V for Vendetta

Some ten years ago now, I was due to give a paper at the University de Alacala, near Madrid, at a conference that considered the influence of George Orwell. At the very last minute, I was unable to go, but I had planned and written a paper on Alan Moore and David Lloyd's graphic novel, V for Vendetta. This narrative had a curious publishing history: it had first appeared in Warrior, a short-lived monthly British comic that was intended to provide British writers and artists with the same measure of artistic control and expressive freedom as was available in the American comic book industry. As it turned out, this proved to be a false hope: Warrior, published by Quality Communications (and edited by Dez Skinn, who had worked for Marvel UK) was subsidised by the turnover from Quality's retail outlet, folded after 25 issues, when many of the writers and artists – some, like Alan Moore, disillusioned with the British comics scene – were recruited by US comics publishers to work on their titles. Moore, as is well-known, was asked to revitalise Swamp Thing for Marvel. V for Vendetta, which had run without pause in all issues of Warrior from 1982 to 1985, was caught up in an indefinite suspension of the narrative, in the middle of Book 2.

I bought Warrior (on order) every month until, one day in 1985, it ceased to arrive at the newsagents. It was not until I was browsing in the comics department of the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, some few years later, that I stumbled upon the continuation of the comic. It had finally transferred to DC Comics in the States, with the same writer and artist, although the stark monochrome of the Warrior art (the financial limitations of black-and-white comic-book reproduction in the early 1980s exploited fully by David Lloyd to create a chiaroscuro world that drew both upon film noir and upon the visual texture of postwar British cinema) had been overlaid with a subtle wash of colour, and the format of the comic had reduced from A4 down to trade-paperback size, But there they were, the missing episodes of Book 2 and then Book 3; and finally, the whole thing republished in 'graphic novel' format by Titan Books in the UK (mine is a Canadian Warner Communications imprint located online some time later).

One of the reasons I had loved V for Vendetta (and there are many) was that I had been long fascinated by dystopian fictions, and in fact went on to complete my PhD in that very area. (I loved the artwork, I loved the 'realistic' characters, I loved the range of literary, filmic and pop cultural reference – one of the very few verbatim quotations I have in my head from Shakespeare is a long speech from early in Macbeth in which the Thane of Cawdor is praised for his violent dispatching of a rebel, a speech used ironically by Moore in the first episode of V as a kind of commentary, spoken by the rebel V himself, as he rescues Evey Hammond from a group of secret servicemen who are about the gang-rape her. V kills all but two of them.) In the Madrid paper, I explicitly compared V for Vendetta to the kind of formal dystopia or anti-utopia, strongly influenced by Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, that I had studied for my doctorate.

V for Vendetta remained a particular, even cultish pleasure, for a time. However, in the mid-2000s, it was revealed that the Wachowski Brothers were to produce a film adaptation of the comic book, with Hugo Weaving as V and Natalie Portman as Evey. Though it was set in Britian, the film was ultimately lensed through an American sensibility and is, I think, something of a failure.

Now I find that the mask is everywhere, a sign of resistance to the UK government’s neo-liberal prescription of spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit caused by under-regulated British banks and their financial speculations. Particularly, the masks are worn by Anonymous, a group of ‘cyber-hackers’ who recently ‘took revenge’ on PayPal, Visa and other financial institutions who had succumbed to US government pressure to cease providing services to WikiLeaks. The masks are from the film, rather than the comic book, but re-code the image of Guy Faulkes: no longer does the rhyme ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November’ refer to ‘treason’, but to resistance to the state. Back in 2000, when I wrote the conference paper, I had thought that an Orwellian dystopian text drew upon a rather outdated model of the operations of state power. Today, when police officers threaten 12-year-old schoolboys who plan to picket the surgery of the Prime Minister because their youth club is being closed down; or when the Chief Constable of the Met implies that his officers showed commendable restraint in not shooting demonstrators; or when mounted police charge a crowd of teenage students; the faces of state repression are coming into clearer focus. The masks are going on; the masks are coming off.

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