In Poodle’s Perry Bible Fellowship post he tacitly (or not so tacitly, I can’t remember) exhorted us to pay more attention to the small things. To give detail a chance to speak before it’s drowned out by our boorish information culture, and it’s to that end that I want to take a look, over a series of posts, at comic panels that have have a special place in my heart. Tucker Stone, you might want to look away now.

It was the late nineteen seventies and I was three-years-old and living in suburban London with my Nan and Granddad. My mother was trying to put herself back on her feet in the wake of my father’s messy exit, and in doing so build something solid for my brother and I to return home to. Every morning I would get up, have my face and neck scrubbed by my grandmother, put on my clothes, head down to a breakfast of warmed milk and cornflakes (I tried this again recently, it’s seriously disgusting), and finally sit down in front of the seventies’ answer to childrens’ television: Play School, Sesame Street (if it was a Saturday), and Rainbow.

I always had a strange relationship with Rainbow, I don’t remember ever enjoying it – camp puppets and folk music sessions appeal considerably more now that I’m an adult – and yet I felt compelled to stick with it until the bitter end. As if watching it were some necessary ritual, a last ditch attempt to cling onto those few fleeting minutes of entertainment aimed squarely at children before we slipped off into the black abyss of daytime TV. The Thames Television ident, the herald of this change from child friendly space to the adult sphere, top and tailed the programme, and as such was the focal point for my discomfort at the coming shift in the universal alignment. The ident declared that my day was about to begin, and that it would be controlled – utterly – by concerns far more powerful, and far larger than my own. The shift contained within the ident also meant that I would have to pay attention to the passage of time as it marked a significant and unwanted change. But it wasn’t dread that I felt when I watched the Thames’ logo rise out of the river, its quality was more melancholic, captured by that mournful session trumpet. It was the feeling that something was passing, perhaps ending, and that this was going on around me all the time, and that I had no say in the matter.

Years later I read V for Vendetta

I’ve always felt that it’s difficult for people who weren’t brought up in England in the sixties, seventies or eighties to appreciate the powerful and precise ways in which V for Vendetta resonates with those of us who were. With its careful stylisations and glossy sheen, the Wachowski Brother’s movie, good as it was, was never going to be my film. My V for Vendetta stank of old flannels bathed in hot water and boredom, of days spent waiting to return to my mother, of orange streetlights, and the faded dreams of suburbia. A landscape that mirrored that year in my childhood – constructed from pure Sartrean facticity, and the realisation that the world could be banal, unyielding, and restrictive. Moore and Lloyd were riffing on the haunting iconography, plot and energy of 1984, but as English creators working in the eighties they instinctively painted a world that marries with my memories of late seventies / early eighties England, both on a literal and figurative level. When I look at the image above I’m taken back to grey journeys on the Undergound. Like the Fingerman (an agent of the totalitarian regime that controls the fictional British Isles of VfV) who catches this fleeting glimpse of the fantastic, I found myself somewhere between bored and hypnotised on those never ending journeys spent with my face glued to the window, watching as we dipped in and out of dirty brick tunnels, before plunging into the dark on reaching the centre of the city. My memories of the Tube share much (beyond their contemporaity) in common with my memories of that ident, they’re bound up with a deep yielding of control – the imposition of the adult order. The sounds of the train were the same rattles and clatterings that I heard in the distance as I tried to sleep at night – the sounds of a prison cage.

It’s these associations that initially strike me when I consider the panel in question, this is in a part the product of its context – the scene in which it’s embedded, and, pulling out further, the story in which the scene is contained – and in part tied to the content of image itself. The former I have alluded to, the latter I have yet to discuss. Remove V from the frame and you are left with a picture of nothing, the blank façade of the tunnel entrance set against the blue-white of the sky. It is, however, the kind of view that my childhood eyes, hungry for entertainment as travel transformed into tedium, might have deliberately sought out. The roof of a tunnel, the arch of a bridge, the depths of a wood, these were all spaces that demanded my attention as we flew past, principally because they repelled the casual gaze. They would go unnoticed if they weren’t actively pursued, and as a consequence needed to be carefully probed, afterall hidden spaces might well contain secrets. Sadly the hoped for ghosts and monsters always failed to materialise: the banality of the city was profoundly hostile to the lonely figments that haunted my imagination. And it’s here where the landscape of my memory meshes with Moore’s fictional future. This is one of those views, those hiding places for the uncanny, those spaces that never failed to betray me by ultimately reinforcing the concrete and determinsitic reality I wanted so very much to escape. Even the at first unnoticed hints of a nascent sunset do little to imbue the image with any romance. Instead of a feeling of warm melancholy, the sun blushed clouds gesture towards a lost or repressed beauty: in this Britain dirty brick walls attempt to obscure the majesty of the heavens.

Bring V back into play, however, and the panel’s impact is transformed. The image of a figure in silhouette framed by the sky is one common to heroic fiction, with it more often than not being used to announce the arrival of a story’s champion at some crucial moment. Certainly when seen within the context of the first chapter this reading gains a great deal of strength – we know that V is attempting to save Britain from its unpleasant rulers, and we suspect that he’s something approaching a good guy. But there’s ambiguity at work here, and there’s nothing simplistically heroic about this shadowy figure. To begin with we have the black cape, black gloves and wide brimmed hat, not the traditional garb of the uncomplicated hero, quite the opposite: they’re clothes one would expect to find on Shelley’s Frankenstein, or perhaps a vampire. Then there’s the camera angle that holds the composition: while ostensibly the fingerman’s point of view, on closer inspection it doesn’t quite match up with any possible view from a train window. This almost invisible dislocation produces a disconcerting effect, further reinforced by the diagonal surface on which V perches, and its attendant expressionistic overtones. That the figure looms over us, seemingly ready to pounce, is also not a little troubling. There is, of course, another strata of iconography in this mix, but one that might not be so readily available to those unfamiliar with the genre that concerns us most here in the Dark Dimension: the superhero. This is the iconic territory inhabited by the edgier brand of caped crusader, the character’s that some unfortunate writers can’t help describing as vigilantes. Looking up to that figure we might mistake him for the Shadow or, if we were a little more ignorant, maybe even Batman.

The final element that I wish to discuss is the subtle suggestion of a rapidly passing moment. Taken within the context of the page it’s impossible to misunderstand that the panel represents a fleeting glimpse, but it’s a testimony to Lloyd’s attention to detail and his raw artistic instinct that there are clues within the panel itself. Most obviously there is the diagonal sweep of the train carriage’s chassis that occupies the bottom right hand corner of the page, which, if one looks very closely indeed, can be seen to be moving towards the semi-circular brickwork that heralds the entrance to the tunnel. Secondly there is V’s pose and his billowing cape, both of which are pregnant with motion and dynamism – time straining to move on, something about to happen. An effect further reinforced by the juxtaposition of these components with the static background imagery.

But considering each of these factors in isolation is only a means to an end. It’s how they work together and how they map across my psyche which interests me here. Certainly, I wouldn’t expect anyone else’s experience of the panel’s background detail to chime with my own. The way in which it somehow distills what I consider to be the book’s ambient qualities is a feat of magic that is almost certainly unintentional, and not something I would expect others to relate to or even understand. As I said at the beginning of this essay, we are talking about why this image is so important to me. But I also recognise that I’m not alone in my appreciation – an updated and expanded version has been used as an introductory image in at least one print run – and that there will likely be some crossover between my reading and the readings of other fans. I think the way in which the shadowy figure vacillates between saviour and threat has something to do with the panel’s broad appeal – the compelling mystery contained there-in, and let’s face it, V is nothing if not mysterious. But to refocus on the superheroic component for a moment, it seems to me that the panel’s greatest strength (at least as far as the comic book reading audience is concerned) is the powerful way in which it feeds into the iconography of the superhero dancing on a ledge at twilight. This is imagery that transcends its content, that speaks of the superhero genre in its entirety. In blogging we talk about pillar posts – posts that exemplify a blog’s USP – this is pillar imagery, fundamentally bound to the genre. Imagery that we, as superhero fans, are all on intimate terms with. And I believe that this panel, thanks to its paired down simplicity and the quality of the craftsmanship on display, is one of the best of the bunch. If only Batman were this frightening and mysterious, if only Daredevil moved with V’s grace.

Like the image in question, that dull landscape of memory infected by the Thames ident wasn’t entirely without beauty and hope. On those pebble-dashed streets my imagination was put to solid, gruelling work, but it needed food, something, anything to burn as fuel: monster lollies, Starwars, the gatefold image of the dragon Maleficent that struggled to escape my Disney compendium (which I now read to my two and a half year old son). Comic books. Oh God, comic books. When I think of my childhood lust for them I can’t help bringing to mind that line from Knocked Up, about adults not being able to enjoy anything as much as children enjoy bubbles. To the three-year-old me the experience of reading a comic was completely and utterly transformative. The dayglo ideas and concepts on display bent and contorted my mind and supercharged my imagination. As an adult the walk down to the newsagents on the roundabout that nestled at the end of the Leafhill Crescent takes two or three minutes, but to the child in me that short journey will always be an eternity of anticipation soundtracked by my grandmother’s snapping mantra “One comic each!”. Two comics was always enough, besides, it wasn’t as if we had much choice – we’re talking about a British newsagents in the seventies here, a shop which seldom stocked more than four or five random American titles (at that time in my life I was only interested in reading books published by Marvel or DC), none of which were likely to be duplicated next month. We seldom saw the end of story arcs, and we seldom saw them begin, and while I can’t say that fact didn’t bother me at all, it was of limited importance: the aesthetic hit alone made me giddy, and for a while the world would be illuminated by four colours and blaze with possibility.

And it’s that experience that is in some way captured by this small panel. Like the ghosts I hoped to glimpse from train windows, V haunts the image, infecting the space with counter meaning. There’s something fantastic, almost beyond acceptability about the possibility of the superhero – a superhero so perfectly rendered, so, as I said above, quintessential – invading Moore and Lloyd’s dead-end universe. And yet thanks to the way the panel’s imagery, and V for Vendetta as a whole, is interwoven with my own experiences of a world of cold facts and concrete truths, and of flooding that world with, well… what amounts to magic, V’s presence feels in some way not only permissible but necessary. If the Thames ident speaks to me of the beginnings of existential anxieties, this panel illustrates the cracks in the hard slabs of facticity that make up life, where the rainbows stream through. By confirming the hard limits of my reality by gesturing back to that sad formative year, whilst simultaneously admitting the impossible, it steers clear of sentimentality – instead it brings to mind the numinousness of things. Everyday, transient, limited things like train tunnels, and suburban streets, and orange streetlights. The panel offers me another way of seeing that period of my childhood: as a time when I got to know my imagination, just as I started to engage with my finitude.

It’s strange writing something this personal and throwing it up on the Internet for all to see. I doubt Tucker Stone would approve, but when we’re talking about the things that really mean something to us, when we’re prepared to look really hard at them, we can’t fail to see ourselves reflected back.

Other panel reviews:
Grant Morrison’s Zenith: Phase Aciiiieeeeeed!!!
Judge Dredd in one panel

39 Responses to “V for Vendetta: page 20, panel 3”

  1. Papers Says:

    Oddly enough, I watched the Wachowskis’ V the other night and was struck by how much I liked it, as an adaptation, and on its own. It’s imperfect, but it hit a lot of the right notes and managed to feel like its own thing at the same time. I wasn’t … I don’t know, when I see some adaptations, like most fanboys I feel this urge to list off how they fail, how they don’t capture things, and I wasn’t really struck in the same way with V.

    It also made me miss my copy of the book, which is probably halfway across Canada right now and needs to be replaced. It has my favourite kind of future, squalid and mundane.

    Your observations about V’s design are bang on. He works for me as a ‘hero’ (okay, maybe protagonist, maybe supporting player to Evey, whatever) because the monstrous element is the only reason he has any chance of succeeding in his environment. The design plays into that, and its touch of gothic obsolescence reminds us that he’s the right man for the job, as it were, because he’s a monster like his environment. He’s an ugly midwife for Evey’s transformation, but she’ll be an entirely different creature after her birth and will hopefully reflect the New Britain V helps fire up.

    Great post. Keep up the good work. I have to find a copy to read, like, now…

  2. It’s all for you, Damian. « supervillain Says:

    [...] – Zom on the best panel in the best Alan Moore comic @ Mindless Ones. [...]

  3. Zom Says:

    I’d actually really like to see the Wachowski movie again, in that I seem to remember it working very well as its own thing.

  4. The Beast Must Die! Says:

    David Lloyd pretty much nails Thatcherite-noir in that book. ‘V’ is such a product of that time – same as ‘The Boys From The Blackstuff’, ‘Scum’, ‘my Beautiful Launderette’, ‘Crass’ and ‘The Smiths’.

  5. Zom Says:

    Thatcherite-noir, you know, I can’t help thinking that’s a subgenre waiting to happen

  6. pillock Says:

    What an excellent post! I’d only say that I’d be surprised if the resonance of that image wasn’t intentional…that surely, as well, there’s some Frankenstein in it…and that I can’t help thinking that in that picture the sky is old, but the train is new.

    I want to do one of these myself, now. Just great.

  7. Zom Says:

    Yeah, it’s kind of fun digging into one panel, and peeling back the layers of significance

  8. Transience And Surprise, And The Voice Of Fate « A Trout In The Milk Says:

    [...] It’s a link! [...]

  9. Captive London Says:

    I had the pleasure of seeing David Lloyd’s seminar in Harrods last Monday, and it was fascinating seeing how the artwork of V for Vendetta evolved during the early concept of the book.

    Interesting tidbit of information, there was initially planned to be a chapter consisting of a photo-story, and the preliminary shots were shown. One photo in particular was a silhoette of V standing above an alley, and was surprisingly effective as comic art. I’d never appreciated exactly how much David Lloyd contributed to the project before, it’s one hell of a collaberation.

  10. pillock Says:

    Moore seems to have a knack for fortunate collaborations. I often wonder about that: his artists all do such miraculous things.

  11. Zom Says:

    Indeed they do.

    A photo-story, eh? Like Look In, then.

  12. James Says:

    This was a lovely read, thanks.

  13. Andy G Says:

    Lovely post.

    I really connect with the comments about searching for magic and beauty in those tiny gaps in-between the modern urban sprawl. And what is it about those snatched glances at the sky before entering the tunnel, like taking a deep breath before going underwater. The image brilliantly evokes that childhood instinct for freedom steeling you against the impending darkness of the tunnel and says everything you need to know about the character and the story to come.

    I was also disappointed with the film, and I really felt it suffered from an American involvement, despite their obvious sympathy for the comic. V comes from a drab early eighties Britain with only three television channels. The mise en scene of a film like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days would have been a much better fit for me.

  14. Zom Says:

    Thanks, guys.

  15. The Beast Must Die! Says:

    The film was a decent stab made with a fair amount od respect. Hugo Weaving was absolutely perfect as ‘V’. Natalie Portman…less so.

    But basically: read the comic. It’s just better. The same will undoubtedly be the same for ‘Watchmen’.

  16. amypoodle Says:

    I thought this post was brilliant from the get-go. It was so frustrating counting down the days until it got put up here. Excellent subject matter, excellent post.

  17. Paul C Says:

    Thatcherite-noir, you know, I can’t help thinking that’s a subgenre waiting to happen.

    Surely that should read “a subgenre waiting to have happened”?

    Wrt to the meat of the post; while I was reading V the first time, it occurred to me that the brilliantly dismal not-quite-photorealistic imagery that David Lloyd provided served a very specific purpose, superherowise. It mired the reader completely in the feel of 70s/80s England, which made it possible for V to achieve superheroic status purely by refusing to be similarly mired. The flowing grace of V’s cloak contrasts with the leaden rainoats of the other characters, the exact opposite purpose to Batman’s cloak, to dazzle rather than obscure.

    Or something like that.

  18. Zom Says:

    Well, except that Batman’s cape does often dazzle, but I know what you mean.

  19. pillock Says:

    I had issues with the movie. Just by being in a movie instead of in a comic, the pacing of Evie’s transformation was made problematic — in formal terms, I think anyway, that sequence benefits from being an episode in a serial and suffers from being part of a movie’s continuous, conventional scene-changing. Oddly, that makes it the part of VfV that needed the most adaptation for a cinematic presentation in order to carry the same weight it did in the comic, and yet how could you possibly tinker with it? You couldn’t: it wouldn’t be VfV without it, at all.

    Not that they didn’t try to remain faithful to the comic in that way — but it’s a case of something made so elegantly in the comics form, that it’s just inevitably going to lose something in translation.

    However, hearing Street Fighting Man over the credits made me literally start out of my seat — for that one, I blame.

  20. “My Green Dragon” « A Trout In The Milk Says:

    [...] over at Mindless Ones puts his finger right on it: just look at the art in that beautiful David Lloyd panel. V’s cloak is [...]

  21. pillock Says:

    By the way, if anyone looked at that link…I hope it reads a bit better now.

  22. Zom Says:

    I jumped over the link and it was good.

    Go read, fellow Mindless

  23. David Uzumeri Says:

    Great post, and you’re getting me thinking about the sort of pillar panel concept – that one-panel excerpt that acts as a microcosm for the entire series and solidifies the art-audience connection. I wonder how often you could find these kinds of things – and as for the personal nature, you’re inspiring me to maybe do some less stuffy posts myself, so keep at it as long as it stays this thought provoking.

  24. David Uzumeri Says:

    Sorry to double-post, but the panel analysis kind of reminds me of this assessment we had to do for the IB program in high school, where we’d get 20 minutes in a room to dissect and analyze a randomly selected passage from Hamlet and then 20 minutes to talk about it into a tape recorder with the teacher. It was probably one of the most illuminating exercises I ever did.

  25. pillock Says:

    We should all do it! It should be a meme! It would raise the level of discourse about comics art appreciation in blogland! Something which in my opinion is sorely needed…

    Too bad I don’t have a scanner…

  26. Zom Says:

    David, I don’t think what you do is stuffy, it’s just different.

    Pillock, I’m all about the memes.

  27. pillock Says:

    Man, can I do it, if you don’t?

    Because I may not have a scanner, but I have a plan.

    Email me!

  28. pillock Says:

    No, really, I have a plan.

  29. RE Says:

    That was a wonderful article. You did a great job.

    The film was terrible though. It missed the subtleties completely and therefore the whole story.
    This was some narrow-minded, naive, bombastic, Rage Against the Machine, McRevolutionary McAnthem…as was to be expected.

    Watchmen will be worse.

    Do you honestly think that the man who wrote Birth Caul and the man who directed the Dawn of the Dead remake would have anything to talk about? They have radically different worlds inside their heads.

  30. Zom Says:

    I too fear for Watchmen. Well… not fear exactly, more worry a titchy tiny bit that it won’t even be entertaining in a it’s-not-the-comic-but-it’s-okay-on-it’s-own-terms sort of way

  31. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    I don’t normally like to be the person, but yes having suffered LoEG, From Hell and V and seen a little of the chappy’s oeuvre and the trailer – I will write a check that says Watchmen is utter shite as a film right now, and cash it in a year. Don’t bother, honestly.

  32. Phase Aciiiieeeeeed!!! « Mindless Ones Says:

    [...] we’ll be blasting into your PCs today occurs in the plot, because, unlike the image of V in Zom’s piece, to fully understand what’s so interesting about this image depends on having some idea of [...]

  33. Judge Dredd in one panel « Mindless Ones Says:

    [...] ‘cool panel‘ month here at Mindless Ones, I will attempt to explain the basic appeal of [...]

  34. Through the cracked paving stones: An *enjoyment* of Edward Gorey’s ‘Object Lesson’ « Mindless Ones Says:

    [...] I initially had the idea for this post, I thought I’d try something in the vein of Zom’s one panel dissection of V, but I couldn’t find an individual panel/illustration that summed up the Gorey experience in [...]

  35. Zom’s better late than never winnest favourites of 2008 « Mindless Ones Says:

    [...] of comic art shouldn’t be seen as an end in itself, but after spending a good week or so meditating on V for Vendetta, page 20, panel 3; reading my fellow MOs panel reviews; pondering Paul Pope’s oeuvre; and flicking through [...]

  36. When A Pillock Meets A Mindless One, Comin’ Through The Rye…Part II « A Trout In The Milk Says:

    [...] he? That’s perfect. But if I was going to pick an all time favourite it has to be his V for Vendetta one (I hope you’re putting in links, Trout!). [ed. -- curse you, Amypoodle!] I grew up with [...]

  37. The Edenic Fracture: Panel Madness Day One « A Trout In The Milk Says:

    [...] to the Panel Madness Week blogaround, of which this essay is the first installment. You can thank this exegesis of a single panel from V For Vendetta for the inspiration (hmm, and I do believe there [...]

  38. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Rooftops (or why I love Daredevil Born Again part 2) Says:

    [...] and strangely liberating about this resonance, a similar feeling to the one I described when I wrote about that V for Vendetta panel. The fantastic in the finite, and the finite in the [...]

  39. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Grant Morrison Supergods interview transcript Says:

    [...] All you just have to do is look, I mean you guys know that, you did it with V for Vendetta, and suddenly all the holographic fractal stuff starts coming out of even the most unpreposessing [...]

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