"BEHIND THE PAINTED SMILE" 

  An Essay by Alan Moore on the creation of "V for Vendetta"

 

There's one at every convention or comic mart or work-in or signing, always one nervous and naive young novice who, during a lull in the questions-and answers session will raise one fluttering hand aloft and inquire, tremulously, "Where do you get your ideas from?" And do you know what we do? We sneer. We lampoon and ridicule the sniveling little oaf before his peers, we degrade and humiliate him utterly and rend him into bloodied slivers with our implacable and caustic wit. We imply that even to have voiced such a question places him irretrievably in the same intellectual category as the common pencil-sharpener. Then, when we've wrung every last sadistic laugh out of this pitiful little blot, we have the bailiffs take him outside and work him over. No, I know it isn't nice. But all the same, it's something that we have to do.

The reason why we have to do it is pretty straight forward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don't know the answer and we're scared that somebody will find out. One thing that Dave Lloyd and I get asked quite a lot is "Where did the idea for V come from?"

Well, all right. It's a fair question. We've talked it over amongst ourselves and we both feel that it deserves an answer, if only to make up for the cryptic and unpleasant way we've behaved in the past. The only problem is that we don't really remember. I recall that it was myself who came up with all the good ideas while Dave can produce eight sworn witnesses who'll testify that it was him. Luckily, we do still have a certain amount of documentation going back to the period when Warrior was still in the planning stages. Being as objective as I possibly can, I intend to rearrange these fragments into a fabulous and intricate mosaic that will once and for all lay bare the inner mysteries of the human creative process without prejudice or favor. But it was still me who had all the good ideas.

V FOR VENDETTA started out partly in the Marvel UK Hulk Weekly and partly in an idea that I submitted to a Thomson's Scriptwriter Talent Competition when I was a tender 22 years old. My idea concerned a freakish terrorist in white-face makeup who traded under the name of "The Doll" and waged war upon a Totalitarian State sometime in the late 1980s. D.C. Thomson decided a transsexual terrorist wasn't quite what they were looking for and wisely opted for an entry submitted by a green-grocer from Hull entitled "Battler Bunn (He Bombs The Hun!)" or something very similar. Thus faced with rejection, I did what any serious artist would do. I gave up.

Shortly thereafter, the aforementioned Hulk Weekly began to appear on the stands as part of the Marvel Revolution being delivered by Dez Skinn in his new job as chief of British Marvel. The contents included Steve Parkhouse, Paul Neary and John Stokes' reworking of "The Black Knight" into a framework of Celtic legend, Steve Moore and Steve Dillon's interpretation of "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E-L.D.," and a little gem of a thirties mystery strip called "Nightraven," being written by Steve Parkhouse and drawn by Dave Lloyd with John Bolton bringing up the rear. It was a good strip and it won Eagle Awards. Thus, according to the comic book equivalent of Murphy's Law, it went down the tubes with alarming rapidity. "Nightraven" vanished from the comic, Dez Skinn vanished from Marvel, Hulk Weekly vanished from the shops, spring turned to winter, leaves fell from the calendar and all of those other things that they do in films to indicate the passage of time. While all this was going on, I was hiding under the bed and sobbing, trying desperately to get over my crushing rejection at the hands of Thomson. Things looked bleak.

Finally the 1980s rolled round and with them the first whispers of Warrior. Dez, now ensconced up in Studio System, had decided he wanted to be involved in comics again. So he gathered together some of the best artists and writers he had worked with in the past. These included Dave Lloyd, who was asked to create a new thirties mystery strip. When Dave was given the mystery strip, he decided that while he had plenty of ideas upon how it should be handled visually, the mechanics of plot and characterization were, for the moment, beyond him. Since the two of us had worked happily upon a couple of back-up strips in Doctor Who Monthly, he suggested me as writer. At this point the telephone conversations that were to financially cripple both of us began, along with the voluminous (and, where Dave was concerned, indecipherable) correspondence that we needed in order to trade ideas and knock this thing into shape. In other words, this is the point where it gets confusing.

Given the original brief, my first ideas centered around a new way of approaching the thirties pulp adventure strip. I came up with a character called "Vendetta," who would be set in a realistic thirties world that drew upon my own knowledge of the Gangster era, bolstered by lots of good, solid research. I sent the idea off to Dave. His response was that he was sick to the back teeth of doing good solid research and if he was called upon to draw one more '28 model Dusenberger he'd eat his arm. This presented a serious problem.

Mulling over the difficulty, I began to give some consideration as to what it actually was that made Pulp Magazine Adventures work. Obviously, a lot of it was rooted in the exotic and glamorous locations that the stories were set in... seedy waterfront bars, plush penthouses dripping with girls, stuff like that. All the magic of a vanished age. It struck me that it might be possible to get the same effect by placing the story in the near future as opposed to the near past. If we handled it right, we could create the same sense of mingled exoticism and familiarity without Dave having to spend hours of his working time arguing with harassed-looking assistants at the reference library. Dave and Dez both liked the idea, and so we were off.

The next problem was the creation of the main character and the actual setting for the strip. Since Dave and I both wanted to do something that would be uniquely British rather than emulate the vast amount of American material on the market, the setting was obviously going to be England. Furthermore, since both Dave and myself share a similar brand of political pessimism, the future would be pretty grim, bleak and totalitarian thus giving us a convenient antagonist to play our hero off against. Not unnaturally, I recalled my original idea for "The Doll" and submitted a rough outline to Dave. It was a pretty conventional thing really and little more than predictable comic book fare with a few nice touches. It had the sort of grim, hi-tech world that you could seek in books like Fahrenheit 451 or, more recently, in films like Blade Runner. It had robots, uniformed riot police of the kneepads and helmets variety and all that other good stuff. Reading it, I think we both felt that we were onto something, but that sadly this wasn't it.

At around about the same time, Never, Ltd. were preparing the first issue of their short-lived comic magazine Pssst. Dave had submitted a strip-sample that he'd come up with by himself entitled "Falconbridge" featuring a freedom fighter named Evelina Falconbridge and an art style that was a radical departure from the stuff he'd been doing on Doctor Who and Hulk Weekly. Pssst rejected it, certain that the future of comics lay in short
experimental pieces rather than in continuing characters.

For my part, when I looked at it I found it potentially exciting. Dave was obviously on the verge of something splendid here, and I very much wanted to be part of it. That said, all we really had was a lot of unusable ideas flying back and forth and nothing very tangible as a result of it. One night, in desperation, I made a long list of concepts that I wanted to reflect in V, moving from one to another with rapid free-association that would make any good psychiatrist reach for the emergency cord. The list was something as follows; Orwell. Huxley. Thomas Disch. Judge Dredd. Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." "Catman" and "Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" by the same author. Vincent Price's Dr. Phibes and Theatre Of Blood. David Bowie. The Shadow. Nightraven. Batman. Fahrenheit 451. The writings of the New Worlds school of science-fiction. Max Ernst's painting "Europe After The Rains," Thomas Pynchon, The atmosphere of British Second World War films. The Prisoner. Robin Hood. Dick Turpin...

There was some element in all of these that I could use, but try as I might I couldn't come up with a coherent whole from such disjointed parts. I'm sure that it's a feeling that all artists and writers are familiar with... the sensation of there being something incredibly good just beyond your fingertips. It's frustrating and infuriating and you either fold up in despair or just carry on. Against my usual inclinations, I decided to just carry on.

Along with all this, we were also stuck for a name for the character. I'd abandoned the "Vendetta" idea without a thought along with the concept it related to and was struggling with a morass of names including such forgettables as "The Ace of Shades" amongst others. While by no means my major preoccupation, it was another annoying buzz in the back of my head to add to all the rest. Meanwhile, lost for a character, I proceeded to at least try to work the world into some sort of shape, creating a believable landscape for the 1990's setting that we'd decided upon.

This proved a lot easier. Starting with the assumption that the Conservatives would obviously lose the 1983 elections, I began to work out a future based upon the Labour Party gaining power, removing all American missiles from British soil and thus preventing Britain from becoming a major target in the event of a nuclear war. With disturbingly little difficulty it was easy for me to plot the course from that point up until the Fascist takeover in the post-holocaust Britain of the 1990's. It was sometime around this point that Dez rang up and informed us that Graham Marsh (his partner at Studio System) and he had come up with the perfect title for the proposed strip, said title being "V for Vendetta." (Dez hadn't been privy to our thoughts about the thirties strip and had just arrived at the name by pure blind coincidence.) We took this as a sign from the gods, and so "V for Vendetta" it was. Funnily enough, having an actual title to focus on save us a fresh incentive to work out the rest of the strip, which we now applied ourselves to with a vengeance.

I revised my original notes, coming up with the idea that the central character could be some sort of escapee, psychologically altered by his stay in a Government Concentration Camp. For personal reasons, I had decided to set the camp at Larkhill in Wiltshire, site of both an existing army camp and one of the most truly horrendous hitch-hiking holidays I've ever had in my entire life. I'll tell you about it some other time. Dave, meanwhile, was coming up with character designs and story ideas to see if any of them tickled our creative fancy. One of his notions was that the lead character would perhaps operate clandestinely within the existing police force, subverting it from within. To this end, Dave designed a costume based upon a variation in the way he saw police uniforms of the 1990s. It had a big "V" on the front formed from the belts and straps attached to the uniform, and while it looked nice, I think both Dave and I were uneasy about falling into such a straightforward super-hero cliché with what we saw as having the potential for being something utterly fresh and different.

The big breakthrough was all Dave's, much as it sickens me to admit it. More remarkable still, it was all contained in one single letter that he'd dashed off the top of his head and which, like most of Dave's handwriting, needed the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone to actually interpret. I transcribe the relevant portions beneath:

"Re. The script; While I was writing this, I had this idea about the hero, which is a bit redundant now we've got [can't read the next bit] but nonetheless... I was thinking, why don't we portray him as a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those papier mache masks in a cape and conical hat? He'd look really bizarre and it would give Guy Fawkes the image he's deserved all these years. We shouldn't burn the chap every Nov. 5th but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!" 

The moment I read these words, two things occurred to me. Firstly, Dave was obviously a lot less sane than I'd hitherto believed him to be, and secondly, this was the best idea I'd ever heard in my entire life. All of the various fragments in my head suddenly fell into place, united behind the single image of a Guy Fawkes mask. 

Brain reeling, I read on. Elsewhere in the same letter, Dave was giving me his ideas as to how he actually wanted to approach the strip in terms of layout and execution. These included the absolute banning of sound effects, and, as an afterthought, the utter eradication of thought balloons into the bargain. As a writer, this terrified me. I wasn't so much bothered about the sound effects, but without thought balloons, how was I going to get over all the nuances of character that I needed to make the book satisfying on a literary level? All the same, there was something about the discipline of the idea that fascinated me, and while dropping off to sleep at night I'd find it nagging away somewhere in the recesses of my cerebral swamp.

A couple of days later I wrote back to Dave telling him that the Guy Fawkes idea was definitely it, that not only would we do without thought balloons and sound effects but I was prepared to get rid of most of the caption boxes as well and just rely entirely on pictures and dialogue. In the history of any strip or book or whatever, this is the moment where you get your real reward... the moment when all of the half-ideas and idiocies gel into something that is much more than the sum of its parts and thus entirely unexpected and utterly beautiful. Now that we had the centre of the strip determined, we began to build upon it rapidly... Dave sent designs for the V character which were perfect apart from the fact that Dave had got the shape of the hat wrong. I began to sketch in the secondary characters that I figured we would need to tell the sort of story that was fast becoming evident that we wanted to tell. Some of the characters lacked a face, even though I could see all of their mannerisms in my mind's eye. Between us, Dave and myself hammered out these fine details, often borrowing a face from some actor who we both felt was appropriate to the part... in many respects it was like casting a film, I suppose. However, many of the other characters Dave drew from his own vivid imagination, based upon my character notes.

From all the above, you might have been given the impression that the creation of V was a very dry and calculating affair, and, at least in the early stages, I suppose it was. It's only those exceptional and rare individuals who have brilliant ideas delivered to them by the muse, complete and gift wrapped. The rest of us have to work at it. That said, however, there comes a point where, assuming that all of your logic and planning is of a sound variety, the work starts to take off and assumes a vitality of its own. Ideas start to occur almost magically as opposed to being the end result of a long and grinding Intellectual process. This started to happen with V right from the first episode.

There was the way in which a lengthy Shakespeare quote that was arrived at by opening a copy of  The Collected Works at random seemed to fit, exactly, line for line, with the sequence of actions that I had planned for V in his first skirmish with the forces of order. More important still, there was the way in which, aided by Dave's visuals, the characters began to take on more and more of a life of their own. I'd look at a character who I'd previously seen as a one-dimensional Nazi baddy and suddenly realise that he or she would have thoughts and opinions the same as everyone else. I'd be planning one thing for the characters to do and then realise that they had an entirely different direction in which they wanted to go.

Perhaps most important of all, we began to realise that the story we were telling was wandering further and further away from the straightforward "one man against the world" story that we'd started out with. There were elements emerging from the combination of my words and David's pictures that neither of us could remember putting there individually. There were resonances being struck that seemed to point to larger issues than the ones which we'd both come to accept as par for the course where comics were concerned.

Of course, as a comic strip begins to grow beyond its creators one experiences a certain feeling of nervousness at not knowing where the strip is going to go next. On the other hand, there is a massive sense of excitement and creativity in such an unrestricted venture. I suppose it must feel a bit like surfing on a tidal wave... it feels great while you're doing it but you're not really sure of either where you're going to end up or whether you'll still be one piece when you get there. All of this vague metaphysical blather aside for the moment, a lot of people have expressed an interest in how
we actually put an episode of V together. Well, purely in the interests of science, this is how it goes:

To start with, we both have a rough idea of the general direction of the plot and where it's going, allowing for any sudden changes of direction that the story might decide to make for itself. We know, for example, that there will be three books in all chronicling the full V story. The first sets up the character and his world. The second, "This Vicious Cabaret," explores the supporting characters in greater depth and centres for the most part upon the character of Evey Hammond. The third book, tentatively entitled "The Land of Do-As-You-Please," draws all of these disparate threads into what we hope will be a satisfying climax.

Given that structure, I try to decide what I think is needed in any given episode, bearing in mind its relationship to the episode that came before it. I might, for example, decide that we've had an awful lot of talking lately and not much action, I might decide that it'd be nice to check on how Eric Finch or Rosemary Almond are getting on. Pretty soon I have a list of all the elements that I feel it's vital we include in this particular issue. All that remains to be done is to fit them into a coherent storyline that is somehow complete in itself while remaining a part of a larger whole and, at the same time, moving with the fluidity that Dave and I are anxious to inject into the strip.

On good days, everything goes right and I have the whole script executed from start to finish within four or five hours. On bad days I write the whole script in four or five hours, realise that it's useless, tear it up and start again. I repeat this process four or five times until I'm reduced to a blubbering wreck that just slumps in the armchair and whimpers about how it has no talent whatsoever and will never write again. Next day, I'll get up, get the whole thing right the first time and spend the rest of the day walking round reading my favourite bits to my wife, children, or visiting tradesmen. (This is why you should never marry an artist or writer. They're bad news to have around the house, believe me.)

Once I'm satisfied with the script, it goes to Dave. He runs through it very thoroughly, checking it for plot or character inconsistencies and trying to figure out how it's going to work visually. While I stage-manage most of the visual sequences from my end, I try to leave enough room for Dave to expand or alter them as he sees fit, so he'll add a couple of frames here and there to make the action flow more smoothly or maybe excise certain frames altogether. He then rings me up and runs through the script out-lining his suggested changes. Usually, these are fairly minor and can be sorted out at once. Occasionally they're more serious and we'll argue ferociously for hours until arriving at a sensible compromise. The only thing that is important to either of us is what ends up on the finished printed page is as perfect as we can make it.

Dave then buckles down to the artwork and within a couple of weeks I receive an eagerly awaited package of reduced and lettered photo-copies of the finished work by agency of the G.P.O. I suppose that theoretically I can decide at this juncture if there's anything in Dave's artwork that needs changing. So far, however, there hasn't been. Dave combines a remorseless professionalism with a deep emotional involvement in the strip equal to my own, and if ever he should decide to leave the strip, there is not the remotest possibility of my working with anyone else upon it. V is something that happens at the point where my warped personality meets David's warped personality, and it is something that neither of us could do either by ourselves or working with another artist or writer. Despite the way that some of the series' admirers choose to view it, it isn't "Alan Moore's V" or "David Lloyd's V." It's a joint effort in every sense of the word, because after trying the alternatives, that is the only way that comics can ever work. There is absolutely no sense in a writer trying to bludgeon his artist to death with vast and over-written captions any more than an artist should try to bury his writer within a huge and impressive gallery of pretty pictures. What's called for is teamwork, in the grand tradition of Hope and Crosby, Tate and Lyie, Pinky and Perky, or The Two Ronnies. Hopefully, that's what we've got.
So anyway, that's where we get our ideas from. I was going to go on from this point and tell you exactly who V really is, but I'm afraid that I've run out of room. The only real hint I can give is that V isn't Evey's father, Whistler's mother or Charley's aunt. Beyond that, I'm afraid you're on your own.

England Prevails.

Alan Moore
October 1983

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