An Unwholesome Vendetta

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you had a lovely Winter Solstice, and remembered to replace your Mayan calendars yesterday.

Today, I’m talking about V for Vendetta, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Llyod, which I read and promptly reviewed some three years ago, now. Here’s my review, spoilers included.

Let’s start with the story itself, shall we? The plot is good enough, concerning a rather poncy terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask and his crusade to bring down a brutal fascist regime in near-future England, killing an awful lot of nominally deserving people along the way. (As a side note, the fascist group in question is known as “Norsefire,” but it’s only named once within the story and I—lazy reader that I am—completely missed the first “r,” leading to a wildly different interpretation. Hilarity ensued.)

The story is compelling, engrossing, and well-plotted, and it’s difficult to pull yourself away in the middle. The characters are beautifully presented and eminently believable. Even the fascist leader is depicted as human and understandable, even if his beliefs are monstrous.

There are many moving sequences, and a couple that just make you shake your head and admire Alan Moore’s writing talent, such as V’s conversation with the statue of justice, and his video address to the people of England, assuming the persona of a company manager and framing human history (the good and the bad) in terms of workers’ performance. Other highlights would be the end of Valerie’s prison letter, and Eric Finch’s drug-induced vision of all the Norsefire regime’s victims. “Oh Jesus, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed your voices and your walk, your food, your clothes, your dyed pink hair. My friends … there at the carnival, the gay pride marches. Say you saw beyond my uniform. Please say you knew I cared. I … Wait … Please don’t leave me. We treated you so badly, all the hateful things we printed, did and said … but please, please don’t despise us, we were stupid. We were kids. We didn’t know. Come back. Oh please come back. I love you.” (I start tearing up just writing this.)

The sexual politics are frankly scary, though. In the first chapter of the first act, our anti-hero rescues a young woman named Evey Hammond from the fascist police, and spirits her away to his underground mansion and part-time funhouse, the Shadow Gallery. Like new housemates everywhere they then go into a protracted period of negotiating the details of their living arrangements: who will do which chores, whether its okay to use each other’s toothpaste, what time is quiet time, and whether the new resident will assist her landlord in his political and personal assassinations. (Answer: Only once, and only because he doesn’t tell her what he’s going to do beforehand.)

After that little incident, Evey insists she will not help V to kill someone ever again. She still doesn’t break her lease, as she has nowhere else to go.

Eventually V turns her loose to fend for herself. She subsequently wanders London for a while, finds an apartment and a lover, loses said lover in a spat of gang squabbling, and gets captured by the London Gestapo just as she’s preparing to shoot the man responsible for her lover’s murder.

In prison, Evey’s jailers shave her head and subject her to various other enhanced interrogation techniques. She draws strength from Valerie’s journal, though, and when the Gestapo offer to reduce her sentence from execution to three years of imprisonment at the cost of her integrity she refuses.

… At which point, she and the reader discover that she was not, in fact, captured and tortured by the Gestapo, but by V. True freedom requires that we conquer our fear of death, and with Evey, V recreated the circumstances under which he himself became free—and psychologically damaged for life, but we won’t go into that.

After this, Evey goes back to living with V. Practically the very next thing we see her do is kiss V on the mouth of his Guy Fawkes mask and thank him for freeing her. It becomes obvious as the story moves forward that she’s fallen in love with him.

Wait, what? He tortures her and then she falls in love with him? This scenario is what turned my sister off of the movie, and it isn’t any better in the original.

I read a conversation on Occasional Superheroine a while ago about disturbing gender politics in Alan Moore’s work. This is the first book of his that I’ve read, but if any of the rest of his stuff is anything like this, you can count me disturbed. Very, very disturbed.

Aside from torturing his young female protégé, V also seems determined not to put the lie to the terrorist label affixed to him by the government. He blows up buildings (we’re never even told if they’re inhabited or not) assassinates several people in-comic, more in the backstory, and shows no compunction against killing other employees of the Norsefire government. Even for someone who advocates “justified violence,” V’s actions clearly go far beyond “necessary” and usually end up somewhere around “you’ve got to be shitting me.”

And, as with Firefly, one gets the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that the text fully supports its protagonist’s brutality. To be fair, the book does point out some of the harm V’s violence causes, and how not all of his victims were horrible people who presumably deserved it. But it doesn’t really give the impression that he should’ve or could’ve done things any differently.

The story’s attitude towards V’s apparent obsession with getting the one-up on Robespierre could best be summarized as: “Sure, it may be bad, but it’s necessary to achieve the greater good. Yes, he has to be punished for it, but after that we’re set.”

This “It’s bad but it’s necessary” idea is an historically pervasive one. Personally, I incline more to the school of thought which posits that if you’re to have any hope of creating a better world, you must employ means which are not incompatible with your ends. I believe history will bear me out on this point. (Speaking of Robespierre, if offing the guy behind the “liberatory violence” was all you needed to break the cycle of violence, the French Revolution would’ve had a very different ending.)

Also, I would’ve appreciated a bit more (read: any) exploration of exactly how V’s violence squares with his anarchist ideals. Check me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t anarchy all about freedom and self-determination and not having some authoritarian git making decisions about your life without your full participation (voting between two or three authoritarian gits =/= full participation in the decision-making process)? And not just “you” personally, but everybody? The logical corollary being that you don’t get to make decisions about anybody else’s life without their full participation? Such as whether you will or will not kidnap, torture, and/or murder them?

If you take that attitude, then Evey does better in this regard. When V offers to show the guy who murdered Evey’s lover his U.S. Army impression, Evey declines. (Harper, the man in question, gets offed by proxy later in the story. Because by golly, if Disney’s taught us anything, it’s that a hero killing a villain is bad, but a villain surviving is even worse.)

Evey makes this decision because she’s a good person. Which is good for her, but it’s a blithering stupid way to run a society. The strong implication is that if she hadn’t been feeling so enlightened, V really would have killed the guy.

As best I understand the theory of anarchy, Evey’s freedom to kill Harper or have him killed must be matched by her responsibility not to do it. Evey must be held responsible not to kill Harper whether or not she’s in a forgiving mood. Otherwise, the whole thing comes crashing down. As Simone de Beauvoir said: “A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied.” This is not at all the sense one gets from the comic.

And V for Vendetta‘s somewhat dubious relationship with anarchy doesn’t end there. It makes some very good arguments for the desirability of anarchy. When it comes to making a strong argument for the practicality of anarchy though, the story gives up and buggers off for a pint.

V for Vendetta does not show its readers anarchy in action. Now, Moore may argue the whole point of anarchy is that it’s not about any one person’s vision, so that him trying to depict what an anarchist society would look like would be counter-productive. Fair enough. But I’m not talking about “after the revolution.” Many anarchists, I believe, while remaining silent or vague about what a future of anarchy might look like, would still be able and more than willing to point out anarchist trends in society right now.

V for Vendetta eschews such unrefined methods, and opts to deliver its message through the admittedly eloquent speeches of a superpowered clandestine operative who works in secrecy and has taken upon himself the job of waging a one-terrorist war on the fascist regime. He’s also accountable only to himself and his own moral judgment.

Admittedly, this “one man against the world, fighting for the good of humanity” is a romantic image, and an old one. It’s an individualistic image, and a specific kind of individualism. It’s not individualist in the way that anarchy is individualist, but in the way that say, capitalism or despotism is individualist. It’s one lone person taking upon himself the power to make decisions about everybody else’s lives, without their consent or even consultation. It’s not just the Norsefire officials who have no say in what V does, whose freedom he is overriding; it is the common, everyday folk of England whose freedom he claims to be promoting.

Alan Moore has criticized the V for Vendetta movie for downplaying the story’s anarchist message. Ironically, despite its other flaws (many of them carried over from the original) the movie did a somewhat better job than Moore and Lloyd of showing anarchy in action, with Londoners facing down the Gestapo and standing together in solidarity as 10 Downing Street burns. Sure, V is still the murderous, self-appointed Messiah who directs their actions and orchestrates the events, but at least the common people (you know, the ones anarchy is supposed to empower) have a bit more to do in the movie.

If Evey-as-V were to give her lovely pro-anarchy speech to the Londoners in V for Vendetta: The Movie, one could actually come away with the impression that they might pull it off. The useless, selfish slobs in the comic? Not so much.

In closing, I guess I would recommend V for Vendetta for a good story, and one which deals with questions and issues you aren’t likely to find in more mainstream literature. It’s a good read if you can get past the very serious flaws I’ve explored above. If you can’t, I wouldn’t blame you.

Say goodnight, Evey.

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