11 Jan 2012

V for Vendetta: the man behind the mask

From comic strip to symbol of world rebellion, the V for Vendetta mask is an iconic image of our times. Channel 4 News takes author Alan Moore to meet some of the protesters he inspired.

V for Vendetta: the man behind the mask.

What images immediately embody rebellion in recent decades? Let me suggest two: the smiley face for the ecstasy generation in the late 80s and early 90s, and the V mask which is currently the icon of global anti-capitalist protest.

Both images have spread beneath the level of corporate dictat: neither were concocted by an advertising agency. Both were, and are, recognisable across the planet, and were communicated as memes from user to user.

More remarkably, both emerged from the work of one man – Alan Moore, a working-class Northampton comics writer with a polymath’s range of references, and a really rather scary beard. It is hard to suggest another creative artist – certainly not a British one – who has had such an impact on popular culture and above all popular protest.

Once in the Occupy camp, he fits right in.

The smiley face came from Watchmen, his seminal counter-factual exploration of superheroes and politics; the V mask, currently on show in tented cities on every continent, is from V for Vendetta, his dystopian vision of a libertarian terrorist, fighting against a fascist government in the UK.

Moore is not usually the artist of his own work, and he’s quick to pay credit to those who are (with Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Dave Gibbons and David Lloyd respectively), but his is the meticulous and wide-ranging visual imagination which has informed their work, and in doing so transformed comics beyond recognition.

Channel 4 News decided to bring Alan Moore from his Northampton home, face-to-face with the Occupy protesters who wear his creation. The glances he attracts from passers by on the streets of London are not usually because of his fame; instead they’re attributable to the strange, occult-like and sepulchral, figure he cuts.

He famously objects to his major works (From Hell, V for Vendetta, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Watchmen) being turned into films; but even if he were an enthusiast, this is not a man, you feel, who would happily grace a Hollywood wrap party. But once in the Occupy camp, he fits right in. He’s greeted with warmth, and as much adulation as this odd but compelling experiment in collectivist anarchism can muster. Another sign, if it was needed, that comics remains an art form of the marginal.

Alan Moore was not the first to bring literary merit to comics – Will Eisner was doing that in the 40s. And he wasn’t the first to bring late 20th century preoccupations, like psychological disturbance and sexual politics, to a medium that had traditionally been consumed by teenage boys. What Moore has done is bring to comics an unprecedented multi-layered complexity, combining a penetrating social insight with an engagement in philosophy and an extraordinary touch for characterisation and dialogue.

The biggest irony of all is that many of the V masks help to fill the coffers of Warner Brothers.

From Hell, for example, is not just the best comic about Jack the Ripper: it’s one of the best creative treatments, in any medium, of any aspect of Victorian England. Insofar as his work has a coherent mindscape, it’s probably that thoughts and ideas have a material reality, and that the spiritual dimension to life is real – informed by a peculiarly British sense of visionary radical anarchism.

And this is probably quite different from the American tradition of comics. Compare the Beano, whose subversiveness and energy affectionately undercuts the values of smalltown Scotland, with the more homespun and placid Middle America of Peanuts, Archie, and even Superman. Because comics in the British tradition are “low culture”, we often tend to think their politics are of the left. But the centre of the industry is America, whose comics are mainly made by large companies like Marvel and DC, and whose characters, once successful, are appropriated and monetised by media corporations.

There is nothing wrong with this – it’s how all entertainment industries operate – but it helps explain why the Occupy protests, and the politics of Alan Moore, have not found a ready echo in the industry as a whole. Perhaps the most successful contemporary American comics writer is Frank Miller, author of Sin City, 300, and Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. He posted a statement on his website slamming the Occupy movement as “louts, thieves and rapists”.

Miller’s view, of course, is in the ascendant. For the biggest irony of all is that many of the V masks – certainly most of those that have been bought – help to fill the coffers of Warner Brothers. Like their iPods and Starbucks coffees, it’s a fact which opponents of Occupy love to repeat, but which seems to have little impact on the protesters themselves.

David Mapstone is a senior programme editor at Channel 4 News.

Photo gallery: Click the image above for more masks of protest