V for Vendetta was one of Alan Moore’s finest hours. It was bleak and nasty, without wallowing in adolescent darkness. It was peopled with traumatised, despicable, human characters. As the man himself said when lambasting the Wachowski’s film adaptation, “It was about England”, ploughing into that restless, seething netherworld that is the English national psyche. And it sported one of the most vivid, fascinating and enigmatic anti-heroes the medium of comics has ever produced.
Codename V is a preternaturally skilled, eerily masked, ruthlessly determined figure, pitting his formidable uniqueness, his terrifying essence, against the squalid, blandly vicious collectivism of Norsefire, a fascist regime who lord over the crippled England of 1997 (as imagined by an 80s radical) like the National Front with a budget. One of the most effective aspects of V for Vendetta is how convincingly it evokes what a successful British fascism might look like. Norsefire draws upon the seediest aspects of Britishness to create a dreary landscape of the most banal evil imaginable, in which all the football hooligans, pub-ranting bigots and petty authoritarian bureaucrats crawled out of the woodwork and formed a government. Norsefire’s Britain is a land of tame journalism, vacuous entertainment, hypocritical High Church piety in service to the regime, official posts staffed by posturing bullies, a discrete social etiquette about the fate of all the minority groups, and of course, casual, cowardly violence.
V counters the regime’s grey, everyday nastiness by being flashily wicked. He makes no pretence of being some saintly redeemer or even an avenging angel. He isn’t a latter-day Robin Hood or Hereward the Wake; his sober yet dashing get-up references Guy Fawkes, that infamous 17th century troublemaker and Catholic terrorist. Like Fawkes, the once-man known only as “V” (the shadowy offspring of vile experimentation at a British concentration camp) is courageous and murderous, passionately idealistic and shockingly cruel. In his embrace of violent, illicit methods in the service of romantic goals, V’s anarchist ideology has ironic shades of 20th century fascism. Moore plays upon the readers (presumed) culturally-programmed preference for charismatic loner heroes and instinctive loathing for fascism to get his audience on the side of a fiendish killer and torturer; a demonic imp who rips gaping holes in the civilized façade of the established order through which mayhem and riot can pour, all in the name of a dream of national rebirth that is hazily defined at best.
Yet V is also capable of a vital human tenderness that Norsefire has almost drowned out of existence in a tide of social and political slurry. He is the self-appointed caretaker of a vast array of lost cultural treasures at the Shadow Gallery, one of the coolest hideouts ever. He is a fierily righteous voice of dissent that blasts through the regime’s suffocatingly insipid media narratives. And for all his lack of moral restraint, he is at least capable of envisaging a more moral age, in a time when the mere capacity for hope, optimism and imaginative invention has been choked out of the cowed populace by the iron hand of the state.
V is the incarnation of a rebellious, volatile spirit that runs through English history like a streak of lightning through a placid sky. As a force of nature who scorns civilization’s morality as much as its brutality, he might as well be the archetypal anti-hero.