly strong after being injected with experimental hormones and basically destroys, piece by piece, the establishment which created him. As readers of what we think is an Epic tale, we rejoice in his triumph; the bad guys are so bad that they ‘deserve everything they get’.
And that’s where things get challenging. Moore doesn’t let things become two-dimensional: his talent, after all, has been to turn the two-dimensional comic book into the three-dimensional graphic novel for adults with this story and with DC’s Watchmen.
V blindfolds Evey and abandons her; as she grows more trusting, V kidnaps her again and puts her through some of the most gruelling psychological and physical cruelty ever seen in a mainstream graphic novel. As she emerges from this, transformed spiritually, he informs her that he did it out of love for her. The juxtaposition of extreme torture and deprivation with this declaration of love jars us out of the normal comic book context into a larger world.
At this point, the whole story becomes metaphoric: Evey becomes humanity, V becomes God, putting his creation through suffering to achieve transcendence. We are gripped on another level. Evey now carries on V’s mission and explodes the centre of government. Is she a mindless pawn, or a disciple? Has she been brainwashed by a programme which parallels the state’s in its brutality? Or are we meant to see beyond that into the nature of the human condition? ‘Just trust me, Evey, and we can wipe it all away, all the pain, all the cruelty…we can start again’, V tells her. Later, the world is seen as ‘the penitentiary we were all born into.’
Now we are clearly in an Irony. The protagonist, as we would expect, has many dark features. V has lost everything, even his personal identity, perhaps even his soul - or has he transcended it and become a god? V for ‘vision’?
Like many Ironies, the tale is also detective story. Its ‘wise old man with a stick’ archetype is in this case Detective Finch, a man with some shred of honour and integrity in a corrupt system, who is trying to puzzle out what V’s actions mean. Finch finds the abandoned site of the real resettlement camps and takes LSD in order to be able to think like his quarry, the terrorist V, and therefore figure out how to stop him. It brings mental liberation. Finch is the fulcrum through whom Moore at last tries to turn the whole tale back into an Epic. When the detective stands in the ruins of the state machinery which V and Evey have destroyed, looking up the M1 motorway to ‘The North’ (a sign that actually exists and evokes in real life the sense of liberation that Moore intended) he is not looking at the despair which normally concludes an Irony, but at the hope that belongs at the end of an Epic.
Moore forces us to question things like faith, individuality, pain, suffering and the existential purpose of life in an Irony that at first lured us in with Epic trappings, and leaves us with a whiff of exhilaration despite the grim journey that he takes us on.