Graphic novel cover for V For VendettaTHE 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.
(© Sanjna Gjenero / sxc.hu)
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.
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 PersepolisSatrapi’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
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.
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.”
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.