But Who Will Vet our Vendetta?
This is part one of a three-part series on V for Vendetta and its Wachowski-produced film adaptation.
We’ve all heard it a million—nay, millions—of times before: The novel was better than the movie! They totally ruined it! It just didn’t seem necessary to dumb the story down so much!
But really. Do we really think that. Or do we think that because that’s what we’re expected to think? Are we just acting on our programming?
V for Vendetta is a comic, one of the all-time greats, that was published serially from 1982 to 1989 and was collected later in graphic novel form. Alan Moore wrote and David Lloyd drew, and in 2006 the Wachowskis wrote and produced a movie adaptation which Moore the comics godhead famously declined to participate in because he believed adaptations of his work up to that point had all been failures.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t likely already know. V for Vendetta stands at one of the most well-traveled and fertile crossroads of our modern Anglo-American zeitgeist: where superhero comics (Superheroes! So hot right now), comic book movie adaptations, sci-fi dystopias, and political commentaries intersect1. If you haven’t seen the Guy Fawkes mask… no, actually, you have seen it. You just might not recognize the name, because, at this point, Guy Fawkes, the named person, is the least important element of the whole enterprise.
But that confluence of fortunate elements is only why we’re talking about the porcelain mask, why it looms, ever-smiling, over popular culture. But what does it mean? For that, we need to do some reading.
A Bastard’s Carnival
There’s thrills and chills and girls galore
There’s sing-songs and surprises!
There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!
There’s mischiefs and malarkies
But no queers or yids or darkies
Within this bastard’s carnival—
This Vicious Cabaret!
I’ll go ahead and say something up-front about V for Vendetta, the graphic novel. It is pulpy. I’m not talking about paper composition; I’m talking about literary composition. I’m talking about genre. But it can be hard to say what that genre, pulp, really is. Critics tend to offer the history of the term as an ink cloud to obscure the fact that they would rather not explore the issue. I suspect it’s because many aren’t confident they really understand what it means to be pulp and what it has to offer. So allow me to attempt to clear it up, or die trying:
- Adj. Pejorative: trashy, superficial, exploitative, sensational. Among the (many) things that Serious Literary Types/Real Grown Ups insist are beneath them.
- Adj. Affectionate: sensational, lurid, crass, brutal, over-the-top, crude, unabashed.
Two definitions! Because, of course, the term was born of a certain disdain but has since been co-opted by those of us who remain unashamed of our oh-so-plebeian tastes. Anyway: you might think the second doesn’t sound terribly affectionate. I assure you it is.
Topic sentence: V for Vendetta is a dystopian political commentary structured as a pulp serial that unapologetically observes the conventions of the genre, embracing the aspects that foster that affection, which is one of its greatest strengths. This is something that Moore and Lloyd tell us in the very first chapter of the novel. The two main characters, Evey and V, are introduced on the first page, Evey layering on makeup and slipping on a revealing dress in her bedroom, V donning his mask and his wig in a hidden parlor surrounded by bookcases and rousing movie posters. Evey attempts to prostitute herself to a cop, who calls his boys over to join in on the rape before the murder. V quotes Macbeth, literally swoops in, and saves her with tear gas and explosives.
The pulp is strong in the sexual bluntness, the in-your-face parallelism, and the classic dashing heroics. That strength, the sheer volume of this pulp, doesn’t let up for the rest of the book. One of Alan Moore’s favorite conceits (seen a few times in V and several times again in Watchmen) is to juxtapose speech with action: for example, the bishop Anthony Lilliman gives a sermon about “that wrath which did rain fire from the heavens,” the text of which is overlaid on an illustration of V falling upon the guards out front of Westminster Abbey. The reason I call attention to this particular device is that it’s a helluva blunt instrument. It’s a device that is immediately and extremely obvious to the audience, and a ten-year-old with minimal familiarity with composition could probably explain how and why the author/playwright/director employed it.
But we need only embrace the bluntness of the pulp to discover that not only does it successfully convey the obvious message, it also forms part of the novel’s rich thematic texture. To see how, reword what I said before about this particular device: instead of “juxtaposition” and “overlay,” think of it as “saying something while something else is going on underneath.” Put this way, the layering can be seen as a metacommentary on the novel itself. What Moore and Lloyd are saying, to whoever is listening, is that “things might happen in the comic, but something else is going on underneath. Pay attention!” And the ability to do this is afforded to them by the conventions of the genre and the medium they have chosen. It’s something that can only be done when your audience knows to expect, rather than disdain, such baldness. Get what I’m saying? ¡Viva la Pulp!
And remember, too, the drama of the juxtaposition technique. It, and everything else about this book, is striking and dramatic, theatric and vaudeville. All the world’s a stage.
Next time, we’ll meet the performers.
- Producing some truly horrific YouTube comment sections. ↩