The Fifth of November holds threefold significance: it is the day in 1605 when Guy Fawkes attempted and failed to blow up the House of Lords; it is the day in 1971 when Radiohead's guitarist Jonny Greenwood was born; and it is the day in a fictitious version of 1997 when a masked, cloaked man successfully blows up British Parliament in Alan Moore's popular comic V For Vendetta.
Like many this year, I found myself without a Halloween costume and, desperate for something remotely Halloweenish, I purchased a deluxe edition of V For Vendetta that comes with its own Guy Fawkes mask. Riding the bus later that night, I had the mask on my face and the book in my hands: reading furiously, completely absorbed.
One does not simply “power through” Alan Moore's work – I learned this years ago while enjoying Watchmen for the first time. No, V For Vendetta puts the "novel" in "graphic novels." It is beautifully illustrated (predominantly by David Lloyd), but it's a work of literature, complete with plot, theme, complex characters, deep historical and cultural ties, and a story arc that simply soars. I still managed to devour it within a twenty-four hour period, however, due to its breakneck pacing and its riveting message.
For those neither familiar with the book itself nor with the enjoyable, if recognizably different, 2006 film adaptation, its premise is brutal and straightforward. Great Britain is governed by a fascist party who controls through spies, soldiers, the deaths of minorities, and massive propaganda. Their absolute rule is undermined by the knives, explosives, and uncanny knowledge of codename “V” - V disrupts their tyranny, exacts systematic revenge, and gradually trains young Evey in the lessons of defended values and true freedom.
Moore's characters, language, and scenes are often extreme and grandiose, but are authenticated by equal measures of painful politics and playful prose. Characters make fleeting reference to a third World War, massive bombings, and cultural cleansing leading up to the story's beginning – these asides are all the more disturbing for their brevity. Coupled with Lloyd's glum urban setting, sinister leaders, and distraught populace, the result is a nightmarish landscape, stripped of gaiety, honesty, and hope … until V enters the scene. In addition to galvanizing the reader's enthusiasm with potent martial prowess and that outlandish Guy Fawkes mask (rosy cheeks and everything!), V sweeps the reader away with daring political statements, witty puzzles, and just about every iteration of V-words you can imagine.
V has to be the most charismatic fictional terrorist in the English language, surely outmatching Bane in terms of traumatic back-story, readily surpassing Tyler Durden for ruthlessness, while exhibiting the cunning and philosophical strains of both. You want more character complexity? His words are winning, his goals are noble … but he also destroys national buildings and kills people without a second thought. We're rooting for this man!?
Oddly enough, we are. V, the avatar of anarchy, the surgeon of governmental corruption, is extreme in his methods and ideals, but as a fictional figure he is as persuasive to the reader as he is to Evey, Finch, and every other citizen of Moore's England. He fights not out of vengeance, but to inspire courage: his detonations are not weapons of chaos, but of autonomy, and the return of autonomy to the hands of citizens. In his own words, “justice is meaningless without freedom” … even today, looking at terrorists, looking at the Occupy Movement, looking at our country's history of protest and amendment, we can really relate to his values.
I'm sure I”m not the only one swarmed by doubt, insincerity, and anti-intellectualism this election season. But there is a way to cut through those clouds! You just need the right mix of theatricality, gelignite, and the 1812 Overture to get you in the dashing voting mood. Or, perhaps, a Guy Fawkes mask of your own. Try one on!