Written in the 1980s, this graphic novel is set in another one of Alan Moore’s dystopian alternative futures. It’s the late 1990s in Britain. A war and a near-miss nuclear conflict has led to the takeover by a fascist government, with Adam Susan at its head. The government is presented by Susan as paternalistic, with a Head (represented by Susan), an Eye (CCTV), Ear (listening devices), Mouth (propaganda) and Finger (secret police). At the centre of all this is a supercomputer, Fate, whom Susan is in love with. Ironically, the Head’s weak point is his heart—as far as he has one.
As always, there is at least one thorn in the side of totalitarian governments, and in this case, that thorn happens to be V—a mysterious figure in a cape and Guy Fawkes mask who kills, bombs and causes chaos within the establishment. We first meet him as he rescues Evey Hammond, a 16-year-old factory girl out soliciting for the first time, trying to make a little extra money to survive. Unfortunately, the men she approaches are from the Finger. Arrogant because of their impunity, they threaten to rape and murder her but are killed by V who appears out of nowhere. V takes Evey to his hideout and cares for her, grooming her to eventually take his place.
V is one of Moore’s most enigmatic figures. We never see his face nor know his real name, and everything we know about him is through the novel’s other characters. When Evey finally has a chance to unmask him, she decides against it, feeling that something would be destroyed by revealing the man behind the mask (I wasn’t even sure for a while that it was a man). V seems to be everywhere and always in control, going after people linked to his past, a past we learn about halfway through the novel when the diary of one of his victims is found.
Alan Moore is very explicit that V does not want to save the country but to free it—two very different things. V wants to bring down the government, not because he can take over but because ordinary citizens can have the freedom to decide for themselves. So V destroys the structure of the establishment, and then sits back through the resulting chaos, certain that once it is over, people will forge a new and more just society. This is a struggle between fascism and anarchy. Moore’s universe is never black and white, but always a morally ambiguous grey. V is a “good guy”, but like the so-called superheroes of Watchmen, he is flawed. His history (or what we can piece together of it) suggests that he is not entirely sane. And, as in Watchmen, Moore raises the question of whether the end justifies the means, and whether killing can ever be justified for the greater good. He paints a frightening picture and doesn’t provide any answers, leaving it to us—the readers—to draw our own conclusions.
You can also read the review of Watchmen.