By Natasha Nicole Roffe

It was a real privilege to take a peek at the V for Vendetta exhibition, and a joy to be in a real life real time exhibition in Wells Street in London’s West End.

The Cartoon Museum, like many others, has been closed for the duration of Covid and relocated to its newly refurbished location with bold images on the entrance stairwalls – it felt like there was much to celebrate. 

The museum has sourced original art work from one of the most compelling and iconic graphic novels of the 20th century; written by Alan Moore with drawings by David Lloyd. The first V for Vendetta cartoon was published in 1983 in black and white in Warrior magazine. 

The comic book inspired the 2005 movie starring Hugo Weaving in the title role and Natalie Portman as Evey. Its iconography has become instantly recognisable and associated with an idea of protest, empowerment and self agency, the struggles of all the characters.

At the core of V for Vendetta is a mythic tale set in a dystopian era future London. The premise is that the United Kingdom has survived an international nuclear war and is run by a fictional fascist regime.

The original setting is meant to hold a mirror up to the social contract of the 1980’s – a worn down urban and bleak Thatcherite Britain.

The overriding image connected with the comic strip is the unmistakable and iconic mask symbol – which is a constant theme throughout the exhibition. The resurrected Guy Fawkes papier mache face, with matching cape and hat, is oddly menacing and of course hugely relevant to our current Covid era.

The irony was not lost on me that I went into the expo wearing my mask – anonymous and sanitised, bending my will to fit the Covid criteria, and it is the emblem of the mask itself which has been co-opted as a universal sign of rebellion the world over.

As I stood there surveying the images of riot and rebellion from beneath misted up glasses, I was struck by how timely their reopening exhibition is to our current political and social reality. The exhibition artfully captures the essence of the novel and the film presenting the character V in pursuit of an anarchist society; lesson by lesson he guides his mentee Evey through his philosophy. Both characters rise up through their actual and perceived oppression to regain their own agency and power.  

These twin themes reach through every aspect of the exhibition, communicating a message of freedom from political oppression – but also freedom of mind and spirit.

Yet the path to freedom is paved with violence and destruction, raising complex and timely questions about morality, justice and resistance.

Despite the show being planned many months prior to our shared now, I couldn’t fail to see the links with our current pandemic-infused world where we find our personal actions controlled by the state – our freedoms curtailed by fear of disease and with all of this individuals attempting to be true to their own inner worlds and yet struggling to shake off the shackles set by governments, external agencies and generalised collective panic.

The layout of the exhibition is vivid and visceral, belligerent and delightful, with something to say beyond the skilled comic artwork in its fine pencil detail and captivating imagery. 

My pervading overriding experience was how pertinent the tone of the show was – what we have all endured and survived in the past 15 months. 

Striking and bold images of deserted streets jumped off the page. Immediately I linked it with the many months of isolation so many us were subject too. 

I “did” lockdown alone in central London. One image of searing high rise skyscrapers, menacing lamplights and threatening skies perfectly encapsulated that feeling of existential terror and uncertainty – such a feature of the initial days of the virus.

This exhibition would speak to all those who consider themselves rebels of any age; it joyously and decisively charts the journey of the character – both heroes and villains – as they seek retribution and transformation. The sorcery and exquisite nature of the artwork is a fitting conduit to communicate the dilemmas faced by V and Evey, and ultimately by all of us.

In modern day May, in the afterglow of a vicious and punishing pandemic, where so many have suffered trauma and loss, I could not help but be moved by the graphic representations of a world in chaos – spiralling, full of conflict and confusion.  

Perhaps in the last year we have had to channel the V inside all of us as we attempt to chart a path through the Orwellian nightmare of the very near past. Like V and Evey as depicted in Lloyd’s fine art work, we are compelled to betray who we imagined ourselves to be, sneaking in the odd hug, some contraband toilet rolls and pasta or through meeting up for an extra elicit coffee in the open air, and by these small actions we are both heroes and also potentially criminals.

The exhibition also contained a notes of contemporary hope and transition. The final section of the show was given over to the real life contemporary Vs – those who choose to ally themselves with causes across the political spectrum. The final room is a testimony to these people, individuals who know implicitly that the person is political and have found causes which resonate with them personally and through which connecting with they feel more truly themselves.

The current V of our time are the street artists at extinction rebellion, the ardent Brexiteers – those campaigning for Black Lives Matter and freedom of space.

They are honing in on the original energy of the V for Vendetta idea first captured in the 1980s.

It feels timely and ingenious bringing the energy of V into the here and now.

Ultimately it communicates the idea that however small and powerless we imagine ourselves to be, we have more power than we realise. Each of us has choice in how we respond to a situation, each of us can find causes and ideas that speak to the very heart of who we imagine ourselves to be. Each of us can rise up, differentiate ourselves from our situations, and find truths and causes that transform who we are and ultimately the world herself.

V for Vendetta: Behind The Mask is at the Cartoon Museum until 31 October 2021