This graphic novel is set in a fascist, dystopian Britain that grew up in the wake of an apocalypse that left England relatively untouched but ripe for the rise of a fascist political party, Norsefire. The book was written in the eighties at the height of the Cold War, and imagines this fascist Britain in the late 1990’s. The nature of this dystopia is part Orwell’s “1984” and part Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” meaning it’s an authoritarian surveillance state, but religion (and the morality thereof) is definitely an active participant in the abuse of power.
While the protagonist is a shadowy figure who goes only by the nom de guerre “V” and whose backstory is gradually revealed over the course of the book, another central character – one who presents a more human face – is Evie Hammond, a young woman who is turning tricks on the street to get by. The book opens with Evie being cornered by a couple of “Fingermen” (Brownshirt-like secret policemen who intend to rape and murder her) when she is rescued by a Guy Fawkes-mask wearing mystery man, V. V takes Evie back to his hidden lair, and while their paths diverge and converge over the rest of the story, Evie remains a crucial character to the bitter end.
In the early part of the story, we see that high-ranking fascist party members are being murdered in ways and with clues that are clearly meant to make a statement. In the first half of the book, a police detective, Finch, is trying to solve the murders – which first requires figuring out a motive. About the time he comes to understand the basis of a revenge motive, it becomes clear that V intends much more than just getting personal revenge for the wrongs done to him at a concentration camp.
At the beginning of Part II, Evie is separated from V after a falling out over an action she participated in against a pedophilic Bishop that ended in a murder that she found distasteful. However, she has a change of heart about the use of lethal force when the man she is staying with receives a visit from the Fingermen. She makes an amateurish attempt to invoke street justice that is interrupted by a man she assumes to be with the authorities. In reality, it is V conducting a clever ruse designed to put her through what he went through so that she can experience the freedom of mind that he acquired when his fear died.
In Part III, V’s grand plan unfolds, sinking London into chaos in the hopes that something glorious (or at least better) will arise in its place. Alan Moore was a proponent of anarchism, and the suggestion is that by tearing down the existing political order, a period of peaceful anarchic or quasi-anarchic coexistence might come to be. I should point out that Moore doesn’t tell the story as an ideologue. He creates sympathetic characters among the fascists and ensures that a light is shone on V’s dark side. He also leaves the outcome open. The reader doesn’t really see what grows out of the ashes.
In addition to being political fiction, “V for Vendetta” can be read as a kind of superhero story. It’s not known precisely to what degree V is superpowered, if any. He does seem to possess some degree of superhuman ability, but it might just be that he’s crazy enough to succeed in activities such as taking on multiple armed opponents at once. It seems that the experimentation that was done on him, which killed most of his fellow subjects, may have made him stronger and / or more physically capable, or – alternative – maybe being preternaturally robust in the first place allowed him to survive what others couldn’t. Still, it is clear that he is not invulnerable.
I enjoyed this story tremendously. It’s thought-provoking, both at the political level and at the level of individual psychology. We are led to consider what brings people to accept authoritarianism, and to also wonder whether people could accept an anarchic approach to social existence. But there is also the question of what is freedom for an individual, and in what way one can have freedom within when there is no freedom to be had without? If you’re intrigued by these themes, I’d highly recommend reading this book.