Every now and again, we like to pick out some of the best of the non-Spidey comic book offerings, in an attempt to be "Better Read". For some strange reason, Alan Moore seems to turn up quite a bit in these segments. Here's one of his early stories which as I'm sure you all know was recently made into a movie.
There's little to be gained by me reciting the plot for you. The V for Vendetta entry in Wikipedia is far more thorough than I have any intention of being. But to save you the click-through, let me at least say that the story centers on an anarchist named "V" in a near-future, post-apocalyptic, neo-fascist Britain.
In this dingy Orwellian future, the government following the global nuclear war has savagely restricted freedoms, and have taken the popular action of blaming homosexuals, blacks, asians and intellectuals for societies woes. Most everybody left has shut up out of fear, and have lazily come to accept the double-speak and jingo-ism, accepting their miserable lives and rarely bemoaning the loss of the freedoms that many of them never got around to using anyhow.
Back then, Alan Moore was inspired by Thatcher's brutal clamp-downs. Nowadays he would doubtless be inspired by the massive popular support that Britain and the U.S. whipped up against the whole of the Muslim world based on the actions of a few dozen men, and doubtless even more so by the loss of freedom embodied in the ironically named "Patriot Act". As few and fewer people sample more than quick Fox News sound-bites, and as most "democracies" offer little to choose between candidates other than the color of their rosettes, I'm sure Alan Moore's message has lost none of its relevance.
But enough proselytizing. "V" has a plan to destroy the government while also enacting a private vendetta in repayment for his own suffering. In doing so he takes on the guise of a modern and far-more successful Guy Fawkes, and in that role he faces a number of unpleasantly memorable government agents. He also enlists the aid of a young girl named Evey, whose trapped soul he frees, though it costs her much suffering.
The final result is both stunning story in its own right, and is also a great landmark in the world of comics. I personally consider this work to be more important that his earlier "Watchmen", entirely because it doesn't draw at all on the "Super-Hero" genre. Yes, "V" does have physical powers greater than any human, but the portrayal of his powers in the story in no way present him as a Super-Hero. It's a subtle distinction, but I believe it is very important - because it enables this "Graphic Novel" to step away from the pop comic book market, and gives it a fair chance of being considered without prejudice.
Let's face it, comics has an image problem. If you judge by the repetitive uninspiring stuff that makes up the bulk of mainstream comic sales, it's probably a pretty well-deserved image problem. Of those comics that do offer something of intrinsic value (and let's consider for sake of argument the recent Civil War story line) the characters and plots are so tightly tied to the tangle of tie-ins that (a) you can't separate the good stuff to present to non-comics readers and (b) are tarred with the fan-boy pop culture brush by association with Super-Heroes in general and Marvel in particular.
That's what makes works like "V for Vendetta" so important. You can lend them to your intellectual friends to read and discuss in their book clubs. To my mind "V" stands unashamedly alongside Orwell's 1984. They both educate, inform, entertain, and offer warning. Stories like "V" support that argument that "most comics are low-art purely out of self-defeating habit, not out of necessity of the format."
Heh, don't get me wrong. I love my Spidey comics. I love the A-Team too. But I know that it often struggles to attain and maintain a high level of perceived intrinsic artistic merit. But "V" for Vendetta shows what the medium truly is capable of, and for that I am most grateful.
I should make passing mention to the movie. In my mind, the recent film very almost succeeded. Many of the scenes were highly effective. But there were some significant changes which are worth mentioning - a couple of which were rather fatal to the overall effect.
Firstly, some superficial differences. The graphic novel is much more complex, and much more gritty. There are a lot more characters, and most of them are even more unpleasant then those in the film. Evey is a major difference here. In the movie she is a successful young TV assistant. In the book she is a starving semi-literate girl who has just taken to whoring to survive. This gives her much further to go in her journey, and makes the character more subtle.
The "Stephen Fry" character in the film is entirely new, he has no counterpart in the book. To my mind, his addition to the film does no harm at all. He represents the quiet intellectuals who imagine that they can support the authoritarian government, and maybe undermine it a little. But his final fate shows that he is fooling himself. There is no middle ground in these matters.
I also found that the movie (like so many others) fails by being far too soft at the end. If you haven't seen the film, let me spoil it for you by saying that the conclusion has tens of thousands of citizens silently overwhelm the government and take back their democracy. Heh, this is Hollywood Fantasy at its best. The "V" of the graphic novel is far wiser. He knows that he can only destroy the government, bringing anarchy (in its strict sense, meaning "Without Leaders"). Then, the people may find a way to rebuild something better - or they may just descend into something even worse. The final conclusion is not for us to know.
There are other problems with the film - "V"s final fate is treated with an unconvincing sentimentality, which in the book is far more believable. I guess the "focus groups" just said they wanted a happier ending, to make the film a bit more palatable. I guess the marketing execs missed the point. The message in this book is not supposed to be palatable. It's supposed to be a disturbing wake-up call, and one which after 15 years is still relevant.