Graphic Novel * Alan Moore; David Lloyd * British Dystopia * 1988
It is strange being a child of the ‘80’s. Having been born in the last year of the 1970’s, I have no tangible memories of the early part of the decade, and my memories of the latter half are those of a child, which is to say that He-Man and Transformers were a little more important than the Iran-Contra scandal. Those memories (the toys) are the ones that are most often pandered to by the nostalgia merchants, and so my first instinct is to think of those years as a kind of fuzzy, beige-tinged era of poorly animated toy commercials masquerading as a cartoon and big, dumb action movies. However, over the years, I have come to appreciate that historically the 1980’s were a turbulent decade lived out under threat of nuclear annihilation. It’s no wonder that escapist popular culture flourished, because world governments were doing and saying scary things while wielding weapons of inconceivable destruction to underscore their rhetoric. I suppose if you turned up Flock of Seagulls loud enough, you could drown out words like “mutually assured destruction.” Add to this scenario a political climate that favored a hard-line, nationalistic, and a sharply right-wing perspective and you have an environment ripe for subversive art.
This is the situation where V for Vendetta steps in, toward the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign of conservatism and into a United Kingdom that doesn’t yet realize the Cold War is nearly over. Presented as a series of comic books, V did not aim for subtly when depicting a newly fascist U.K. The premise of the book is that a limited nuclear war occurred between superpowers leaving the United Kingdom unscathed. However, in the chaos created by the power vacuum left by the absence of the United States and the Soviet Union, the people of the U.K. rallied around an upstart fascist party and submitted to a totalitarian state to restore order to the islands. The story picks up some years later, and the New World Order belongs to a party called Norsefire (which absolutely needs to be the name of a metal band, if it isn’t already) who like to do all that terrifying Nazi stuff that dystopian states like to do. V for Vendetta beings with a 16 year old girl named Evey who decides to give prostitution a try in order to make ends meet. This goes poorly as the first dude she awkwardly tries to proposition turns out to be in the secret police (or a fingerman, in the book’s parlance). As is the way of authoritarian states, the fingerman takes immediate advantage of the young, terrified, helpless girl. Or rather, he tries to. Before he can exert The State’s will by raping and killing Evey, some weird guy in a cape and a Guy Fawkes mask shows up and starts reciting poetry. And then he murders everyone. It’s all very stylish, and Evey (and the reader) are quite impressed. For an encore, he blows up the houses of Parliament.
The story that follows documents V’s master plan to disrupt and undermine his country’s fascist government. While V is the centerpiece, there is a wide range of characters who operate under the shadow cast by the titular anti-hero. In this story, V is less a protagonist and more of a plot device who serves to disrupt the status quo and force those affected to change or perish. Evey in particular grows quite a lot, from the (real) dumb 16 year old girl depicted above to a woman who can accept her past and embrace her future. Meanwhile, London struggles to understand what they’ve done in allowing Norsefire to assume ultimate power, while those who hold that power struggle to keep it. England prevails, indeed.
Dystopian fiction is not intended to be subtle. One does not read 1984 and spend much time contemplating the author’s intent; Orwell thinks totalitarian states are real bad. Likewise, the creators of V for Vendetta had a very clear message for their work (further underscored by short introductions in the edition that I read) which is the same Orwellian theme. The intent of creating a dystopia, then, is self-evident. Orwell wrote 1984 in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. That he felt the need to warn people about the evils of a totalitarian state not even four years after the collapse of such a regime only speaks to the fragile postwar conditions of the time. Order and security was paramount, civil liberties were a luxury. Skip ahead forty years and much had changed in the world. Europe recovered with alarming speed and the rest of the world largely aligned behind one of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. When V appeared on the scene, the democracies who ostensibly stood for individual rights and civil liberty (and I’m specifically thinking of the United States and the United Kingdom, I’m sorry but I don’t know what New Zealand was doing at the time) were experiencing reactionary political trends in the face of international and domestic uncertainty. The idea of the authors, then, was to create a dystopia in order to contrast ideas of freedom and authoritarian order as harshly as possible.
V, the terrorist, is the tool used to draw the lines of this contrast. His targets are symbols of institutional power, the leadership of said power, and the populace itself. Like any terrorist, his weapons are violence and propaganda. However, V is an exceptional terrorist. He has a very strict morality, it is just aligned differently than one might expect. Freedom before security, liberty over life. While his main target is Norsefire and the imposition of totalitarian order over the populace, V does not hesitate to implicate the public as well. There is a moment about halfway through the story when V manages to infiltrate the government’s broadcasting center. He takes over the airwaves (which he can do since it becomes evident later on that he controls the possibly sentient government computer, Fate) and broadcasts his own message. However, it is not the predictable propaganda one might expect from a freedom fighter. Rather, the speech is directed at the people themselves. The message was delivered as a performance review, and the public was hammered. “You have encouraged these malicious malcontents, 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. All you had to say was “NO.” You have no spine. You have no pride.” That’s pretty harsh! Especially coming from a guy who has blown up several public buildings and has murdered quite a few people. In essence, V is taking the hardest road possible to overthrow the state. However, it is necessary, and it is what redeems V’s tactics.
The shortsighted approach, then, would be to leverage the public his own advantage. To take over the apparatus of the state for his own ends and to exploit the people to achieve this. V, whose morality is cemented to a nearly inhuman level, does not succumb to shortsightedness. Instead, he places the onus of creating of a new state on the people themselves and washes his hands of the entire enterprise. After all, if he goes through all this effort to demonstrate how evil and limiting a totalitarian state is and the people jump right back in bed with another tyrant, what’s the point? Evey, who accidentally inserted herself into V’s master plan, eventually becomes the long-term solution. Violence serves a purpose, but it is only a short-term one. V knows he is unsuitable for a position of real power, since all he seems to be good at is violence and scheming. Evey, however, is not a killer. Despite being “tutored” under V’s rigid morality (Psychological Torture 403: Advanced studies, senior project with instructor advising). Henceforth, she can guide a leaderless society peacefully, while still championing freedom and liberty. By the end of the story, the regime lies in ruins and Evey stands in her new role. The hope is that she’s strong enough to fill the power vacuum. There are many questions, of course. What do we do with all this totalitarian infrastructure? Will there be a counter-revolution by remaining Norsefire supporters? Is Evey wise enough to facilitate and tolerate a dissenting opposition to ideas that she may propose? Maybe but who knows. Such questions are almost beside the point, because dystopian fiction rarely exist to solve problems. V for Vendetta exists mostly to illuminate both the path into and out from a dystopian society. Once freed from such a thing, it’s up to the general public to remember lessons learned from history and not succumb to the siren song of safety at the expense of freedom again. Good luck with that.