V for Vendetta
by Alan Moore, David Lloyd
(DC Comics, 1988)

James Thurber once classified writers as the least politically aware people on the planet, the sort who only know about what's going on because of the occasional magazine thumbed through in a doctor's office. This is one rule that doesn't seem to apply where writer Alan Moore is concerned.

Though Moore gives artist David Lloyd ample co-creator's credit in the introduction to the reissued trade paperback collection of V for Vendetta, this comic, serialized in England before being imported to America, has Moore's unique political insight stamped all over it. Nowhere near as pessimistic as Watchmen, VFV is nonetheless as gritty, brutally realistic and beautifully poetic as its more famous predecessor, and just as full of Moore's cunning tricks with side-by-side dialogue and visual symbolism. This time around, however, Moore seems to be a bit more upbeat.

Which is, admittedly, a rather funny thing to say, considering how the story opens: England, having survived a vicious war that brought about the collapse of the only government the people had known for the last hundred years, is now governed by a fascist police state. Everything appears to be normal ... if your definition of "normal" includes rounding up and gassing to death every last, threatening fringe element of society, and using technology to keep citizens under 24-hour observation.

Moore unabashedly puts his deepest fears right on the page, in frightening clarity: a world without people of color or undesirable sexuality, without political dissidents or liberals, a world shucked clean of anything that reminds us of diversity; a world that gives us the civilizing virtue of culture. When that diversity is lost, opportunity for spiritual growth is lost, and when that is lost, so is all that truly defines what freedom is: choice. Without choice, there is no real justice.

Enter V, the one person who intends to return the freedom of choice, and justice, to the masses.

Riding into the scene in much the same way as Frank Miller's futuristic Dark Knight did in the pages of The Dark Knight Returns, V announces his presence to the tightly controlled society of London with a literal bang, making statements through ingeniously planned acts of anarchy. A former "inmate" of the torture chambers that ended in death for so many innocents, the mysterious V is determined to topple the regime that robs human beings of their choices.

Moore's talent for using women both as strong leads and as metaphors for suffering and redemption (due, in no small part, to their position in society as second-class citizens) is put to excellent use. V's "sidekick" is a young woman named Eve (think of the first among women to be given knowledge), rescued from a life of prostitution by V, who acts as the narrator and focal point for the reader. The theme of the heartbreak caused by emburdened endurance is played out beautifully in Rosemary (think remembrance), the widow of a government official; and the corruptive, corrosive influence of living in too much soul-deadening comfort is symbolized in Helen, whose symbolic name reference need little explanation.

The emotional highpoint of the story is the tale of Valerie and Ruth, a pair of lovers whose life and death struggle within the confines of the death camps provided the inspiration for the Man in Room Five -- Roman numeral V -- to attain the truest freedom, the one found within, the one that put him on the path to his mission.

You have to love a writer who thinks that lesbians are the motherlode this side of the universe.

Many of the familiar elements of Watchmen are in VFV, but this time around Moore is much more emphatic about society's waking up to the choices they don't believe exist. There is no need, he reminds us over and over, to pay excessive deference to the political pieties and polemics that govern us on a daily basis. Moore appears to be almost hopeful that the regime whose simpler choices seduce and muffle the mind and soul can be brought down with the driving power self-realization. V makes no apologies for the devastating anarchy he, or possibly she, brings to bear. No one said reform was easy. (Readers of Transmetropolitan, take note.)

The artwork is very interesting. There are no thought balloons, no extended action sequences. At times the rather spare lines and flat coloring make it hard to tell one character from another, but the engaging text is well worth the effort. There is enough drama and political intrigue to make up for the lack of action. Lloyd and Moore fill the pages with panels, encouraging the reader to actually read, instead of just flipping through. There is a quiet grace to Lloyd's artwork that perfectly underscores the theme of complacency and the rage seething just under the veneer of societal calm. The eerie similarity between this world and that one, so clearly delineated in Lloyd's underplayed but effective artwork, serves as visual reminder that too much tolerance for military-style rulers can have deadly ramifications. All is not what it appears to be, in any world.

In spite of a somewhat disappointing ending, the story is a beautifully moving paean to the necessary chaos that keep us all from settling for relationships of convenience with whatever autocracy happens to be in the saddle. That particular autocracy's days are numbered. V's presence in the world, in whatever form he, or she, exists, will assure this.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 14 June 2003

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