On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: V For Vastly Misunderstood
May 27, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
SPOILER WARNING! Heavy V For Vendetta spoilers throughout. Go and read it, if you haven’t already!
V For Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, is widely recognised as one of the finest works of comics fiction, both within the comics community, and in the annals of wanky broadsheet columns about ‘graphic novels’. You know, the ones that flatly refuse to take any superhero work (or indeed other genre fiction) into account. Apart from Watchmen, obviously, because that’s got nuclear bombs and a rape scene, so it’s more ‘mature’ than standard superhero fare, and so is okay for Guardian readers to display next to the untouched but terribly worthy novels they’ll get around to reading once little Emilia/Zordon starts nursery school.
Sorry, my snark got away from me there.
Point being, V For Vendetta is one of the few comics that more or less everybody agrees is bloody fantastic. Everybody that’s read it, anyway. It’s a complex and nuanced tale in which a masked vigilante known only as V embarks on a one-person campaign of artful terror and assassination against a fascist government. V’s identity, and much of his (while V’s gender is ambiguous, he presents as male, albeit masked) history, is left ambiguous, but what we do know is that over the course of this campaign V murders several individuals who worked at a concentration camp where he was held prisoner, tortured, and experimented upon.
V also offers safe haven to a teenage girl, Evey, who he rescues from the secret police who attempt to assault her while she is working as a prostitute. Later in the story, V uses stagecraft and trickery to convince Evey that she has spent several weeks living in the same concentration camp he was in. Ostensibly, this is an effort to recreate his own origin story, that Evey might follow in his footsteps and continue his war on the Norsefire regime.
Make no mistake, V is a story about revenge, and abuse. It is also a story about the horror of fascism, and the struggle of two people to topple that power structure, in an effort to replace it with an anarchist society based on consent. How far V’s actions match his ideology is a question for the reader to consider for themselves. Certainly, he behaves in extremely abusive and manipulative ways to his ward, Evey, and a significant proportion of his efforts against the Norsefire regime are concerned with the execution of those members of it who he feels wronged him specifically.
Simply put, V is an extraordinarily problematic figure, and the notion that anyone would characterise him as a hero is one I struggle with. At best, he is a classic antihero, a deeply flawed character who we are driven to root for, mostly because he fights something far worse than himself, a fascist state that has successfully eradicated all known members of ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities in Britain, as well as all political opponents of the regime.
We root for V at some points in the story because he is concerned, at least to some degree, with toppling fascism. That he manipulates, confines, starves, and abuses a teenage girl in an effort to fulfil his plans should preclude the reader from identifying him as any kind of heroic figure.
As I say, V For Vendetta is a nuanced and morally troublesome work which invites its readers to draw their own conclusions about the morality of its protagonist.
Which brings us to the film.
I truly wish it didn’t.
Full disclosure, I have not seen the end of the V For Vendetta film. I got up to the ‘St Mary’s virus’ revelation and walked out of the cinema. It remains, almost a decade later, the only film I have ever left prematurely. It would have been the second, but it was raining pretty heavily when I saw Dude, Where’s My Car? so I witnessed the full length of that witless spectacle, to my shame.
You may take the position that my leaving before the last ten minutes precludes me from making an informed judgement about the work, and you may be right. I would counter that one does not have to eat the entirety of a dog shit sandwich to recognise that one is consuming a chunk of faeces between two slices of bread, and that one would be better served ceasing the activity, and taking all reasonable precautions to prevent said activity ever happening again.
That was a metaphor. It works by talking about the film V For Vendetta as if it is a sandwich filled with the effluvia of a canine. It is a generous metaphor, for reasons I will now impart.
In the original work, the Norsefire leader, Adam Susan, is presented to us as a deeply disturbed and amoral human being. He presides over a regime of everyday horror and repression, and scant years earlier, he presided over genocide too. He keeps out of the public eye for the most part, but we know that he is an unconscionably evil human being because he ordered the deaths of millions of innocent people.
In the film, the Norsefire leader is called Adam Sutler, a name which sounds a bit like Hitler. Adam Sutler has a toothbrush moustache, like Hitler. Adam Sutler stands in front of massive fuck-off red-white-and-black banners making angry speeches, like Hitler. The film-makers don’t trust their audience to judge this man on his actions (y’know, like genocide), so they dress him up in cheap Nazi-drag so their viewers get the message extra loud: ‘THIS IS THE BADDY. HE IS LIKE HITLER!’
The introduction of V, and indeed Evey, is similarly simplistic and patronising. It comprise of a fight scene, essentially, sparked by Natalie Portman’s Evey crying out for help in the most unconvincing English accent since Dick Van Dyke’s insufferable chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. V appears, rattles off a couple of lines, and then there’s an actual superhero movie fight scene, with attendant camerawork, scoring, and exaggerated violence.
V is framed as the hero of the piece, both explicitly and implicitly.
He still manipulates, confines, starves, and abuses Evey. He’s the same monstrous zealot in that regard, but the presentation is such - the film-makers deploy familiar cues and tropes in such a way - that the audience is always invited to see him as a heroic figure.
There’s a great story from Alan Moore’s trip to the V For Vendetta set in one of Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston’s old ‘Lying In The Gutters’ columns (link):
“They don’t know what British people have for breakfast, they couldn’t be bothered. ‘Eggy in a basket’ apparently. Now the US have 'eggs in a basket,’ whish is fried bread with a fried egg in a hole in the middle. I guess they thought we must eat that as well, and thought 'eggy in a basket’ was a quaint and Olde Worlde version. And they decided that the British postal service is called Fedco. They’ll have thought something like, 'well, what’s a British version of FedEx… how about FedCo? A friend of mine had to point out to them that the Fed, in FedEx comes from 'Federal Express.’ America is a federal republic, Britain is not.”
It’s the Wachowskis’ clear lack of respect for their subject and their setting that really baffles me. By all accounts they worked extremely hard to get the film made, and the first Matrix movie at least suggests that they know how to tell a decent story. That they failed to do so here is disappointing, but not entirely surprising. Hollywood has a long and storied history of getting Britain wrong on film. Example: Any and all boxing movies with a London fight set the scene by filling the fight venue with Union flags, creating a scene that suggests a National Front rally more than a display of the sweet science.
Anyway, I digress. V For Vendetta: The Movie continues with scene after morally ambiguous scene, shot like an action movie, with a script clunkier than a steam-powered robot designed to simulate Parkinson’s disease perched on top of a tumblr dryer in an earthquake. The melange of barely cobbled together shite barrels along until it’s grand reveal, that the ’St. Mary’s Massacre’, a terrorist attack against a primary school which led to the electoral victory of Norsefire, was actually a ‘false flag’ attack conducted by the party themselves.
In the comic, Norsefire aren’t elected. They seize power following a full scale societal collapse in the aftermath of a global nuclear war. Moore doesn’t shy away from suggesting that a fascist group maintaining order in a chaotic landscape would find popular support, but it’s a far bloody cry from the landslide electoral victory (sans nuclear war) in the film.
The film’s revelation that Norsefire killed a bunch of schoolkids is enough to get the people of fascist-picture-postcard-Wachowski-Britain angry and onto the streets. Presumably they didn’t do this when Norsefire took away their West Indian, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Irish, Irish traveler, Catholic, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, disabled, anarchist, socialist, social-democrat, conservative, libertarian, or feminist neighbours, but a couple of classrooms of dead white kids and they’re on the streets and ready for a reckoning? Fuck off.
Can you guess where I walked out? It’s this bit. This bit here, where the Wachowskis insinuate that the ordinary working class people of Britain; people whose entire fucking history, our entire culture, is built on migration to these islands, people who have fought fascists in the streets of their capital city in living memory (look up the battle of Cable Street), people whose parents and grandparents fought off the most powerful war machine this world has ever seen, people whose every right and freedom has been fought for by centuries of blood and toil, this nation of trade unionists, eccentrics, rebels, and radicals; would stand idly by and watch their neighbours get dragged away to death camps without kicking off?
We’re fucking British. We can’t make it through a Friday night without a brawl, and you’re telling me we’d let our friends, neighbours, and family get carted off to die by jackbooted thugs because some prick blew up a school? We were shrugging off terrorist attacks for decades, and we didn’t elect one fascist to Parliament, never mind the 300 or so needed for a Parliamentary majority. What a steaming heap of insulting bollocks!
I love V For Vendetta. It’s a uniquely powerful and compelling comic, and its commitment to moral ambiguity asks difficult questions of the reader, with no easy answers. It ends, aptly, with the Norsefire regime in ruins, and with the story’s moral heart, Inspector Finch, abandoning a lone woman to a group of men who have been coercing her into sex for food and protection, only to walk off alone into the darkness. There is no happy ending, no glorious future here, for any of us.
I couldn’t tell you what the ending of the film is like. It’s probably a lot of silly bastards in masks having a knees up, isn’t it? That’s how simplistic morality tales end, with clear heroes and villains, right?
V isn’t a hero. He’s an ordinary person, then a victim, a survivor, a performer, a manipulator, a confidante, a showman, a killer, an abuser, and finally a martyr. He’s not a hero, and that’s the point.
Andy Waterfield is a 28 year old reprobate from South Leicestershire. He recently finished watching every single episode of the classic BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son, and now that’s over, his life is once again bereft of all meaning. Should you be inclined to communicate with this wretched creature, you can follow him on Twitter at andywritesstuff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.