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Back in the Day Café: V for Vendetta
By David E. Miller
Posted September 7, 2005

V For VendettaFor whatever reason, V for Vendetta has always been Watchmen’s red-headed step-child. Watchmen is the book that sells the most copies, has the most articles written about it, and has the most expensive original art of all of Alan Moore’s works. DC is clearly not ignorant of this, recently publishing an “Ultimate Edition” which is the equivalent of getting knighted in the comic book community. Many could argue that the breadth of Moore’s work is so consistent and so far superior to most everything else being published that determining which of his works is best would simply be splitting hairs. I think it's a fools discussion anyway because quality is a matter of opinion. But the true test of an author’s work is not which is better, but which is more relevant, and by that I mean the ability to withstand the test of time.

I believe that in a post-9/11 society, Watchmen will become dated. No one will ever question the quality Dave Gibbons’ artwork, the brilliance of Moore’s writing, or how they knocked the industry on its ear with their seminal work. Nor will anyone be surprised if professors continue to teach the text as literature in colleges or if the title remains a best-seller forever. However, after New York has suffered a cataclysmic tragic event and we have all seen how the government and the world has reacted, the foundation of Watchmen's conclusion has a major crack in it. The events that unfolded at the end of Watchmen no longer hold much water. But then there’s V.

I remember picking up the first issue that DC published in 1988 at my local comic shop when I was 14. It was so confusing that I couldn’t comprehend much at all. Apparently there was a masked bad-ass in a hat who saved a girl and took her back to his place where she seemed to feel safe. I bought and read all ten issues and cannot say that I ever understood anything more than the surface plot details that occurred. Some books suck because they make no sense, while others make no sense because the story is too dense for the intellectual capabilities and maturity level of the reader. V was the latter.

When you are young, some things, whether they are books, movies, or comics, that are so powerful yet confusing that you put them away in a file in your head marked, “to return to later” because you know that they are gifts to be opened in the future. The beauty of these files is that they cannot be spoiled by opening them early because each viewing provides a greater understanding that comes with maturity and experience.

The first V for Vendetta story was published in 1982 in the premiere issue of Britain's "Warrior Magazine," an anthology magazine that featured the first few pages of several serialized stories. Ironically, V was the red-headed step-child even back then, taking a back seat to the immediately popular Marvelman (later known as Miracleman) storyline by Alan Moore as well. A new V story would premiere each issue in black and white with art by David Lloyd. The two creators developed the story and the character infamously racking up enormous phone bills contemplating what the story was actually about. It wasn’t until Lloyd came up with the idea of putting the main character in a Guy Fawkes mask, that all of their ideas finally came together.

The significance of the Guy Fawkes mask was critical to the character. On November 5, 1605, a group of Catholics decided to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill James I, the king of England, to protest Protestant rule. The Gunpowder Plot was averted when the authorities were tipped off and Fawkes was caught red handed. Guy Fawkes was the man responsible for attempting to ignite the bomb and was the first captured. The government celebrates it as a foiled plot, but others suggest that they celebrate the attempt. Since then, Fawkes has become the martyr for which this event is now celebrated and the mask has come to embody this symbol.

Unfortunately, long before the story had reached its conclusion, "Warrior" was canceled in 1985 and V was in limbo. I can not imagine following this story at the time and then learning that the magazine had been cancelled and wondering when of if I was ever going to see it continue. Moore fans already understand this suffering having also been left with an incomplete Miracleman story. I can only relate to the agonizing wait between final issues of The Dark Knight Returns, but that was mere months, not years. Sometimes it is much better to be made aware of a series after it has already been completed and is available in trade paperback.

V from V For VendettaLucky for the V though, Moore was off establishing his reputation in America. After a critically acclaimed run on Swamp Thing and the unbelievable success of Watchmen, DC was looking to acquire other Moore properties…and V was available. So, in 1988, Moore reunited with Lloyd and DC began reprinting the entire serialized story in color with the promise of publishing the book to its conclusion in ten issues. Therefore, after issue seven, V fans would finally learn the fateful conclusion of this incredible story.

The story takes place in Britain after nuclear war. The Labour Party is in control and has forced nuclear weapons out of the country so that it is no longer a target. After the war, Britain is one of the few countries that survives and is ruled by an immense computer console know as FATE, which is commandeered by the Leader. The government is set up in a representation of the human body with factions extenuating to the Fingers. In this fascist regime, everyone is monitored and the voice of FATE gives a daily report to maintain control. The government, in order to suppress and control its people, set up concentration camps to purge the society of its “unwanteds” – homosexuals, black people, etc., and while there, these people were experimented on. The only survivor was the occupant of room five, Roman numeral V. The occupant escaped, making a silent vow of revenge, not only against his oppressors, but of the system that allowed them to exist as well. V's ideal is anarchy, true anarchy, which actually means a natural state of order, which arises after the chaos created by the freedom from oppression. As the story develops, V undermines all involved in the betrayal of the people, and orchestrates its demise. Meanwhile, he grooms a successor to continue his plan after he is gone, because he realizes that as a man, his time is limited, but as a symbol and an ideal, V will live forever.

This was heady stuff for a 14-year-old. Having already been confused by Watchmen but comforted by at least understanding The Dark Knight Returns, picking up V for Vendetta held no greater clarification. I knew Alan Moore was a brilliant writer, because everyone said so. And if he wrote V, then it had to be good. I remember seeing issues of "Warrior Magazine" at conventions at the time and recognizing that they were stigmatized because they were British. There was always an unspoken pride for books published in America. We had a feeling of superiority for our culture and what it produced. I wouldn’t consider purchasing the original issues of "Warrior" where V and Marvelman first appeared, but I was happy to buy V for Vendetta #1 and Miracleman #1.

From my recollections, V for Vendetta never really caught on in the collecting community. It faded in, became “hot” for awhile, and the first issue commanded a premium for a time as well, but then it faded away into the back issue boxes and was pretty much forgotten about. However, I remember that there was a small group of fans of the book that always lauded its superiority. It has been sixteen years since the series’ conclusion and it has taken me almost as long to understand the intricate complexities that this series contains.

V For Vendetta original artDave Gibbons went on to have an illustrious career as an artist of American comics after Watchmen, but the same cannot be said of David Lloyd. Moore wrote that he could not have done V with any other artist and would have refused to continue the series without him. Lloyd’s artwork beautifully captured the mood and the characters in such a way that made the entire story seem real. Original art pages are rare and very difficult to acquire. Through diligent searching, there are a few covers out there and a sparse number of pages. Among the original art community, pages are rarely seen for sale. Recently, a page with V in only one panel sold for $2400 on eBay, the first one available in quite some time. A more significant page sold a few months back for a little under five grand. Purveyors of these treasures value the secret that these pages were drawn on large art board, rather than the smaller, traditional DC page size. Therefore, these original works of art are even more powerful in person than they are on the printed comic page. Just as Watchmen pages were once affordable and available but are now inching closer to five figures, it will only be a matter of time before V pages follow.

Now, reading V for Vendetta over again is actually quite disturbing. As current events unfold in the United States and our government seems to be less representative of the people, fascism seems more likely to be a credible threat. The Patriot Act and further provisions to “protect the people” seem to encroach further and further on our individual rights. These same rights are completely gone in the world V inhabits in a post-apocalyptic Britain of the late 1990s.

The movie and the subsequent attention have turned the whispers to inside-voices about how powerful this series really is. The day will come when V will be seen as the most relevant work of Moore’s career. This is Moore’s most realistic story, devoid of heroes with superpowers, and more prescient of the potential threat of times to come. Even though it took place in the not too distant future, which is now in the past, it is forever a wake up call to the perennial not too distant future of a society that allows too much governmental control. One of the most harrowing lines expressed in the story by one of the main characters rationalizing taking action, “Yes, because your kind led us to hell and now you say our only hope is sterner leaders,” is more frightening to read now than it ever was.

No one was sitting around hoping that a catastrophic event would occur to prove Moore wrong about Watchmen, but I hope that if fascism ever tightens its iron fist on our society that Moore was right about V.

David E. Miller (email) has been involved in the comic book industry for almost 20 years. He started out attending Serendipity Comic Book Conventions in Suburban Philly and befriending top independent creators like Reggie Byers (Shuriken for Comico). He parlayed his industry expertise into recruiting the Honorary Board for the New York City Comic Book Museum. His highest related achievement was sitting down with Stan Lee in his studio office for an hour talking history. His lowest was selling off most of his collection in High School.

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