My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Along with never meeting our heroes, we should also, and for the same reason, probably not re-read adolescent literary favorites. Even so, since Watchmen more or less stands up to adult scrutiny, I thought perhaps V for Vendetta would as well—hence my choice to use it in a class this semester.
Alan Moore’s noir dystopia of late-20th-century Britain, which pits an anarchist terrorist against a fascist state, certainly conveys an enveloping mood and develops an intricate plot. V takes place after a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. has left a damaged, chaotic England under the control of a genocidal Nazi-like party that consolidates absolute control through a surveillance state. This fascist government comes under attack by V, an escaped inmate of its concentration camps. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask and rebels not only with bombs and bullets but also with the vital and anarchic culture that fascism represses—everything from Shakespeare to Motown. Because V is less a character than a symbol, the narrative dwells more on ancillary figures, such as V’s protégé, Evey; the detective investigating V’s crimes, Eric Finch; and the increasingly desperate widow of a government official killed by V, Rosemary Almond.
V is an early work of Moore’s, but already many of his celebrated storytelling techniques are on display—particularly rapid cross-cutting between scenes and a separation of visual and verbal narratives, as when V storms a TV studio under word balloons full of sitcom and action-hero TV dialogue; and this is not to mention every chapter title’s beginning with the letter V or the musical number that comes a third of the way through the book. Moore’s erudition also shows in V’s learned and allusive quasi-Shakespearean monologues. David Lloyd’s shadowy, gritty drawing and the moody coloring (done by a variety of hands during the book’s checkered publication history in two countries and over seven years) have as much to do with the book’s success as Moore’s story.
But V’s anarchist philosophy is never persuasively elaborated, aside from some hand-waving distinctions he draws between chaos and anarchy. How are “the people” to rule a complex modern society directly, especially after V, with the revolutionary’s characteristic distaste for “bourgeois legal formalism,” has literally blown up the institutions of representative government? By the middle of the book, when V is torturing Evey to teach her a lesson in liberty—omelettes, eggs, etc.—I began to wonder if this were not a pamphlet covertly advertising moderate liberalism, given how unattractively it portrays the mirrored extremes of fascism and anarchism. While V and Evey debate the ethical status of revolutionary violence, V remains the only articulate character with a fully-developed non-Nazi ideology in the story, so Moore gives readers little option but to agree with him or to dismiss the whole conflict. V would be immeasurably improved if it had only one character of V’s intelligence who could argue with him on behalf of something other than anarchism or fascism.
I am aware of the argument that Moore subverts his own worldview when he shows V as morally compromised, but this renders pointless the novel’s whole enterprise of justifying anarchism by fantastically confronting it with fascism. If neither ideology is worthwhile and Moore is simply exposing the faults of both without presenting any alternative to either, even though very few British or American readers, whether in the 1980s or today, are avowed fascists or anarchists—well, why bother?
As for Moore’s depiction of fascism itself, it is often remarkably silly. He shows the leader, for one thing, to be literally in love with the supercomputer he uses to administer his government. The idea, presumably, is that totalitarian governance is machine-like and loveless, with a suggestion, typical of midcentury left-Freudianism, that fascism is a sexual perversion. But showing the leader on his knees kissing the computer or masturbating before it is cartoonish, not rising to the level of serious political or psychological analysis. Other fascist characters are portrayed more effectively—some are shown to go along with genocide or totalitarianism from fear or ambition rather than conviction, and these seem to be the book’s most redeemable figures, especially Finch.
As for the other power-hungry schemers in the tottering government and in the criminal class who dominate the last third of the book, Moore simply shows them to be creatures of pure selfishness and will. What role they will play in an anarchist society is not explained; Moore seems to assume that they will devour each other and leave the rest of us in peace, but this may well be wishful thinking. If the drive to attain power over others must be extirpated from the human psyche before the anarchist millennium comes, then the millennium is never coming.
I suppose if we all had mentors to torture the fascism or the complacency out of us, as Evey has in V, we would all be anarchists; but how anarchic, how free of power and domination, is such tutelage really? I do not expect one comic book to solve the longstanding problems of the political left, though I do expect an explicitly anarchist text, especially one this didactic, to stray a bit farther from the Leninist concept of the enlightened vanguard leading the inert masses to revolutionary consciousness. The sad fact is that superhero and detective/noir thrillers incline toward glorifying glamorously violent and charismatic heroes, not celebrating ordinary people and everyday life; the genre that does the latter, I am sorry to tell you, is the good old realist novel.
As always, though, aesthetic problems outrank political ones. Aesthetically, this book’s problem is that V is a symbol and Evey an empty vessel to be filled with a revised version of his ideology. Since the protagonists are uninteresting characters, Moore seeks interest elsewhere, in a vast company of secondary and tertiary figures, “types” borrowed from crime fiction (such as the “detective with an honest soul,” the roguish mercenary thug, or the domineering femme fatale). They fill out the book’s largely extraneous thriller plot with their complex machinations. Moore organizes this plot with so much mounting tension as he cross-cuts between his various players that you can almost forget how little you care about them or even that you can barely tell one static character from another.
The best things in the book are not moments of bravura storytelling formalism or political disquisition; they are rather the simpler and more emotional passages—the final confrontation between V and the camp doctor who had conducted medical experiments on him, the long and ugly sequence in the cabaret that shows the degradation of private life under fascism, the letter from the imprisoned actress that inspires V and Evey in turn in their own captivity.
(This distinction between structure/message, on the one hand, and emotional subtlety on the other holds for Moore’s work overall: those fictions that give him the most room to explore the emotions his story evokes are his most affecting [Swamp Thing, From Hell], while those overly consumed with his will-to-formalist-closure and with his desire to educate the reader fall short [Promethea, Lost Girls]. As the work most perfectly if precariously balanced between these tendencies, Watchmen is likely to remain Moore’s masterpiece.)
All of the above might come as a disappointment, if he could understand it, to the boy who read V for Vendetta one hot, sweaty summer night in 1994 or 1995, at first turning the pages breathlessly to find out who V was and then startled but gratified to understand that it did not matter—who learned, that is, the important literary lesson that there are higher values than suspense and the important political lesson that there are bigger questions than identity. It would no doubt also disappoint the friend he soon let borrow the book, who after reading it redrew the “ideas are bulletproof” panel and kept it taped to his bedroom wall for the rest of middle school.
The lesson here is not that V for Vendetta is no good but rather that it is a very good book for people of around age 12 or 14 to read—it invokes complex political ideas, with hints toward their proper complexity, in a generic idiom adolescents can understand, while also nudging the audience, through flagrant allusion, to more sophisticated artistic fare and political discourse.
The point of the novel’s final third is that V and his terrorist methods must be superseded for a truly free society to come about. Similarly, I can say that I would probably not now be the writer who finds V for Vendetta so wanting had I not read V for Vendetta itself in my formative years. Maybe we can regard it as a worthwhile contribution to revolutionary dialectics after all.