[I read this in three sections, according to the ‘books’ it is divided into. I never started to read a new section until I had finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how it would end until I had read Book 3.]
2 March 2015
Book 1 – Europe After the Reign
Alan Moore, the writer of this ambitious graphic novel, issues a kind of apology for the early chapters. ‘I trust you’ll bear with us during any initial clumsiness,’ he pleads, and I can sort of see why he’s a little embarrassed. It’s clunky for the early 1980s, looks decidedly retro, and there’s nothing subtle about the politics. A global war in the mid-1980s means that Africa and mainland Europe are simply ‘gone’. Climate change – but not for the reasons we now know about – have led to floods, food shortages and fascism, in that order. What Moore’s 1990s England doesn’t owe to 1984 it owes to Nazi Germany….
But that’s ok. A chapter or two into the twelve that make up Book 1, things have settled down. It seems derivative to begin with, a caped and masked vigilante saving a sixteen-year-old girl in a noir setting that looks as much like Gotham as London. But ‘V’ is no Batman. The men he kills are brutal government agents, about to rape the girl before killing her as punishment for her first, botched attempt to make money as a prostitute. And he follows up his act of kindness with something more spectacular. He blows up the Houses of Parliament before leaving his own version of a superhero logo in the sky, composed of fireworks: his signature V. He takes the girl to the must-have superhero luxury, the themed hideout. He never shows her his face.
I read Watchmen some years ago, so I know how Moore likes to take superhero tropes and go somewhere unexpected with them. So, while a lot of things about V are just like Batman, his actions soon start to look more and more like those of a psychopath. (I seem to remember Rorschach in Watchmen being the same. Moore must have been pleased with the idea.) The policeman in charge of the operation begins by sounding pompous in his condemnation of the crimes (‘Those poor men had families!’ or something similar), but soon it becomes easier to agree with him. And the girl, whom V uses as bait for one of his victims, is appalled that the man she has been tempting is now dead. She says she won’t go along with any more killing and, so far, she’s been true to her word. But it’s early days yet. She fancies V and has already made a naïve attempt to try it on with him.
Plot. At first it looks as though V’s crimes are political. But then the police, who are not presented as the villains of the piece, begin to see a different connection. Two high-profile murders and a bizarre example of mental torture that leaves another man insane are all connected to a government concentration camp. The victims, and many others who had seemed to have been killed accidentally in recent years, all worked there. The diary of the last victim, a woman doctor, enables them to pinpoint the man who was the only survivor of nearly 50 who were all guinea-pigs in the same experiment. Using the ammonia-based fertilizer he was allowed to have for the prison garden – you’d think the guards might have become just a bit suspicious – he blew the place up before escaping. So it’s a vendetta, the police suspect. But they also suspect that this might just be a smokescreen, that the apparently arbitrary political sabotage – the Old Bailey’s gone up now – is the real motive. The police present this to Der Fuhrer – sorry, the Leader – and he says ‘The very idea is… (new panel) Madness. (New panel) Ah yes. I see.’ That’s nearly how Book 1 ends, except it isn’t corny enough for Moore. The Leader calls back Finch, the copper. ‘Leader?’ ‘Merry Christmas.’
What have I missed? Lewis, the man V makes mad by incinerating his collection of dolls – you couldn’t make it up – had been the voice of ‘Fate’, the non-existent computer that gives legitimacy to the government’s decisions. So V has got rid of one propaganda tool while (perhaps) satisfying his own desire for revenge. And Moore is starting to play with another favourite theme in Watchmen, the way that events can be presented in different versions. One sequence even has ‘Versions’ as a kind of subtitle. And while the doctor’s diary is presented as panels in the same graphic novel style as the rest, that doesn’t make it true, as one of the coppers points out. The diary was left prominently at the scene of the murder, and might well be a forgery, an elaborate hoax. No official records of the concentration camp were kept, so there’s no way to check.
As for the style…. It’s comic-book. There’s no real attempt to make V’s actions and activities at all realistic, or to make him a fully-rounded, plausible character. I’m expecting Moore to push the envelope further down the line, but at the moment his hero moves preternaturally fast and silently, can set up massive explosions and fireworks show with no apparent expenditure of time or effort… and so on. He’s like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark before Hollywood gave them psychologies. As for the visuals…. I’ve said how retro it looks, and the early chapters look pretty crude at times. Things do get better – I can imagine Lloyd sharpening his style over the months and years – and some panels are rather good by the end. But the noir style – all that spotlighting and deep shadow – must consume a lot of printer’s ink.
Book 2 – This Vicious Cabaret
It’s engaging enough. I suspect it’s ground-breaking in the world of graphic novels: the 1980s were on a kind of cusp, as some of the writers working on comic books for boys and young adolescents decided that they could move things on. I’ve already said this. What I like about Book 2 is Alan Moore’s interest in mind games. Sometimes he, or V himself, tells it absolutely straight – the pastiche cabaret song that forms the Prelude is a straightforward critique of life under a totalitarian regime, as if anybody over the age of twelve needs such a thing – but things become more interesting when it’s less easy to work out what’s going on. There isn’t a character in Book 2 who isn’t presented with a distorted version of events at some time, and even the unwary reader is likely to be fooled for a while.
As we already know, Evey, the young woman who has become V’s protégé, isn’t convinced by his methods. He decides it’s time she learnt about life, and leaves her stranded on a seedy London street. She finds another protector – she seems to be good at falling under the care of father-figures – and, for a while, her life touches on the lives of others. How many parallel stories are going on in the middle chapters of this section? There’s Evey herself, and the criminals that her protector (and later lover) is involved with. There’s Rose, widow of the nasty agent that V was able to kill near the end of Book 1, trying to live without a pension after the regime decides it can get away without paying it. After some resistance, she lets another agent take her under his sleazy protection – until V kills him as well. She has to make a living as a burlesque dancer in the seedy club where Evey’s lover takes her so he can meet his contacts. They see some nasty things in there, as Moore lays it on thick just how nasty the regime can be. Care for the elderly who haven’t got friends in high places? You’re joking.
There are other stories running parallel to these. Finch, the police chief who seems to be most competent at looking for answers that don’t parrot the current party line, is being sidelined. He is sent away for a holiday, and his thoughts, in those floating text boxes, are as visible to the reader as those of Evey and Rose. (Did I mention that his lover had been the woman doctor in charge of the secret clinic that V escaped from, the woman V killed near the end of Book 1? That is causing him some grief now, and might be the ostensible reason for his compassionate leave.)
The regime finds it hard to cope with any view that differs from its own, and Moore has made sure that it has no mechanisms in place for any kind of emergency beyond bully-boy tactics. So when V pulls off another high-profile (and highly implausible) media coup by taking over the TV station again, they are left without any backup. We see the typical evening’s output – propaganda ‘news’ programmes and lowest-common-denominator risqué comedies – before V, rigged up for a suicide bombing, forces the playing of a tape he’s made earlier. His version of history is as unsubtle as the song in the Prelude, but this time using the metaphor of the poor quality of work being done by mankind since coming down from the trees all those years ago. There are video clips to illustrate what he means, so any twelve-year-olds watching won’t get lost. The regime can’t stop the transmission from anywhere other than the control-room V is has taken command of. (What? What?) Rose’s new sugar-daddy is killed as V makes his escape – the second of her sexual partners to be killed in this way.
In another storyline, Evey’s lover is also killed, a victim of the sleazy underworld that thrives under this sleazy regime. (Yes Alan, we get it.) Evey, unlike Rose, doesn’t bow to the inevitable. (She tried her hand at prostitution in the first chapter of the book, and look where that got her.) With flashbacks to the deaths of her own parents playing in her head – this happens a lot in all the main characters’ heads except V’s – she decides she’s going to get the criminal low-life who killed the first man she’s ever had a relationship with. She finds his gun, goes to the club… and is just able to catch sight of a blurred face before she succumbs to the chloroform that knocks her out.
She is imprisoned and tortured, and her head is shaved. Only one thing keeps her going – a long, scrawled letter pushed through a crack in her cell wall. It’s from someone called Valerie, herself imprisoned by the regime for her lesbian tendencies, and it’s all about the ‘inch’ that nobody can take away from you. It works for Evey. When given the option of signing a false confession or being shot, she chooses the latter… which is when V reveals to her that all along he has been the one keeping her in a mocked-up prison cell. She is furious at first, but he convinces her that it had to be done in order to make her understand that her whole life leading up to that moment had been a prison anyway. This gives Moore the opportunity to let V reprise some of the ideas from the Prelude, as if it’s necessary. The political message is not subtle, but I think I’ve said that before.
Cut to what is, perhaps, the most bizarre of the parallel stories. The leader of the party – whose name, in one of Moore’s gender-blurring games, is Adam Susan – is becoming more and more obsessed with ‘Fate’, the all-knowing computer at the centre of the regime’s surveillance and law enforcement activities. He talks to the screens, often having to cover up his mutterings when underlings ask him what he just said – and, just before the end of Book 2, a message flashes up at him: ‘I love you’. And then it disappears. Has he imagined it? Has he finally tipped over into madness? I couldn’t possibly comment.
The final page shows that Evey is ready to help V with what he refers to as the Finale. But before I read the final part…. V has explained to Evey that the letter from Valerie was the one he received five years ago, when he was a prisoner at the secret government unit. He has used it to raise Evey’s consciousness in the way that it did for his own back then. Ok. But this feels like a double bluff to me. I’m wondering whether Valerie, the award-winning actress Valerie Page before the fascist coup, has been playing a different part. Is she really the masked hero we all know as V? It’s exactly the sort of mind-game Moore likes best of all, and a lesbian hero would really mess with the prejudices of his 1980s readers.
Book 3 – The Land of Do-As-You-Please
I’m disappointed. Not only because Moore takes his games-playing to its logical conclusion, refusing to let V’s identity be revealed even in death, but because the Anarchism he espouses is glib to the point of childishness. Russell Brand would love him – and if you don’t know who Russell Brand is, you won’t have understood most of the references to English culture in Moore’s little world, from 1980s sit-coms to Bonfire Night and the chimes of Big Ben. Now I think about it, the nearest thing we’ve had to a joke is when one of the government thugs remarks on how reassuring it is to hear the chimes before remembering that the clock tower was blown up the previous 5th of November. It turns out to be a recording to announce V’s latest proclamation shortly after Finch has claimed to have killed him. In fact, he has killed him but, as V was taunting him at the time, how can you kill an idea?
What this book reminds me of more than any other relic of English culture is the Avengers TV series of the 1960s, the one with John Steed and Emma Peel. There’s the same reliance on what now looks like decidedly retro technology, the same outlandish interior design – V’s Shadow Gallery being a perfect example – and the same reliance on British criminal types, right down to the dodgy Glasgow accents. I just wish Moore could have shown some of the same lightness of touch as the TV writers. This book is very solemn, and Moore really seems to think he has important things to say about the state of England. I say England rather than Britain, because the party motto is ‘England prevails’, and Scotland, for instance, only gets a look in when there’s a propaganda news item about the insurrection being put down there, and to provide some off-the-shelf crooks like Ally, the Glaswegian criminal who is the only non-English character.
In fact, almost all the action takes place in London. The cast of characters is no bigger than that of, say, The Simpsons, and one of the book’s limitations is the reluctance to portray any other part of the country. The panel of Finch’s final walk shows him fearlessly tramping up a deserted motorway towards Hatfield, maybe 25 miles to the north. Before this, another pair of explosions has led to a complete blackout of all government broadcast and surveillance activities, a development that only seems feasible if England is a few miles across. After the explosion, for three days, anarchy can rule. Which it does, in a fairly half-hearted way. I’d had enough of the whole project by then.
But I should tell you about the plot, what there is of it. It’s as though in this final part (written and published some years after the earlier sections) Moore dispenses with plot rules as happily as with the rules of government. V is presented as a master planner, god-like and able to see all. I don’t know if he is the archetype of all the superheroes of the 1990s and beyond who have unlimited surveillance access – I think Batman might have got there first – but his omniscience goes with all his other infallible attributes. Even his own death seems to be a part of the plan: he seems, beyond all logic, to know that Finch is going to have not only a revelation about him (when he makes an LSD-fuelled pilgrimage to the secret medical research facility where V taught himself superhero anarchism) but to guess that the lower floors of his lair must be on the closed underground line near the seat of government. When Finch comes looking, V is ready for him – and allows himself to be shot. But let’s not worry too much about logic. Moore clearly doesn’t in his push for a symbolic denouement.
Meanwhile, this being a completely corrupt regime, things have been happening behind the scenes in the kind of shabby way you would expect. Adam Susan has quietly been growing more and more deranged and, inevitably, there are at least two coup plots being hatched. One is led by Creedy, the sneering replacement for other department heads killed by V earlier. The other plot, in what seems like a muddled satire on the awful gender roles favoured by the fascist regime, is the brainchild of a Lady Macbeth type who uses the crudest kind of cock-tease to get another high-up in the government to do her bidding. She fails, of course, although she has Creedy killed in the process. Margaret Thatcher was in power throughout the writing of this book, but I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. Moore seems to want to say something subversive about gender roles, because he gives the role of Adam Susan’s assassin to another woman, the one who now has to appear in burlesque at the Kit Kat Club (or whatever Moore calls it). She kills him because… I forget now.
And, if you hadn’t guessed by now (I hadn’t), the new V on the block after Finch has shot the old one is Evey. Her hair’s grown back, but not in the retro glam style she’d worn it in previously. And, at the appointed hour after the three days have passed following the blowing up of the transmitters and receivers, this new V duly appears. Using, presumably, the same voice-distorting device as the original V, she tells the population of England – apparently consisting of a crowd of a few hundred people – that they have a choice: go back to the chains of the past or… or ‘choose what comes next.’ Ok. Seen from above, the crowd mills about a bit… and that’s it. All that remains is for Evey to give V the ‘Viking funeral’ he’d wanted. This consists of her sending his body, in an old underground train that is full of all the remaining explosives, under Downing Street. Evey is a new kind of V, having told the old one that she will do no more killing and having warned everybody what is about to happen. This final gesture before benign anarchy takes over is her farewell to violence.
Believe that if you want to. There are plenty of people who do, it seems, using David Lloyd’s ‘V’ mask design as a symbol of their own disaffection with governments. As I’ve said before, I couldn’t possibly comment.