Sunday, March 23, 2014

V for Vendetta - Alan Moore & David Lloyd (with Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds) (1982 - 1989)

V for Vendetta, like many other feature-length comic and graphic novels, is not an easy thing to review.  The easiest point of comparison is Watchmen, since they are probably Alan Moore's two most famous works.  From this perspective it is easy to sum up my feelings: while it is a very good story, it is just no Watchmen.  That said I still think it is worth reading and I am looking forward to seeing the film, even though Moore disavows it.  For some reason I think it will be better than the Watchmen adaptation, though I have read that the film portrays the protagonist as a "freedom fighter," which makes sense for Hollywood, but which is also the wrong move.  I suppose I should explain the plot.

The story opens with a young girl who is trying to prostitute herself for the first time.  She doesn't really know what she is doing, and the man she solicits quickly tries to take advantage of her.  He is joined by other men who are part of "The Finger," which is the police force of the totalitarian British society in 1997.  They surround the girl (whose name is Evey) and she is rescued by a figure in a mask.  The men are killed, and Evey and her savior go to a rooftop where they watch the Houses of Parliament explode.  Then there are fireworks in the sky.  The savior says, "I did that."

It would get way too tedious to explain everything that happens, but after this scene Evey is taken to a secret hideaway and her savior explains that his (her?) name is "V."  V never takes off the mask, which is a Guy Fawkes mask.

Now I think the most interesting way to write this review is to write about the mask and the Occupy movement and Anonymous.  But before we get to that, what is my criticism?

Basically, this is a very good story.  The writing is sharp, and the political situation that the novel (I'm just going to call it a graphic novel because that's the form it was in when I read it) describes is just creative enough to be unique.  It certainly bears similarity to Nazi Germany, or Orwell's 1984, but it is Moore's England of the late 90's.  Like Watchmen with its dystopian New York City in 1985, the depiction does not seem all that far from reality, though underneath it is obviously very unsettling.

I couldn't pin down what the problem was with this book until I read the Wikipedia page.  Now, I had a pretty good idea of everything that happened in the story, but about midway through, I started to get lost.  The problem with this story is that there are too many characters and it is way too hard to keep track of everything that is happening to them.  This issue becomes most pronounced around pages 142 and 143, where a woman hides in an alley to shoot a man who killed her lover.  I basically had no idea what was happening for the next forty pages.

But then it does become clear, eventually, and by the end of the book the reader should have a pretty good idea of what's happened.  But in order to fully to understand every nuance, you need to pay very close attention.  You might even need to take notes to keep track of all the characters.  I don't think normal people take notes to understand books they read, so there is my criticism.  If you read the Wikipedia page, that should clarify the storyline a great deal, but it will also highlight what I didn't realize about the book until finishing it: this is not really V's story.

This is really the story of everyone that is working in the British government.  Sure, it is V's story too (you find out about V's past), but seriously that seems to account for about 10-15% of the content.   Much of this is Evey's story, but much of it is also Eric Finch's story.  Finch is probably the most sympathetic character that works for the government, but he also plays an antagonistic role in the climax of the story.  In this sense, he is ambiguous.

But so is V.  Portraying V as a "freedom fighter" in the film really simplifies how the audience should react to the character.  V is, in fact, a terrorist.  But a terrorist against a totalitarian society.  He is not evil, but the things he does to Evey sometimes cross the line into torture.  So it is really Evey that is the "conscience" of the book--the protagonist that seems to have a clearly humanistic view of what is right and wrong.  Her description of the way that England came to be is also one of the high points of the book (Kennedy is also oddly President as in Red Son):

"I was only seven, but I remember when the news came over the radio.  Dad kept telling Mum not to worry.  He was scared to death...It was about Poland and the Russians, wasn't it?  And President Kennedy said he'd use the bomb if they didn't get out.  That's what Dad told me...It was horrible.  Nobody knew if Britain would get bombed out or not.  I remember Mum saying 'Africa's not there anymore!'  That's all she said...I though about all the lions and elephants being dead.  It made me cry.  I was only seven....But Britain didn't get bombed.  Not that it made much difference.  All the bombs and things had done something to the weather.  Something bad...I remember one day Dad called Mum and me into the back bedroom.  He said he wanted to show us something...We could see right across London from the bedroom window.  It was nearly all under water.  The Thames Barrier had burst....The sky was all yellow and black.  I've never seen a sky like it.  Dad said London was finished and he wanted to take Mum and me to the country...Mum wouldn't go.  Just as well, I suppose.  It turned out that the countryside was worse than the towns.  The weather had destroyed all the crops, see?  And there was no food coming from Europe, because Europe had gone.  Like Africa...I-I didn't like to think about the next four years.  We'd got together with some neighbours in a protection committee.  It didn't help much....There was no food.  And the sewers were flooded and everybody got sick.  Mum died in 1991.  Dad wouldn't let me see her...There were riots, and people with guns.  Nobody knew what was going on.  Everyone was waiting for the government to do something...But there wasn't any government anymore.  Just lots of little gangs, all trying to take over.  And then in 1992, somebody finally did...It was all the fascist groups, the right-wingers.  They'd all got together and with some of the big corporations that had survived.  'Norsefire' they called themselves...I remember when they marched into London.  They had a flag with their symbol on.  Everyone was cheering.  I thought they were scary.  They soon got things under control.  But then they started taking people away...All the black people and the Pakistanis...White people, too.  All the radicals and the men who, you know, liked other men, the homosexuals.  I don't know what they did with them all...Dad had been in a Socialist group when he was younger.  They came for him one September morning in 1993...It was my birthday.  I was twelve.  I never saw him again....They made me go and work in a factory with a lot of other kids.  We were putting matches into boxes...I lived in a hostel.  It was cold and dirty and I just used to cry all the time.  I wanted my dad....That's how it was for four years...Not enough food, not enough money.  Some of the older girls made money going with men.  That's what I was going to do, last night.  But they were Fingermen.  Thy were going...They were g-going to...They were going to ruh...ruh...ruh..." (27-28)

There is also a very funny panel on page 64 where V is reading V by Thomas Pynchon.  V is obsessed with the letter and Moore does an excellent job of incorporating this motif into the book.

One of the other high points comes when V takes over the television network that appears to be the only option for people to watch.  Another comes when he turns London into "the land of do as you please" where anarchy is now the rule:

"Good evening, London.  This is the voice of fate.  Almost four hundred years ago tonight, a great citizen made a most significant contribution to our common culture.  It was a contribution forged in stealth and silence and secrecy, although it is best remembered in noise and bright light. To commemorate this most glorious of evenings, her Majesty's government is pleased to return the rights of secrecy and privacy to you, its loyal subjects.  For three days, your movements will not be watched...Your conversations will not be listened to...And 'do what though wilt' shall be the whole of the law.  God bless you...and goodnight." (186-187)

Ultimately there is a reasonably satisfying climax to the story, but I couldn't fully appreciate it because I still didn't really understand it all until I read the Wikipedia page.  Again, V for Vendetta is just not as good as Watchmen, so don't go into it with such high expectations.  Regardless, it is a quality read, and if you pay really close attention you might get more out of it than I did.  I have the film on hold at the Chicago Public Library and I have been waiting for its delivery for more than two weeks now.  I'm not expecting a lot out of it, but I still think the source material is good enough to make for a special movie.

But yes, let's be honest here, V for Vendetta is not famous for its story anymore so much as the Guy Fawkes mask.  Alan Moore and David Lloyd have said that they are happy that the mask has become associated with modern protest movements, but what intrigues me is, why has it been adopted?  Is it because of V for Vendetta, or is it because of the original Guy Fawkes?  Of course, I think it is because the film adaptation (sad as it is) put it back in the public consciousness.

The 5th of November is now, actually, a day I will look forward to as perhaps if there is going to be a revolution, it will happen then.  Ironically, Amazon and Time Warner have made a ton of money off this mask, as it it the top-selling mask in their inventory, and as Time Warner owns the rights to it and is paid a commission on each one sold.  So really, it is not the best way to lead an anarchist revolution.  It's just commercial like everything else.  But people know what it means, basically, and the fact that it communicates a message is valuable.

We don't live in an outwardly totalitarian society run by Norsefire, but we are certainly watched.  I remember when I worked at City of Chicago Department of Law and they told us that if you walked around the Loop for about thirty minutes, your face would be on enough cameras that they can run facial recognition software on you and identify you in thirty seconds.  Sadly, they do not have cameras on sidestreets in Logan Square where just last week someone smashed a car window and stole something.  It would be nice if surveillance were used to catch thieves and not make everyone paranoid that they need to be "acting normally" at all times that they may be on camera.  It would also be nice if there were greater transparency in the job search process when we live in an era of economic desperation.  But we don't live in the land of do-as-you-please.  My hope is that someday soon we'll come closer to that, though.

(Warren in 2016!)

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