Here in England Guy Fawkes Day has come and gone, and the bonfires are dormant until the next 5th of November. But the poorly thought out V for Vendetta references are still going strong.
These days, Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s landmark comic and its famous mask are often used as shorthand for anti-establishment protest, as seen in the work of Anonymous.
V for Vendetta‘s underlying ethos is far from that of an anarchist rallying cry, though. Rather, it reinforces an inherently “English” status quo and advocates for a return to bygone tradition. Its titular protagonist may call for the dismantling of the current state, but as a whole it seeks to reinforce an older and more insidious idea of “the nation.”
Moore does create links between his protagonist’s code and non-traditional religious/spiritual/occultic beliefs; at one point V quotes Aleister Crowley with “Do what thou wilt, Eve. That shall be the whole of the law”.
Based on Moore’s other works, however, it’s safe to say that these beliefs don’t serve as signs of moral ambiguity.
In Top Ten, for instance, police detective John Corbeau is a devoted officer, family man, and follower of the obscure Kurdish religion Yazidi (although other characters conflate this with Satanism). Given Moore’s own pursuit of the occult, it might even be reasonable to say that V’s association with Crowley is meant to suggest that he operates on a higher plane of consciousness, or at least sees past the conventions of the society he lives in to perceive what others cannot. More simply, although V is not wholly a good guy, we are still meant to sympathize with him and support his goals.
And these goals are steeped in the language of reversion: the desire to return to an older state of Englishness in which life was better and purer than it is now.
Moore brings in the World War II allusions from the very start. His preface to issue #1 ends with, “Goodnight England. Goodnight Home Service and V for Victory. Hello the Voice of Fate and V for Vendetta.”
Some context here: the Home Service was a British radio station that began broadcasting in 1939, the year that Britain entered World War II. Its programming included classical music, comedy, and variety shows aimed at keeping morale high and providing a distraction from the war. “V for Victory” is a reference to the famous WWII-era hand sign of the same name, as displayed by Winston Churchill in various photographs.
Fun fact: if you flip the V-for-victory hand gesture back to front like this, it becomes a flick-off, the British equivalent of the American middle finger. That’s less of a critique and more of a general note on the ambiguity with which Moore perhaps wishes V for Vendetta to be read, but still. The boundary between a seemingly anti-establishment sign and one of national pride is highly mutable here, especially since Churchill himself seems to have stepped over it.
And the England of V for Vendetta is indeed haunted by the specter of World War II. The first page of issue #1 establishes that meat rationing (issue #1, page 1) persists, and the “production of eggs and potatoes” (issue #1, page 1) is still monitored.
Still in the same issue, the Minister for Industry states that “Britain’s industrial prospects are brighter than at any time since the last war,” and “that it is the duty of every man in this country to … make Britain great again.” Events take place in the aftermath of nuclear war (as established on page 22), which could be considered the culmination of the conflicts established during and immediately after WWII.
It doesn’t stop with WWII, though. Moore goes back to the pre-Industrial Revolution days with V’s quotes from the William Blake poem “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time,” which UK readers may also know as the lyrics to the hymn “Jerusalem”:
Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire,
Bring me My spear, O clouds unfold,
Bring me my chariot of fire …
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
‘Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
Although the second stanza of this poem is missing from V’s speech, for readers with what Moore might consider the requisite level of Blake knowledge, the verses/stanzas that are present conjure up their immediately preceding lines: “And was Jerusalem builded here/Among these dark satanic mills?” The “dark satanic mills” in question are the factories of the Industrial Revolution–that is, symbols of technological and commercial progress at great human cost. Blake’s implication is that Jerusalem could not have been “builded” in an environment so offensive to the moral, aesthetic, and pastoral ideals he held dear.
Interestingly, the first stanza of that poem also does not appear in V’s speech but openly disavows the idea that England is inherently divine, mostly through lots of rhetorical questions such as, “And was the holy Lamb of God/ on England’s pleasant pastures seen?” (Answer: no. In the Middle East, sure, but not in England. Ergo, England is not the first home of Jesus.)
So national pride turns 180 degrees to become a defiant f-off. World War II wasn’t the Blitz-spirit rallying cry of modern popular depiction but rather a harrowing situation. The Church of England has missed the boat on some aspects of England’s relationship to its primary religion. If we stop at these analyses, Moore seems to be in the clear with regard to the liberalism of V for Vendetta‘s ideology.
However, if we examine the Blake/”Jerusalem” excerpt again, more troubling ideologies emerge. The hymn “Jerusalem” has long been associated with English nationalism; it’s frequently sung on St. George’s Day and has even been put forward as an alternative national anthem to replace “God Save the Queen.” By reciting these lyrics, V allies himself with a view of England as potentially divine in a way that harkens back not just to the origins of several major world religions, but to the Crusades and the desire to colonize: a focus on the holiness of a place rather than holiness itself. After all, in the Crusades, England sought to (among other things) refigure Jerusalem according to its own image of a Holy Land – that is, an English image.
This appropriation of Jerusalem relied not on peaceful collaboration but on bows, arrows, spears, and swords. In quoting these lines, V implicitly takes up the role of the crusader. He may not have a sword or arrows, but he does have explosives, and has no qualms about using them against anyone who opposes his mission. By aiming to “buil[d]Jerusalem” in England, then, V is invoking the conservative language of holy war.
We can go back even further in time to Guy Fawkes, to whom V is continually linked and who supposedly provides the visual inspiration for his mask-and-hat combination.
As outlined in the documentary series A History of Scotland (hosted excellently by Neil Oliver), Guy Fawkes may have been part of England’s persecuted Catholic minority, but his “gunpowder treason” was an act of serious xenophobia. His dissatisfaction with King James I/VI had its roots in a fear that James’s reign would contaminate the purity of England as a nation as well as in religious discrimination. The Scottish king had brought an entire Scottish posse to London with him, and now something un-English sat at the very head and heart of the country. If Fawkes had managed to blow up Parliament, he would have eliminated the Scottish threat to England’s integrity.
By succeeding where Fawkes failed, V continues a legacy of dissent that is based on a hatred of the outsider.
The England V seeks to defend is an older, idealized England that once accepted people of color and queer individuals. (Interestingly, though, one of the few queer characters we really see is the leader of the ruling party Adam Susan; he considers women to have “strange sweat and ugly body hair” but remembers talking about “men, naked in bed, rubbing together, rubbing, pushing…”.)
This England is defended against the ultimate foreign enemy: the Nazis, who now make up its government. Granted, these are rebranded Nazis by the name of “Norsefire”, but the combination of fascism, institutionalized racism and homophobia, belief in “the destiny of the Nordic race”, and Germanic nomenclature adds up to the same concept. We’re back to World War II again, and the last clearly defined bad guys, against whom England could define a sense of confidence and rightness, have won and are running the country.
By casting the ruling party as neo-Nazis, Moore distances the party’s dictatorial tendencies from a sense of core Englishness, as though fascism and its manifestations have been imposed upon England by an outside source. (Evidently Moore disagrees with Orwell on this matter – although Ingsoc and the surveillance culture of 1984 are created by an alliance between Britain and America, the American official who brokers this alliance eventually betrays the party, and even the name of the party reaffirms its Englishness.)
However, it’s also worth bearing in mind that V for Vendetta was first published in Britain in 1982, against the real-life backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s government. The actions of the Norsefire Party are fiction-scale versions of the Conservative Party’s measures and attitudes in the Thatcher era. For instance, the removal of non-white residents from V’s England and the “quarantine” (issue #1) of Brixton and Streatham, which have large ethnic minority populations, are manifestations of Thatcher’s desire to “hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration” so that the UK would not be “swamped by people with a different culture” (as quoted by the Runnymede Trust). Norsefire’s similar treatment of queer people is an extrapolation from the real-life 1988 enactment of Section 28 legislation, which prohibited local authorities from “intentionally promot[ing]homosexuality”.
Ascribing these actions to Norsefire blames this xenophobia and homophobia solely on foreign ideology. The non-Englishness of Norsefire suggests that such sentiments are not truly English, at least not in the quintessential way for which Moore seems to be advocating through his preface and V’s quoting of “Jerusalem.” By destroying the government, then, V and Evey eradicate foreign imposition and keep England English.
The desire to purge England of new, undesirable, and somehow less English aspects is reminiscent of that subset of anti-monarchists who use the royal family’s German and Greek background as proof that the royals don’t belong in contemporary British society (rather than as positive proof of the diverse origins of English/British culture). It’s usually said jokingly, but it’s still said; humor can’t fully erase the isolationist sentiment.
This disavowal of negative elements as un-English also provides a false sense of absolution from the hate, blood, oppression and all-around ugliness occurring within England. In the case of Thatcher, it allows for a disingenuous distancing from her then-current acts and her legacy; if her government’s institutionalized prejudice and contribution to the rapid decay of entire regions is “un-English,” then England doesn’t entirely have to claim responsibility for these events.
In a larger historical sense, while openly celebrating the subjugation of other peoples is less acceptable than it was, the trend now seems to lie at the other extreme of either not talking about it at all or claiming that such events and mindsets are not part of England’s true character (or any country’s, really). Going back to World War II again – it’s hard to stay away when talking about V for Vendetta – the Commander in Chief of Britain’s home forces stated that “an attitude of hate is foreign to the British temperament.”
A simple glance at the history of Great Britain refutes this statement. Without going into an exhaustive list, there’s Oliver Cromwell’s genocide in Ireland, the systematic persecution of minority religious groups (Lollards, Catholics, Jews, etc.) over centuries, the Amritsar massacre, and establishments all over the UK putting up signs that read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.”
More generally, I’d be hard pressed to think of a country without the suffering, subjugation, and deaths of multitudes on its head, especially when you limit the selection pool to countries that are, or have ever been, major world powers.
I’m not saying that V for Vendetta lacks artistic merit, or that we should strike it from the canon of dissent comics. (I might say something like that about the film adaptation, but that’s another post for another time.) It provided a voice of protest and rage when readers wanted it, and for that it should be valued. But if we use its imagery to spur us on to further protest, we need to be aware of the falsity of what it seeks to restore–and to look to our own ideologies before blaming the Other, the foreign, or anyone else not like us for what we protest against.
As V himself says, “Who elected them? It was you!”