The Libertarian Futurist Society’s Appreciation series offers review-essays of past award-winners that make clear why each deserves recognition as a pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian work. Here’s an appreciation for writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, the 2006 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”– V for Vendetta
By Michael Grossberg
V for Vendetta dramatizes and illustrates a horrific cautionary tale about the loss of freedom and identity itself in a chilling totalitarian future.
The 1989 graphic novel, created by British writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd, has been widely acclaimed as a defining work within the medium of comics and the emerging art of graphic novels – and deservedly so.
Like some of the best dystopian novels, this vivid fusion of word and image chronicles the debilitating and soul-crushing impact of living in an authoritarian police state. That’s a nightmare that few understand who haven’t experienced it, but V for Vendetta makes it palpable.
Happily, V for Vendetta isn’t just harrowing but also inspiring – for it also highlights the power of the human spirit to resist tyranny. The graphic novel earns our sympathy for a few valiant if damaged souls who find the courage to rebel against the excesses and norms of truly unlimited government.
Set in an imagined future England that has gone fascist after a world war, the groundbreaking story focuses on the enigmatic title character: V, an anarchist revolutionary dressed in a Guy Fawkes mask who charts a complex and artistic campaign to bring down the State.
The novel’s stylized view of the government is evocative, with the futuristic State run by different bureaucrats in agencies identified by different body parts: The Nose (the name of the regular police), The Finger (for the secret police), The Eye (the State apparatus of visual surveillance), the Ear (audio surveillance), the Mouth (the propaganda department), and the Head (the executive, embodied in the Leader).
The Orwellian dictatorship has rounded up and largely destroyed minorities, homosexuals and dissidents in concentration camps. Lloyd’s realistic but romantic artwork reinforces the darkness of that world in shades of black, white, blue and yellow.
The intensely personal focus underlines the value of liberty and how its absence sparks so much suffering as the novel weaves in the lives of the innocent victims of State Power.
To their credit, Moore and Lloyd resist oversimplification or cartoon caricature. Although their work incorporates elements of cultural pastiche borrowed from other popular classic dystopias, V for Vendetta nevertheless was electrifying in its era for its scope, ambition, imagination and political focus in the emerging graphic-novels genre.
The story is both disturbing and thought-provoking as readers grapple with Moore and Lloyd’s complex and ambiguous portrait of V – in some ways a hero, in other ways an anti-hero with fanatical overtones.
The mysterious V is clearly cultured, weaving Shakespearean references into his language and filling his museum-like underground lair with banned copies of classics by Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Dickens, Goethe and Swift. That’s an act of rebellion in itself and an affirmation of both literacy and liberty in a society where the corrupt and increasingly fascist British Labour Party has banned books, a la Fahrenheit 451, and driven culture underground as a serious threat to its rule.
Although literate and clearly on the side of justice and civilization, V’s motivations are decidedly mixed: V acts partly out of a fierce desire for revenge against State forces that warped his life and made him suffer greatly. Yet, V also is motivated by great compassion and moral clarity about the evils of oppression and an equally passionate goal: to liberate the populace from a violent and evil regime.
Moreover, more ambiguous questions about identity are sparked via V’s habit of hiding his real face with a mask, and the way he inspires thousands of others to also don that same mask as they show up publicly to resist the State. What does it mean for the State to destroy your life and identity? And what does it say about V that after his own life was damaged by oppressive government, that he chooses to hide his identity behind that mask?
Moore and Lloyd provide a clue in this telling line of V’s dialogue: “If I take off that mask, something will go away forever, be diminished because whoever you are isn’t as big as the idea of you.”
A fascinating mixture of hero and anti-hero, V is a damaged soul who ardently believes that the ideals of liberty – and its corollary obligation to resist tyranny – are more important than any one person.
Yet, V’s sincere and seemingly modest belief may give readers pause – especially those familiar with the history of mass movements and ideologies that often justify the sacrifice of individuals to the collective. For that way often leads to mob rule, violence and mass carnage – and V for Vendetta doesn’t shy away from the mixed implications of its message.
For the record, libertarians and libertarian futurists unequivocally condemn aggressive violence and terrorism, while supporting the use of force only in genuine self-defense. Thus, we don’t agree with Moore’s seeming support of – or at least serious exploration of – violent anarchism.
Yet, even here Moore’s story is largely redeemed by his clear portrayal of V as a flawed man, and by the graphic novel’s subtlety, complexity and fascinating moral ambiguity, with all the important issues and questions that provokes in the reader’s mind.
In many ways, V for Vendetta is notable – not just among graphic novels but in literature – for creating a resonant new variant of a modern Everyman, a more ambiguous, flawed and damaged hero who inspires the people to rise and revolt against tyranny.
Ultimately, V’s mask seems a means to an end, mostly a practical way to safely protest in public without risking exposure.
The story can be read as hopeful in its ending, which suggests the resumption of identity and individuality – where our common humanity unites us, but our differences are respected in a free and democratic society: “Everybody is special. Everybody. Everybody is a hero, a lover, a fool, a villain, everybody. Everybody has their story to tell.”
Moreover, the graphic novel’s polemical contrast between fascism and anarchism raises fascinating issues about violence, resistance, confinement, freedom and the use and abuse of power. Such perennial issues are central to libertarian and classical liberal concerns about justice, peace and making progress toward a future in which basic individual rights are universally respected. Libertarian futurists yearn for a free future in which every person can live their life without coercion and with dignity.
Note: Warner Bros. released a film version of V for Vendetta, starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, that was separately recognized by the LFS with a Special Prometheus Award in 2007 to director James McTeigue and the screenwriters The Wachowski Brothers.
Note: The British writer Alan Moore (1953 – ), hailed as one of the best comics writers in the English language, may be best known for V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – graphic novels that were all made into movies. Watchmen inspired both a movie and an award-winning HBO series. His other comics or graphic novels include The Ballad of Halo Jones, Batman: The Killing Hope, the entire runs of Swamp Thing, Top Ten, Tom Strong, Promethea, Fashion Beast, and Superman (“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow”).
British comic artist David Lloyd (1950- ) is best known as illustrator of the story V for Vendetta. He has drawn Wasteland, Espers, Hellblazer, War Story, Global Frequency, The Territory, and Aliens, and drew for Halls of Horror, TV Comic and a comics adaptation of the Time Bandits film in 1982. With writer Steve Parkhouse, he created the pulp adventure character Night Raven.
* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, a 2007 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.
* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.
* Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which has added convenient links to all published Appreciations of past winners as they are published.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.