It has been years since I sat through the entire movie V for Vendetta. However, it holds a special place in my heart because my husband and I went to see it (along with many other movies, granted) in the theater during the first year we were dating, and he always (adorably) referred to it as “V is for Vendetta,” as if it were a segment on Sesame Street. I also, naturally, fancy the revolutionary themes in the movie, along with the special effects eye candy and general badassery (much of it by a woman, no less – take my money, Wachowski siblings). It also introduced my husband to the concept of eggy in a basket, which we’ve enjoyed for breakfast on many occasions in the last decade.
Back in 2006, I hadn’t read many graphic novels. I’d been assigned a few for graduate classes and enjoyed them quite a bit – Transmetropolitan among them – but I didn’t really get into the reading them until a couple years into my library gig. I knew V for Vendentta was a famous graphic novel, and I’ve intended to read it ever since seeing the movie (though I usually try to read the book first, if I know anything about it at all – in this case, I think V was just the most promising movie in the theater that week). Like Parable of the Sower, though, it’s fitting that I didn’t get around to actually reading V for Vendetta until after the 2016 election – and finish it on the day that Donald Trump will (presumably) be officially elected by the Electoral College. In about 13 minutes. Damn.
Anyway, the book itself. As V for Vendetta (DC Comics, 19.99 USD) opens, it is November 5, 1997 (a “futuristic” 1997, as V was written in the early 1980s). The Voice of Fate, a propaganda tool of the reigning party, is broadcasting throughout London as a young girl (sixteen, we later learn) is gussying herself up for something – but she looks quite despondent, as if she is applying makeup for her own funeral. Several frames later, it becomes clear that she was doing just that, in a way, but a masked figure in a cape swoops in to rescue her from rape and murder (and kills those who intended her harm). The masked figure later introduces himself as simply V. The girl, Evie, stays with him in his home, the Shadow Gallery, where he keeps books, movies, artwork, music, and other bits of culture that have long been forgotten since the fascists took over after the fallout from nuclear war.
V is systematically taking out a select group of officials as part of what seems like a personal vendetta. In reality, though, it’s just a cover for his much larger plan to overthrow the fascists and institute anarchy. “Anarchy,” V tells Evie, ” wears two faces, both creator and destroyer. Thus destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world.” Evie finds his methods repulsive, even if she respects his goals; she doesn’t want to kill anyone. She provides a foil by which the reader can contrast V; V is complex, deranged, calculating, and utterly brilliant. An anti-hero in the vein of Spider Jerusalem and Tyler Durden (though, to be fair, he predates them both by over a decade), he has judged himself to be unworthy of the better world he wishes to create. It’s clear from the first chapter where the story is headed, but the (anti-) hero is such an enigma that I felt compelled to keep reading if only to find out more of what made V the way he is.
Despite my difficulty with the second act, that is. The problem with fascists is that they all look the same: straight white men in trench coats. Naturally. The second act fleshes out the secondary characters (most of them fighting for power within the party), and while there are some compelling story lines for them there, I had so much difficulty keeping them straight that I just gave up after a while and resigned myself to thinking of them as “one of the two guys who is sleeping with that one woman” and “the younger guy who took over after that paunchy guy got killed” and so on. I have been known to take notes about characters when reading books with a large cast – and even map out their relationships to each other – but I never bother with that when reading graphic novels because I usually get through them in a day, maybe two. The only diversity among the fascists is their BMI, and that tripped me up, I must admit. Much of that also has to do with the artistic style of 1980s comics and the very limited color palette – which I’ll attribute partly to the noir tone of the art and partly to cost-saving measures. I’ll no doubt absorb more of the subplots on a second reading in a year or two, especially if I remember to take notes.
All of that withstanding, this is one of those graphic novels that anyone who’s interested in graphic novels – or dystopian fiction, or political fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction – should read. It’s nearly as old as I am, and it takes place almost two decades in the past at this point, but it holds up incredibly well, all things considered. Comparisons between it and Orwell’s 1984 are inevitable, I suppose (and it’s been at least 15 years since I last picked up 1984), but Moore’s vision of the “future” is more chilling, despite the cloak-and-dagger stuff. The descent into (essentially) martial law was somewhat gradual, and seemed justified, and within a decade, no one remembered anything different. The public as a whole has a very short attention span and only a slightly longer memory – just look at recent political events.
(Note: I intend to update this post after re-watching the movie – hopefully this week. In that update, as a note to self, I intend to contrast the book’s focus on anarchy as V’s goal with the movie’s – if I remember correctly – focus on liberty as V’s goal.)