Categorised | Columns

Getting graphic about rights

V for Vendetta graphic novel cover
Graphic novel cover for V For Vendetta
THE first graphic novel I ever read was V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. This seminal work was first collected and published in this format in the late 1980s by DC Comics’s Vertigo imprint. Set in a dystopian future in Britain, it pits an anarchist, known by his codename, V, against a totalitarian regime.

When he started writing it in the early 1980s, Moore had concluded that the political climate in Britain was such that very little would be needed to nudge it towards fascism.

So he painted a very scary picture of a fascist dictatorship in post-apocalyptic Britain that controls every aspect of life. Everything you see, read, worship or even talk about is subject to government approval. Also, every ounce of individuality, every creative output, is subject to censorship. Government propaganda through the state-controlled media reassures the people that it is all meant for their good.

This is a land where there is zero tolerance for self-expression or different points of view, a land where racial purity is prized.

Crushing the people
(© Sanjna Gjenero /

Homosexuals, intellectuals, unionists, and those of mixed race or other religions are summarily imprisoned in concentration camps and subject to brutal experiments. This, in fact, is what happens to the man who becomes V.

Imprisoned by fear and complacency, the populace have lost sight of just how much freedom they have traded in return for perceived stability. They have been slowly but surely brainwashed into, well, not thinking at all.

Organs of the state

With the various government organs hard at work — the Nose, the Mouth, the Finger, the Ear, and the Eye — the party leader is able to effectively ensure a populace that is complicit in its own suppression. For the record, the various organs represent the detective branch, the state-controlled media, the uniform branch of the police, and the surveillance organisations respectively.

But V goads the public to do the unthinkable — to access exactly what it means to be free, and to have the courage to shake off the yoke of fear that has cloaked them. To this end, he recruits a young girl as his apprentice, and sets in motion plans to destabilise the government by blowing up Parliament.

V for Vendetta film still
Film still from V for Vendetta (© Warner Bros)
Is V a terrorist and a danger to order, as the government labels him? Or is he an anarchist and revolutionary who sincerely believes that “justice is meaningless without freedom”? The book wisely leaves this up to the reader to mull over.

The movie version changes quite a few things — simplifying the plotlines and turning V into something more like a caped crusader. But I believe it does remain true to the spirit of the graphic novel by portraying the dangers of a fearful society that willingly give up those rights that are most precious to life and liberty.

The Persian girl

Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis, published by Vintage, is a different kettle of fish altogether. This poignant memoir, in turns witty and sad, tells the story of a young girl growing up in Iran, and is set just before the Islamic revolution that saw the Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) being overthrown.

Book cover for The Complete Persepolis
Satrapi’s childhood is filled with revolutionary zeal, as the leftists and intellectuals battle the Shah for being nothing more than a Western puppet. Then the Islamic fundamentalists rise up and finally drive him away.

Many who initially supported the Islamists, such as Satrapi’s parents, soon learn to rue their decision as the new government acts to quell discontent from intellectuals and the aristocrats, first by incarcerating, and then executing them.

The revolutionary zeal is replaced soon enough by countless edicts that, to the young Satrapi, are incomprehensible. Women are forced into veils and told to cover up completely, textbooks are revised, genders segregated, and opinions, unsought and discouraged.

As the mullahs tighten their rule, those who can, flee the country, while those who can’t are forced to endure as their civil liberties are curtailed. Censorship and repression, especially of women, are the order of the day. Yet even with this, the resilience of the populace amazes me.

Even as the edicts ban all Western influences, bootleg cassettes of rock bands and contraband items are available right under the noses of the moral police. People continue to have parties where home-brewed alcohol is readily consumed, and books with dangerous ideas about freedom and socialism are clandestinely passed around.

Then, as the Iraqi invasion begins and a new horror is visited upon the people, Satrapi is sent away to Austria by her parents.

But she has a hard time fitting in with her fellow students in Vienna. Alone and friendless, Satrapi soon loses her way and all the ideals drummed into her by her parents. A failed love affair and a bout of illness eventually drives her back into her parents’ arms a few years later.

Her homecoming is both illuminating and edifying as she finds herself a misfit in her own home. Persepolis ends with the author leaving Iran once again, this time for good.

A matter of control

Persepolis film still
Film still from Persepolis (© Sony Pictures Releasing)

The animated version of Persepolis was released last year, and won the Cannes Jury Prize. Directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, the French movie features the voices of Danielle Darrieux and Catherine Deneuve. It is, I am told, a faithful adaptation of the graphic novel, but it has yet to receive much of a release here.

V for Vendetta film still
Film still from V for Vendetta (©Warner Bros)

What I find most illuminating about both graphic novels is the idea of control. In V for Vendetta, the fascist government attempts to exert control by feeding the twin fears of anarchy and chaos in the population. In Persepolis, the Islamic fundamentalists overthrow an authoritarian dictatorship, only to replace it with something just as repressive, but this time done in the guise of religion.

In both books, the governments come into power on a wave of public support, and then uses this to enact laws that severely curtail fundamental freedoms. And always, these things are done in the name of public good.

Perhaps the moral here is this: absolute and unquestioning support for one party or cause is a recipe for disaster. Checks and balances must exist in any system of governance. And we must constantly be on our guard against those who use fear as a weapon to subjugate us.

In the end, V said it best: “People must not be afraid of their governments. Governments must be afraid of their people.” TNG

N Shashi Kala‘s first brush with Alan Moore was through his now-considered classic reimagining of The Swamp Thing. She wishes he would get his act together and write another seminal work soon.

Post to Twitter Post to Google Buzz Post to Delicious Post to Digg Post to Facebook Post to StumbleUpon

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “Getting graphic about rights”

  1. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    Comic books are a great medium – a picture is worth a thousand words, yet words can convey things that pictures can’t. Put them together in the right way and you’ve got narrative dynamite. Of course a lot of comics are light entertainment and no more, but stereotyping all comics that way is a big mistake.

    I’ve seen one Malaysian historical/political comic book so far – “Where Monsoons Meet”. It’s an interesting narrative but unfortunately the art, which is a combination of ink sketches and photomontage, is not very good. Hope to see better stuff soon.

  2. Lainie says:

    Everytime I watch “Persepolis” or “V for Vendetta”, I can imagine Malaysia turning into either of those situations.

    I like Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman’s works as well. Miller started sounding like a misguided V last year. In an interview (, he said this about the invasion of Iraq: “Well, we’re taking on an idea.”

    I’m sure he’d have read “V for Vendetta”, but it doesn’t look like he remembers what V says- ideas are bulletproof.

    I think I would have preferred the “V for Vendetta” movie to be more morally ambiguous, like say, Studio Ghibli films. But I suppose there’s something working here, if I find myself unquestioningly rooting for his onscreen means to an end.

    (Heya Shi-Hsia! Do you have a copy of “Where Monsoons Meet” I can gank off you?)

  3. Zedeck says:

    I thought the Wachowski brothers’ adaptation of “V For Vendetta” failed to include a vital element that was in Moore’s original: a skepticism — or frankness — with regards to human nature. The comic ends in ambiguity: fighting, looting, shivering people standing around burning oil-drums (if I remember correctly). No big will-of-the-people solidarity march, just the blank slate of churning chaos. Governments are also people, after all.

  4. IR says:

    V’s quote is so simple, yet it’s the one rule of democracy people tend to forget, or the powerful want you to forget.

    “Persepolis” the movie was great, but they left a lot of the comic out. V in the novel was annoying, I liked the toned down Hollywood V a lot better (a rare thing). But the message is clear, much like Orwell’s “1984″, if we keep going in the direction we’re heading, it’s not that impossible a situation to imagine happening.

    I don’t think V does Moore justice. His best is “The Watchmen”. Best. Graphic novel. Ever…Frank Miller rocks my socks too.

  5. Mitra Themis says:

    Sometimes when there is too much chaos and a nation is at a low point, the promise of calm and order can be too hard to resist, even if those offering it are dubious. When you mix in elements of nationalism, it can be a potent and alluring combination. Consider, if you will, the fact that Germans voted in Hitler and the Nazi party, and that Robert Mugabe came into power on a wave of popular support.
    What I find difficult to understand is how those who know better chose to remain quiet when their country was over-run by would-be dictators. In the “Persepolis” book, for instance, the author’s parents all seem quietly resigned to losing their freedom, and keep thinking that people will come to their senses. It never happens. People in these situations don’t come to their senses unless and until they are forced to, by which time is too late – the totalitarian government would have brainwashed all the rest, so support is thin on the ground. Anyway that is what I think. Perhaps V is right – when faced with overwhelming odds, anarchy is the only way to go…

Most Read (Past 3 Months)

Most Comments (Past 3 Months)

  • None found




  • The Nut Graph


Switch to our mobile site