Once again, it would seem that life is reflecting art. Anyone who has watched the news over the last two weeks will already be familiar with V For Vendetta- and perhaps not even know it. The Guy Fawkes masks that have become synonymous with the civil disobedience and political activism of the hacking group Anonymous, though made popular by the film version, have their origin in the comic book series that began in 1981 and was completed in 1988. It is a very apt image for Anonymous to hijack as the original character from the comic book is an anarchist (or freedom fighter - depending on your viewpoint). But to truly understand the significance of the Guy Fawkes masks that are popping up in news stories and internet articles across the globe, you need to go to the source and read V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
The graphic novel edition of V For Vendetta is by far the best way to enjoy this comic book. Not only because of the satisfying, heavy, substantial feeling of holding the book in your hands but because of the excellent introduction and afterword by both Moore and Lloyd. For any aspiring comic book writer, Moore's afterword will offer rays of hope as he describes the despair he sometimes feels when battling writer's block whilst also providing a fascinating insight into the genesis of the comic book.. The anecdotal style of writing is witty and congenial in both the introductions and afterwords and add for surprisingly light hearted book-ends to the seriousness of the novel.
So now you know to buy the graphic novel – what can you expect from the actual story? Those of you that have seen the film may think that the comic book has little to offer- after all, they are both similar visual art forms. But you would be wrong. The comic book differs from the film in many crucial details. Due to the comic book form there is the opportunity for much more detail and characterisation – some characters that are only bit parts in the film are explored in detail in the comic book, some of the characters of the film are not in the book at all and vice versa. Whatever your feelings on comic-book or literary film adaptations, I urge you to read the comic book because it offers so much more than the film. It has so much depth and complexity that you will become immersed and lost in it only to return to the real world bleary eyed and energised 3 or 4 hours later.
Those of you who are unfamiliar with the film; read the comic book first! If you have read George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We or even seen the film Equilibrium - you will love this book. If you have not read or seen any of these, then you are in for a treat! Moore and Lloyd have created an awful and chilling vision of a fascistic extreme right-wing government-controlled near-future (actually past now, it was written in the 80s and set at the end of the 90s) where the media is state controlled and CCTV cameras are everywhere -sound familiar? The only hope in this fictional near-future is a concentration camp survivor with superhuman agility, strength and stamina that wears the now famous Guy Fawkes mask. He slinks from the shadows to save a young woman and calls himself “V.” This is all you need to know to get you started, I could write more but no spoilers here!
It is a totally engrossing and intelligent piece of comic book fiction which is infinitely enhanced by Lloyd's brilliant and stunning artwork. As you will read in Moore's afterword, it was Lloyd that employed the master-stroke of the Guy Fawkes imagery. But Lloyd's genius does not end there. The pages are so dark that it is almost as if Lloyd was drawing on black paper. The characters and the settings are always emerging from shadows, like darkness is the norm and light is a luxury. The result is oppressive and accurately reflects the despair and totalitarian, fascist nightmare of Moore's dystopian future. On top of this, you can't help but be amazed by Lloyd's ability to make a masked character seem to smile, laugh, cry and use all other facial expressions without even raising an eyebrow.
However, don't be fooled by this review, V for Vendetta is not pessimistic. The underlying message is one of hope and of the human desire and overwhelming need for freedom from oppression. The character of V is thoroughly delightful and witty and Moore's wordplay is simply astounding. There is a sense of playfulness as well of danger about V and the fact that he remains anonymous (pardon the pun) makes him an every-man. He could be you, me or anyone that has had enough of the ways things are and sees all that is wrong in the world in which we live. Of course, Moore and Lloyd's vision of England is more extreme than the real England, and therefore so is V, but the charm and unending appeal of this book is this desire for a better world. A desire which, let's face it, will never be satisfied today, tomorrow or in the near-future.
There are a few definite must haves of any comic book collection, and The Dark Knight Returns is one of them. Not only is it a classic worthy of any serious comic book fan’s collection but it is also a great starting point for “getting serious” about comics. This is because it is one of those rare tomes of popular culture that actually have something to say about the conditions in which we humans strive to survive and even though Frank Miller penned it in 1985-1986, the feel of the book, the rebellious and revolutionary tone, is just as relevant and striking today. The Dark Knight Returns is a great introduction into the Batman universe. This may seem a strange thing for a book that is set in the near future towards the end of Batman’s life and ten years after he has retired; but as the novel reads like a review of Batman’s whole life at times, it is excellent in providing the novice reader with an insight into the Batman psyche. Not only do you learn much about the troubled spirit of Bruce Wayne and his struggles with his demon within, but the relationships between Batman, Jim Gordon, Two-Face, The Joker and, most notably, Superman are exposed in all their complexity. As a result, not one character in this book could be described as two-dimensional, as they are all explored through their interactions with Batman – who it seems is the nexus point of Miller’s dystopian future. What also makes it more accessible is that little prior knowledge of the Batman history is needed to make sense of the graphic novel. References to Jason Todd – Batman’s second ill-fated Robin (the mutant leader’s use of a crowbar just before the new Robin débuts appears to be a prescient coincidence) – may stump the newcomer but will not diminish or hinder understanding of the novel as a whole. The Dark Knight Returns was and is a book very much of its time. The cold war overtones are overwhelming and the threat of nuclear war between Russia and America– to which Superman is America’s deterrent – is always present. Whereas currently the cold war is supposedly over (with Russia anyway – one thinks of Iran…), the most striking resonances with today’s society lie in the depiction of poverty and the marginalised youth of Miller’s vision of the near future. Deep in the dark pits of the recession as we now are and with the riots of last August still within our consciousness, the idea of a Batman, a common man with the resources of a billionaire who will not stand for injustice in any of its forms, is one hell of an attractive prospect. Miller’s pits his Batman in direct opposition to the conservative, political puppet of Miller’s Superman. The opposition of these two characters is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel and culminates in climax which does not disappoint. But no spoilers here!
In today’s world the media is inescapable and Miller’s use of television screens and sexed-up news seems almost prescient. The portrayal of a very Ronald-Reaganesque President only heightens the whole novel’s distrust of authority figures and taps into the ever-present distrust of politicians in the real world. Miller understands the dis-satisfaction that everyone at some point feels with the powers that be and it is this that makes this graphic novel a classic.
Now a few words about the artwork. Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley have created exactly the right atmosphere for Miller’s writing. Dark, muted colours and scratchy, sketchy lines have the effect of creating a dangerous, dirty and real world. While Janson’s art is at times unattractive, it is exactly this which makes it perfect for Miller’s world. Looking at the pages makes you feel uncomfortable, the artwork with its imperfections denies aesthetic pleasure. The sketchy haphazard lines and meticulously wrinkled faces show this world, this comic book fantasy world, with all its warts on display, with its pants down. But you can’t imagine another artist drawing graphic novel, because the artwork is so exactly right for the message of the writing.
I urge you to buy and read this graphic novel and if you have already done so, read it again. It is a mark of any great work of literature that it stands the test of time and is relevant whenever it is read; Miller and Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns is a shining example of such a piece.