03/07/2006 12:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

V FOR VENDETTA: Before you see the movie, read the book

1997. London. Sixteen-year-old Evey Hammond, short of cash, walks the grim back streets in search of a man who will pay her for sex. It's her first time. She's scared. And, worse, unlucky.

"You don't know what you're doing," a man says, as he grabs her and flashes his badge. "Or you wouldn't have picked a vice detail on stakeout."

What's her punishment? "We get to decide what happens to you....You'll do anything we want --- and then we'll kill you."

But wait! Here comes a man in a long black cape and a big-brimmed, high-peaked black hat. He recites a passage from "Macbeth" --- and calmly wastes the cops.

And then, almost as an afterthought, he blows up Parliament.

Oh....did I say Evey's rescuer --- he calls himself "V" --- wears a white, full-faced, grinning mask?

And that 'V for Vendetta' is a comic book --- okay, a graphic novel, 265 pages long?

Those in the Know had a tip-off in the author's credit: Alan Moore ("From Hell" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," among many others) is the mad genius of the illustrated novel. David Lloyd is his equal at creating images that match the mood of Moore's fantastic stories. This book, written from 1981 to 1988, is their masterpiece --- and the inspiration for the movie by the Wachowski brothers (creators of the 'Matrix' trilogy.)

There are technical reasons why newcomers to this genre can be excited by 'V for Vendetta.' Unlike old-fashioned comics, there are no panels that signal action --- no "Blam!" and "Pow!" and "Oooof!" And there are no "thought bubbles" to take us inside the characters' heads so we can share what passes for thinking. The result is a streamlined book of considerable beauty.

More to the point, this format lets Moore tell a story that is long on ideas and short on action --- and is still absolutely thrilling. Consider the situation. Because England has managed to convince the United States to remove its nuclear missiles from British soil, the country has been spared the holocaust that seems to have decimated most of the world. But in the chaos that followed the war, fascists have taken over the government. An all-powerful "Leader" has the people under total surveillance. And the government propaganda machine --- the "Voice of Fate" --- is the only media permitted. There are no dissenters, and yet it seems that citizens are constantly being arrested for "terrorism." For all but the very privileged, England is Hell on earth.

Will V take down the government? Who, really, is V? And what destiny does V plan for Evey?

It would have been easy to invoke the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley and portray this fascist state as the logical extension of Margaret Thatcher's government. But Moore and Lloyd are playing for higher stakes. As Moore knows better than most writers, Fascism is essentially a theory of government that sets order above liberty and regards politics as the agent of business. Moore grasps the bitter irony of the Allies' victory over Hitler and Mussolini; in the decades after the war, the winners consistently traded their freedoms for "security." By the l980s, most people in "free" countries were unfree drones, addicted to mass entertainment and quite happy to believe any lie their governments told them.

"V" is not a traditional liberator. He's an anarchist, and a very refined anarchist at that --- he believes that every citizen must take responsibility for himself. And much of the novel consists of his ongoing dialogue with Evey about politics and philosophy. Heavy going? I'd say exhilarating. And not just because Moore is a sharp thinker who avoids banality. I'm equally dazzled by the range of his quotations and references --- The Rolling Stones, Alistair Crowley, William Blake, Martha & the Vandellas.

I fear that most readers --- and film audiences --- will miss the subtleties and hear only the remarkable (for a corporation like Warner Brothers, anyway) advertising slogan for the movie: "The people should not be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of the people." The big takeaway of the book is more intellectual: "Ideas are bulletproof."

Who should read this illustrated novel? Anyone who's interested in large ideas, dramatically expressed. And more: kids. 'V for Vendetta' is the ideal book for teenage slackers --- if you know of a smart kid with a bad attitude and a disdain for adult authority, you will do him/her a big favor with the gift of this paperback. Yeah, there's some sex. There's worse on network TV. But I can't think of another book that packs as many bright ideas and sharp speeches in the context of a thriller. And in a comic, yet.

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