Saturday, 17 January 2015

Apocalypse Junkie: V for Vendetta

A man in a Guy Fawkes costume strikes fear into the hearts of fascists in 1997, spouting strange verse and using science as a weapon. It could only be a scene from V for Vendetta, a bizarre comic strip that began its life in Warrior, 2000AD's long dead sibling comic book; later V would be completed and published by DC Comics.

I reread the graphic novel recently, as part of my research for a post apocalypse travel book. I was looking for themes and locations I could generally pontificate about. For anyone reading who only knows the film, the graphic novel of V for Vendetta takes place after a nuclear war, one in which Britain is mercifully spared when America and Europe are nuked, though the fallout and the problems with growing crops and so on usher in a state of confusion, which the fascist party Norsefire take full advantage of, seizing power by 1992, four years after the A bombs fall. It is a frighteningly fast timeline, especially as V is set in 1997 and 1998; it takes ten years for the whole story to unfold. Like many dystopian and post apocalyptic stories it feels frighteningly prescient, perhaps more so for my country than others. Britain has the most CCTV cameras per head in the world. We have a Prime Minister who wants to ban encryption, and who seems to want to create a situation similar to China's Great Firewall in an attempt to make sure the internet is child friendly (which sound laudable but in familiar legalese the terms his government has used are slippery, they can and probably will change). Wiser people than me have argued the Britain is sleepwalking into being a surveillance state.

So it does feel as if the book is as relevant now as it was in the 1980s and it is still for people who don't switch off the news. The film has helped, as has the adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol for movements like Anonymous (who did a V style address to the British government last year, though I am uncertain whether anything actually came of it).

Reading the text the first thing to catch my eye was that there are the words 'to make Britain great again'. This has been the clarion cry of the British state for at least my lifetime, from Mrs Thatcher's Victorian Values, through Major's Back to Basics and onto the imagined 1950s of Blair and Cameron, where people tugged their forelocks and there were lashings of ginger beer. I suspect we've been scrambling to reclaim our 'greatness' for a century, ever since the Lloyd George government had to abandon the Gold Standard. The first economic policies after the Great War were geared towards refloating sterling on the Standard, even though that ship had sailed. After the Second World War there similar moves, even as the Welfare State was created Britain was trying to shore up the Empire; scrambling to get nuclear missiles in the expensive and ultimately doomed Blue Streak programme.

V sees clutching at the past as a sickness. His first act is to symbolically destroy one of the bastions of authority by blowing up Parliament, succeeding where the man he models himself on failed. As the state reels, V commits his next act, abducting the Voice of Fate, Prothero. The act serves two purposes, first it destabilises the broadcasts, removing the calm, reassurance that has helped enforce a feeling of 'keep calm and carry on'. It destroys Fate's public face, by extension throwing the Party's BBC like broadcaster into a questionable light. It also furthers V's vendetta, allowing him to exact revenge on Prothero.

Acts of destruction occur throughout the text clearing the ground not only for the destruction of Norsefire but also for a tabula rasa, where the symbols of Britain's old order are gone and there's no choice but to start anew without the baggage of history. It is perhaps ironic that the second V uses the chimes of Big Ben to herald the new age. In the same light, the idea that the people are largely innocent is undermined by the recollections of one character about an Indian family who helped her and her husband through the bad times. The family were taken away when Norsefire rounded up anyone who was not white, straight or 'normal' in a fashion reminiscent of 'all that is required for evil to triumph is for good to do nothing'. This is one of the problems with the story, it underlines the clarion call to Anarchy because as a species we are far too good at assuming we have no responsibility for things and that someone else will sort it out.

V is full of contradictions, he defines himself as the opposite of everything the Party stands for, surrounding himself in the Dr Phibes like opulence and nostalgia of the Shadow Gallery. But he is as hard and unyielding as the Leader, is less conflicted in his purpose and has as little time for emotion as his enemies. For both men the end justifies the means. Perhaps it is due to the experiments at Larkhill, or perhaps he was always a psychopath but he is no savior. It is just as well he realises that he is a destroyer not a builder, because it means that for the narrative's purpose the fact that he is an unfeeling bastard never really becomes too problematic, serving as a catalyst to further Evey's transformation.

Women are really the losers in V, forced into the roles of wives, mothers, sex objects or servants.
They are treated hideously throughout and independence from men is a mere spectre. Only two female characters show anything like a sense of power. The first, Evey, is outside the system and it is only V's treatment that pushes her to a point where she is able to stop being a victim, and even then she is hiding behind his mask. The second, Helen Heyer, uses her wiles to control men in an attempt to manoeuvre her husband, Conrad the head of the Eye, into power, in a somewhat cliched fashion. She is a true believer in fascism, the closest we get to a Dominatrix figure, skirting the edge of cliche.

Moore seems to equate Fascism and kinky sex, Norsefire's members seem more interested in sex as an extension of power than as something to be enjoyed. Like Moore's characters in Watchmen there is an implication that the Party are impotent without power or the trappings of power to arouse them, but there's an uncomfortable sense that heterosexual sex is tarnished. In contrast the pure love of Valerie and Ruth is held up as a shining example; almost fetishised.

The third female character, Rosemary Almond's life takes a nosedive after V kills her husband. Forced to fend for herself, she ends up working at the the Kitty Kat Keller, a cabaret club reminiscent of the men's club in Handmaid's Tale. Her final fate is to kill the Leader, shooting him through the window of his car when he pauses to speak with her during a procession.

To return to V's treatment of Evey, and to pick Finch's experiences at Larkhill, I find myself wondering if the prison treatment Evey undergoes is  based on LSD. V is a botanist and a chemist. He would know how to make the drug and both Evey and Finch's reactions imply that they have been pushed past a cognitive barrier. They are obviously on different levels, but the effect seems to be the same.

Finch's experience allow to move forward as a person, underlining that the male characters are as trapped as the female ones. They are victims of the very system that gives them power. They seem similarly damaged, and further in denial of who they actually are. Where their wives are pushed into the roles of doting wives, they are forced to be big and strong. It is implied that a lot of their perversions result from this, Prothero with his doll collection, the Leader's love of Fate and so on. It raises another issue too, implying men are damaged at a fundamental level.

This chimes with conventional wisdom, where it is not uncommon for male criminality to be seen as natural, while female acts of rebellion are perceived as either having been encouraged by men or created by circumstance. Sadly, shifting to a more female friendly perspective may mean recognising women can be as damaged and dangerous as men. The other side is to accept that men do not have to be 'macho', something that seems to be harder now than when I was a kid.

Whilst V is a good read, it remains something for people who aren't afraid to watch the news, who don't shy away from reality. Moore's choices, and agenda, don't fit my own and when I look at it with a critical eye there are many things that bother me, not the vendetta itself but the society that forms the vaudeville's backdrop. I believe we are as much products of our society as we are our genes, and a lot of what has been handed down through the generations, sometimes seems not just stupid but dangerous. Moore skewers these inherited ideals, exaggerates them and drags them into the light, daring us to look away. The way he does it is mixed, and  while some of his methods hit the mark, others just seem old, but there is a reason why cliches are cliches.

Whilst other post apocalypse tales delight in creating new societies to explore what happens when everything is lost, V goes in the other direction to show that losing everything may be a blessing, not a curse. Perhaps, as we plunge deeper into economic crisis and the era of the all powerful state, we should heed this. We live in apocalyptic times and in times when all the dystopias ever written seem to be competing to be true.

It would be nice if instead of accepting it as our fate, we could turn the juggernaut, and set off in a new direction. But I doubt we will.