“Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
Sound familiar? Probably not. Those of us born and raised here in the United States most likely have never heard this bit of schoolyard rhyme. Anyone born and bred in England most decidedly has, particularly every November 5th, the commemoration of Guy Fawkes Day, when bonfires are lit all over England, and effigies of Guy Fawkes are lit ablaze, marking the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes and a group of English Catholics conspired to blow up the Houses of Parliament, stacking 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar beneath the House of Lords. Fawkes was captured in the cellar early in the morning of November 5, and was eventually tortured and executed.
Writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd most definitely know the story of Guy Fawkes, and use it to excellent effect in their chilling graphic novel V FOR VENDETTA, published by DC Comics in 1990. Conceived and produced just as the Berlin Wall fell, the book could appear to be a bit dated at first glance. However, a closer look at the themes within, involving the shift from democracy to fascism and the loss of personal liberty, are found to be all too relevant in today’s post-Patriot Act America.
First published in monthly magazine form in England in 1982, V FOR VENDETTA set its action in what was then the fairly distant future of 1997. The story takes place in a fascist-run England, having turned to fascism to survive after the Americans and Russians destroyed themselves and most of the rest of the world in a devastating nuclear standoff. The new England is ruled by its aloof Leader, Adam Susan, who keeps control over the nation with the help of a massive computer system entitled Fate.
The Leader retains a firm grip on things through his lieutenants, each of whom heads up a different division of the government’s central control, referred to as “The Head.” Conrad Heyer is in charge of “The Eye,” the agency which controls all of the omnipresent remote video cameras placed all over the city, in public areas and private homes alike. The nebbishy Heyer has a shrewish wife, Helen, whose ambitions far outweigh his own. “The Ear,” which monitors and records almost all conversations in England, is run by Brian Etheridge. The investigative branch of the government, “The Nose,” is under the control of Eric Finch, who seems to be a decent and honest detective. Less decent is Derek Almond, who’s in charge of the police force, known as “The Finger.” Almond is an abusive brute, prone to beating his wife Rose.
Finally, speaking for the new England is “The Mouth,” from which all radio and TV broadcasting is controlled, under the watch of Roger Dascombe, with the help of Lewis Prothero, “The Voice of Fate,” the man who reads all of the pronouncements from Fate, the central computer, with the public at large assuming the Voice is coming from the computer Fate herself.
And so fascist England rolls merrily along, until the arrival of the mysterious anarchist freedom fighter V, who announces his presence on, you guessed it, Guy Fawkes Day, by doing Fawkes one better and actually succeeding in blowing up the Houses of Parliament, followed by spelling out his name in fireworks above London.
On the same night V destroys Parliament, he kills two Fingermen who were about to assault a young Londoner, Evey Hammond. V, who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and cloak, takes Evey to his secret headquarters, the Shadow Gallery, where he’s preserved all the culture that fascist England has banned and burned: books, films, music, art, everything. V’s face and identity is never shown, and his backstory is revealed in the course of the narrative, in several startling revelations.
Following the destruction of Parliament, V’s next target is Prothero, “The Voice of Fate,” whom V kidnaps from a speeding train, ruthlessly and effortlessly killing Prothero’s guards with nothing more than his fingers. When Prothero comes to, he finds himself in a commandant’s uniform, in a reproduction of Larkhill Resettlement Camp, one of the secret concentration camps where the new English regime sent all the blacks, Jews, leftists and gays to die once the fascists were in power. And as it turns out, Prothero was the commander.
And, under Prothero’s watch, medical experimentation was performed on many of the prisoners, with only five surviving. How does V know all this? Prothero realizes with a shock, seeing the Roman numeral V on the replica of the door: “You’re the man from room five.”
V soon confronts Prothero with his other vocation at the concentration camp: working the crematoriums, and not long after, V has deposited a now catatonic Prothero back on the steps of Scotland Yard, incurably insane. Not only has V apparently obtained some small measure of revenge, but he’s also deprived Fate of her Voice, and when a shaky replacement is enlisted for Fate’s next broadcast, all of England notices, and their blind faith in the infallibility of Fate is shaken, if only a little.
In an early chapter, entitled “Versions,” (all of the chapters begin with the letter “V,” just one of the countless alliterative touches throughout the book) Moore and Lloyd give us a look inside the motivations of the two central antagonists: the Leader and V. First, through captions revealing the Leader’s inner monologue, we hear the Leader’s defense of fascism, taking it at its very meaning as “strength in unity,” and justifying its use, as “I will not hear talk of freedom … of individual liberty. They are luxuries. I do not believe in luxuries. The war put paid to luxuries. The war put paid to freedom.” More disturbingly, we learn that the Leader has developed an unhealthy fixation for Fate herself, the computer which allows him to rule: “I would wait upon your every utterance and never ask the merest splinter of affection.”
In counterpoint, V is also declaring his love, while at the same time spurning an old one. In a fantastic monologue addressed to a statue of Justice, V accuses her of betraying him for another, “him with his armbands and jackboots” – the fascists. V announces that he found a new mistress, anarchy, who “has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom.” V leaves a parting gift at the feet of Madame Justice, which explodes, toppling the statue.
Next on V’s hit list is Bishop Anthony Hillman. As it turns out, Hillman has an unfortunate proclivity for young girls, which V takes advantage of by using Evey to help him gain access to the Bishop’s chambers. When V meets up with Hillman, he greets him with a particularly appropriate Rolling Stones lyric:
V’s murder of Hillman (via a poisoned communion wafer) and Prothero leads Finch to an important discovery: Prothero and Hillman both worked at the Larkhill concentration camp. Even more chilling, every other person who worked at Larkhill is listed as deceased as well, a fact the detectives take as far from coincidental. The detectives are too late to save Larkhill’s last surviving employee, Dr. Delia Surridge, who is poisoned by V in her sleep. But the detectives do discover Surridge’s journal, which confirms that the man calling himself V was the prisoner in Room Five, and tells the horrific story of his escape from the camp, but sheds no other details on his identity.
A word about the overall style of the book, if I may. Moore and Lloyd eschew many of the conventions of traditional comics storytelling, such as sound effects and thought balloons. On very rare occasions, captions are used for a character’s internal thought process, but sparingly. The story is told almost exclusively through pictures and dialogue, which gives the project a spare, sober and almost cinematic feel. Lloyd’s art is dark, moody and realistic, which makes the surreal, frozen grin on the Guy Fawkes mask V wears seem all the more out of place and sinister. The lack of sound effects means that each panel contains all the visual information necessary to convey the action, and as a result, even a series of panels like the following, in which the hammer on Fingerman Derek Almond’s unloaded pistol clicks but does not fire, becomes far more loaded with tension.
As for Moore’s writing, while many will claim his later work on WATCHMEN or FROM HELL to be superior (and on any given day, I might tend to agree), for me, just in terms of the impact of the dialogue, nothing compares to the bravura sequence in which V commandeers the broadcast tower of “The Mouth,” and airs a devastating speech directed to mankind in general, in which he chastises man for his poor work performance (“While I’ll admit that anyone can make a mistake once , to go on making the same lethal errors century after century seems nothing more than deliberate”) as well as his domestic life (“I understand that you are unable to get on with your spouse. I hear that you argue. I am told that you shout. Violence has been mentioned.”).
In a brilliant juxtaposition of dialogue and imagery, the narrative crosscuts between the Fingermen desperately trying to reaccess the control room, Londoners watching the speech at home on their televisions, and V’s probationary warning to mankind; “You will be granted two years to show me some improvement in your work. If at the end of that time you are still unwilling to make a go of it … you’re fired.”
V FOR VENDETTA also showcases Alan Moore’s remarkable gift for verse, in a song V performs entitled “This Vicious Cabaret,” which re-introduces the major characters while serving as yet another condemnation of what the fascists have done to England. For example, listen as V sings about the Leader:
“While his master in the dark nearby inspects the hands with brutal eye
That have never touched a lover’s thigh but have squeezed a nation’s throat
And he hungers in his secret dreams for the harsh embrace of cruel machines
But his lover is not what she seems and she will not leave a note.”
Further, V’s song concludes on a bitter and angry note:
“There’s thrill and chills and girls galore, there’s sing-songs and surprises,
There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!
There’s mischiefs and malarkies, but no queers or yids or darkies
Within this bastard’s carnival, this vicious cabaret.”
As the story progresses, what at first seemed like nothing more than one man’s bid for revenge against his tormentors, is revealed to be a wide-ranging, impossibly complex anarchic scheme to bring down a nation and return it to its people. Having been abandoned by V, Evey is captured by the fascists and goes through a crucible of sorts, aided by the last words of a fellow prisoner in another outstanding monologue by Moore.
Meanwhile, the Leader’s unrequited love for Fate takes a surprising turn.
And V takes part in another musical performance, only this time on a much grander scale: the destruction of the government’s surveillance and broadcast facilities:
To say more from here would be to give away what is perhaps the most satisfying climax of any of Moore’s books. Combining the best pulp aspects of the Shadow and Batman, and the dash and derring-do of Robin Hood with the pop sci-fi paranoia of THE PRISONER, along with its own brand of political commentary, V FOR VENDETTA was the first of Moore’s works to really illustrate just what the man was capable of, and even today, decades later, it sets a standard for the serious graphic novel that hasn’t often been matched, and even less often by anyone other than Moore.