Archive | June, 2008

PULP Pictures: Alan Moore & “V for Vendetta”

11 Jun

To some degree you have to kind of create a credible world in all of its detail when you’re writing something, which means that you have to have at least a slender grasp upon what the real world is like, the engineering of human personalities.—Alan Moore

The urge to write is something which few people manage to conquer with any success. There is the constant struggle to bring words to life in a way that is both original and a “coherent whole from such disjointed parts.” Alan Moore brought a more novelistic approach to comics during the 1980s and 1990s, having his first successful serialised strip in 1981’s V for Vendetta. From his cut-up Pulp mind, V was borne out of “the sensation of there being something incredibly good just beyond your fingertips.” It is a sensation with which anyone on the brink of a good idea is familiar.

Deconstructing and reconstructing the inner monologues—informed by the various experiences we have and the media which have shaped our thought processes—is certainly part of this. The very act of writing and reforming thought verbally is an exploratory one, and for those good enough at this process their output speaks from their own worlds into the real world and through to the inner world of others. Moore’s penchant for Victoriana, political statements and the America of Beat Generation authors such as William S. Burroughs (or more precisely how they viewed the world through language) are clear influences on his writing. But when V for Vendetta appeared in ’81, some of these influences began to merge and create the coherent whole he was after.



The movie version of V mainly went to prove that, once you have boiled the story down to its basic plot elements, you have the workings of any common or garden science fiction adventure. Set in a dystopian 1990s England, a fascist party coalition named Norsefire is in power, having taken office after a nuclear assault on Britain during an unnamed war. ‘Leader’ Adam Susan controls the country from a vast computer-bank simply named ‘Fate’ (and with which he has a pseudo-sexual relationship), whilst the arms of totalitarian government dealing with propaganda, policing and the like are named after the five (V) senses: The Nose, The Eyes, The Ears, The Mouth and The Finger. ‘V’, a Guy-Fawkes-masked terrorist whose past reaches back to Resettlement Camps after the war, begins a campaign against those who hurt him and others, and against the fascist system itself. After infiltrating it, Evey Hammond—a girl whom he takes under his wing—comes to learn from V just how to attack and subvert the totalitarian state through his teaching her lost culture. Moore pitches the plot and backdrop alongside other

“Pulp Magazine Adventures…rooted in the exotic and glamorous locations that the stories were set in…seedy waterfront bars, plush penthouses dripping with girls. All the magic of a vanished age. It struck me that it might be possible to get the same effect by placing the story in the near future as opposed to the near past. If we handled it right, we could create the same sense of mingled exoticism and familiarity.”

But as an arch-synthesiser, Moore’s writing at the time sprung from the interplay between his various interests and was less a conscious process than a reference work-in-progress over a six-year run. The medium of comic books (Moore rightfully doesn’t care much for the marketing term ‘graphic novel’) also provided the perfect Pulp genre for him to play with: collaborating with artist David Lloyd—whom Moore admits came up with the concept for V’s Guy Fawkes costume—brought another level of co-authorship. But Moore’s words referenced everything from Shakespeare to the Velvet Underground to Orwell to The Phantom of the Opera, from Judge Dredd to Leviathan to Batman. Lloyd’s pictures, most of which were carefully panelled by Moore, nonetheless portrayed an interpretation of the reference-laden script, a Pulp representation of those ideas just beyond Moore’s fingertips. When Lloyd suggested Guy Fawkes, Moore thought

“Firstly, Dave was obviously a lot less sane than I’d hitherto believed him to be, and secondly, this was the best idea I’d ever heard in my entire life. All of the various fragments in my head suddenly fell into place behind the single image of a Guy Fawkes mask.”

Initially the artwork was solely in black and white, later inked for the collected (‘graphic novel’) version. Playing against monochrome pens, Moore’s wealth of storylines and characters already covered a larger range of emotions than was standard fare for comic strips. On the one hand, V crusades in the name of anarchy against a fascist police state, but on the other, “fascists are people who work in factories, probably are nice to their kids, it’s just that they’re fascists. They’re just ordinary, the same as everybody else except for the fact that they’re fascists.” Though we may now think of more nuanced interpretations of our favourite comics characters, such a novelistic and humanistic presentation of the ‘bad guys’ was not the norm for comics in the early ‘80s. Some things might be black and white—V’s anarchism has to triumph over Norsefire’s fascist state—but people are far from one-dimensional.



Nevertheless ideas remained at the forefront of V for Vendetta. One of the better moments in the film adaptation was when V confronts his police pursuers. He allows them to fire upon him but—seemingly miraculously—does not succumb to the bullets. In the comic version, Evey Hammond’s internal monologue tells us that “whoever you are isn’t as big as the idea of you… Your foes assumed you sought revenge upon their flesh alone, but you did not stop there… you gored their ideology as well.” Hugo Weaving’s V tells his pursuers that “you cannot kill an idea. Ideas are bullet-proof”. Evey’s taking V’s place proves that his ideology lives on, whilst Mr. Finch (played by Stephen Rea and with a different character name in the movie) leaves not only the ruins of London but also the personal ruins that The Leader’s party left behind. But the moral dubiousness of the ending is clear: the physical ruins of Downing Street (not the Houses of Parliament, as in the film) and the personal costs exacted upon Helen Heyer both come down to V.

“The central question is, is this guy right? Or is he mad? What do you, the reader, think about this? Which struck me as a properly anarchist solution. I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements, which nevertheless do recur fairly regularly throughout human history.”

In the end what draws the writing together is Moore’s grasp—conscious or not—of the interplay between references both high and low and his creating a novelistic ‘net’ of ideas within which the plot works. V’s underground home, named the Shadow Gallery after the Phantom of the Opera and situated near the Victoria Tube station, provides his cultural reference base: a jukebox, film posters, a piano, and many books banned by the state. Both the comic and movie begin with an extended Shakespeare quotation from Macbeth, praising “the multiplying villainies of nature…” which Macbeth has shown in battle, and the majority of V’s dialogue throughout the strip continues in iambic pentameter. References to the letter V or the number five are everywhere: each chapter title, V’s room number at the Resettlement camp, Beethoven’s Fifth, Evey’s name, the substory of Valerie, and V’s favourite Latin motto: Vi Veri Veniversum Vivus Vici (“by the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe”).

Much like this motto, originating from Goethe’s Faust, Moore likes to complicate the reader’s relationship with V through allusion. Has he sold his soul for a false ideological battle? He certainly does commit atrocities in the name of justice, and drives Evey to the brink of death in order to transform her into the idea that he represents. Or do we burn the image of Guy Fawkes when we should be celebrating his attempts at a republican coup d’etat. And Moore’s ideas do take on a life of their own:

“If you could get an idea that was complex enough, self-referential enough, could it become aware? They say that awareness is an emergent property of complexity. Could that be true on a purely immaterial level, about ideas? Could you have things that were ideas but were alive?”

V for Vendetta is if nothing else a complex, self-referential idea. To Moore, the filmic V was “a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country” featuring a one-dimensional protagonist. For David Lloyd, “it’s a terrific film. The most extraordinary thing was seeing scenes that I’d worked on and crafted for maximum effect in the book translated to film with the same degree of care and effect.” The medium and the message go hand in hand, but whilst the Pulp comic book adventure might work as a movie in Lloyd’s eyes, Moore won’t be allowing his name on any adaptations of his work which water down the message.


“[V and Watchmen] just started a whole genre of pretentious comics or miserable comics…trying to sort of lift riffs from Watchmen, Dark Knight. It was like looking at your deformed bastard grandchildren or something like that. I think that David Bowie once referred to himself as ‘the face that launched a thousand pretensions’. You can somehow kind of feel the same way when I saw the actual effect of Watchmen upon comics was probably a kind of deleterious effect.”

When the Watchmen movie comes out next year, it will be interesting to see Moore’s take on what happens to his most famous piece of writing. “To paint comic books as childish and illiterate is lazy. A lot of comic books are very literate—unlike most films.”