The Ruined Cities – Leo Mellor and V for Vendetta

Submissions Reader Eavie Burnett examines the political impact of the destruction of urban landscapes in fiction. 

Destruction is a powerful force. Obliterating urban landscapes creates a seemingly empty space that is in fact loaded with “phantasmal apparition” (139), as Leo Mellor describes. Mellor goes on to detail the potential for “politicization of understanding the ruins” (145), a productive idea that encourages an extensive analysis of ruination. In order for ruins to emerge, however, something must first be destroyed. Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel V For Vendetta (1989) and the final short story in Neil Gaiman’s Fables and Reflections (1993) entitled “Ramadan”, deal in these practices: politicisation of destruction.

Both texts see their respective cities, Baghdad and London, destroyed in relation to memorialisation. In doing so, they variously critique gentrification, expansive urbanism, material power structures, and the value of memorials. 

“Ramadan” sees Haroun Al Raschid, King of Iraq, the victim of a “troubled…soul” (231) at the thought of his beautiful city decaying. To combat this, he strikes a deal with Dream: the city itself in return for its preservation. Dream captures the “city in a bottle” (257), before the final revelation that the previous pages were in fact a story shared between impoverished citizens of 1990s Baghdad. Before this revelatory ending, the text is rendered in glorious colours, depicting opulent buildings and reflective surfaces. However, the text’s layout alludes to a looming presence hiding beneath this gauze of grandeur. Most of “Ramadan”’s panelling fails to follow a pattern, the structure instead appears to be a random configuration of shapes. Whilst the other stories in Fables and Reflections occasionally break from the standard waffle iron layout, none does so quite to the extent of “Ramadan.” Interestingly, this often reshapes the gutter: some pages see swathes of empty space surrounding panels, yet others fill the gaps with Iraqi repeat patterns (235). On occasion, characters occupy the gutter space, for example, Haroun and his vizier Jafar the Barmakid seem to sit astride a panel as the latter consoles the former (235).  Rather than “a ‘non-space’ between panels” (49), as Will Eisner describes, “Ramadan” reconfigures the gutter into consciously unwritten space.

These purposeful elisions allude to ignored presence lurking behind “Ramadan”’s visual opulence. Even as Haroun gazes in wonder upon what used to be his city, encapsulated in Dream’s bottle, suggestions of oversights are pervasive. The panel is circular, yet contained within a smaller square filled, not with the scene, but block purple. Here, it is specifically opulence- regal purple- that conceals the corners of the urban scene. Beneath this panel, a square of white, not itself a panel but an extended gutter space, gapes with further unstated

information. The circular panel does not holistically depict the city: the previous panel showing Haroun’s gaze intrudes the scene. This proves illustrative of the functioning of Haroun’s perception: the blank intrusion his eye-line makes into the ‘city in a bottle’ is the very agent of erasure in “Ramadan”.  Seeing, then, is concealment.

Haroun’s perspective of the city furthers the depiction of his myopia: strikingly elevated, he always perceives the city from above. He proclaims his love for Baghdad to his vizier, Jafar, from the balcony of an opulent building (235). In his admiration, he appears to survey his entire kingdom, yet in fact the graphics depict in detail only building tops; the lower grounds of the city are obscured by grand towers. Later, he leads Dream on a tour through his city, yet he does so upon a flying carpet. This mode of transport is necessarily elevated, meaning that Haroun never has to engage with the ground level activities of his citizens. Once again, the graphic opulence focuses on looming building tops rendered in rich colours. Haroun’s perception is therefore shaped by elimination of the ground. This prioritisation of building tops suggests a location for unspoken activities. In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis details the vast expanse of urbanisation, particularly in the developing world.

One consequence of this, he argues, is that ‘the suburban zones of many poor cities are now so vast as to suggest the need to rethink peripherality” (37). That is, the urban poor no longer reside on the outskirts of cities, as there are simply too many people for this to be viable. This proves pertinent in the consideration of “Ramadan”: flying across the city on his carpet and proclaiming his love for the city from a physically elevated position, Haroun eliminates all at ground level from his consideration. Doing so suggests a locale for the reconsidered periphery: the ground.  In Haroun’s world, peripherality becomes configured on a vertical axis.

What, then, lurks behind “Ramadan”’s colourful costume? The text is not wholly devoid of ground level engagement: Dream and Haroun visit a marketplace to strike their deal. The scene is packed with colour and activity, which initially seems to suggest celebration of the Baghdadi quotidian. Hayder Al-Mohammed posits, “if one turns to the everyday in Iraq, one can find small gestures…that are not simply positive tales contained within the destruction of post-invasion Iraq, but are the very grounds by which many Iraqis have been able to survive and live through the terror and uncertainty of the last decade” (111). The quotidian, according to Al-Mohammed, is strikingly illuminative in the examination of Iraqi life. Despite Haroun’s interaction with the working marketplace, Davis’ exploration of third world trade reveals that his vision remains markedly myopic. Initially, Haroun listens to the babble of street vendors who offer a plethora of produce. Detailed depictions of citizens’ faces accompany their words. However, after only two vendors have spoken, a panel foregrounds Haroun’s face, whilst those of the citizens are reduced once again to indiscriminate outlines devoid of detail. Further, the vendor’s speech progressively decreases in size until it becomes an illegible scribble. Once again, poverty is depicted reductively in Haroun’s perception.  His interactions are not only dismissive, but enact unequal power relations based on material exchange.  Haroun barters with a street vendor, offering “a dirham for these miserable grapes” (251), a meagre offer met with dismay. The vendor praises the product’s quality, “these grapes—each perfect globe so fine that, were it made into wine it would only be suitable for our Caliph himself, Haroun Al Raschid, whom Allah protect and enlighten!” (252). Upon realising Haroun’s identity, however, the vendor reduces his offer and throws in “two of these fine plums, with [his] compliments” (252). To Haroun’s financial stability, three dirhams is a reasonable price for the grapes, and one which would be far more valuable to the vendor than to Haroun. Davis explores the economic market of the developing world, demonstrating that this material exchange reflects the wider informal sector present in the world’s slums. He delineates the formal working class from the informal; the latter is comprised of slum dwellers whose occupational marginality denies them workers’ rights. According to Davis, this sector grows alongside urbanisation, meaning that need for work grows despite the stagnating job market.

This, he argues, means that the informal sector merely subdivides existing labour rather than creating new labour. He makes explicit reference to street vendors, describing how “informal and small-scale formal enterprises ceaselessly war with one another for economic space: street vendors versus small shopkeepers… and so on” (186).  The exchange in which Haroun participates is therefore strikingly informal; the structure of the marketplace, the only quotidian scene, is based upon unequal materiality. The individuals are recast as struggling quasi-citizens devoid of workers’ rights, fighting for both economic and physical space. The marketplace scene, therefore, unmasks an unsavoury element of Haroun’s Baghdad: an unequal economic system which denies his citizens their rights. Despite engaging with the quotidian, Haroun remains oblivious to the strikingly unequal economic system that underpins his beautiful city. 

The story’s final image is revelatory, not only narratively, but with regards to Haroun’s perspective. Levelled, dishevelled, and destroyed, it seems that the beautiful Baghdad has been reduced to ruin. A young boy asks “but what happened to Haroun Al Raschid? Or to the old city of Baghdad? Or to…” (258), but an old man interrupts him, “hold on little one. Do you have another coin?” (258). This exchange unmasks the nature of the story it proceeds; it was just that: a story. This is not the scene’s only revelatory act. Finally focusing on the quotidian Al-Mohammed cherishes, without the distracting visuals of the marketplace, points to that which Haroun’s gaze masked: a ruined city. This image, however, is perhaps the most productive of the narrative. Pertinently, the outlines of vertically expansive towers are visible in the distance: this gaze does not eliminate one form of urban life in exchange for another. Ironically, the Baghdad Haroun longed to retain has indeed been preserved: in memory. The city itself, however, decays. The poignant revelation posits the material and the remembered city relationally: the latter can survive, but only at the cost of the former. Destruction, then, is a revelatory force which critiques both the expansive urbanism that has reshaped Twentieth and Twenty First century slums, and the purpose of memorialisation. 

Moore and Lloyd’s V for Vendetta similarly uses urban destruction to critique memorialisation. V is a generator of ruins, and the graphic novel is peppered with explosions of his causing. He begins with the houses of parliament (14), through the statue of justice (41), a skyline of London tower buildings (186), and finally, albeit posthumously, Downing Street (262).  He intends to rewrite authoritarian rule with his own anarchic practices: that is, explosive eradication of urban landscapes. The spectral V conceptually springboards from urban destruction.  Chronologically, V’s first explosion occurs at Larkhill Resettlement Camp, where he is imprisoned and experimented upon. Throughout his stay, he squirrels away garden supplies, notably an “ammonia-based fertiliser” (81) and grease solvent which he ultimately uses to make “mustard gas… and napalm” (83). In an explosive conclusion to his stay, he uses these resources to blow up the camp. Marcus Oppolzer suggests that, in this first explosion, V enacts “a dramatic rebirth through fire and destruction- he becomes a complete anomaly: he exists physically and legally outside the system” (Oppolzer 107). Through fire, the anti-authoritarian figure is created. Pertinently, however, Oppolzer shows that, after the fire at Larkhill, V transcends systematic classification, allowing him to live above the law. 

V’s transcendence of lawful living challenges the ends of his destructive behaviour. His first depicted explosion, the Houses of Parliament, is rendered only as the moment of chaos itself: amongst a halo of yellow, the tallest spire is propelled upwards, detaching itself from the rest of the building (14). Following the explosion, citizens respond: “all over London, widows are thrown open and faces lit with awe and wonder gaze at the omen scrawled in fire on the night” (14). In perhaps the most influential critical work on ruins, Rose Macauly describes “the spectacle of ruined buildings” (n.p.), detailing the “pleasure” (n.p,) individuals glean from them. The “awe and wonder” (14) Moore describes, and the correlating faces in the accompanying image, certainly demonstrate this fascination.

Interestingly, the six citizens depicted are all compacted into one panel; their experiences are squashed into a corner of the page. Each observes the explosion from a different angle. Reading his newspaper from a ground level building, a gentleman looks into the sky; two more people watch from a first floor building; another two men run along the ground staring just over their shoulders; and the silhouette of a woman in a high rise flat appears to watch straight ahead of her (14). Crucially, each individual occupies a different level of the city.  Evey and V, however, watch from their position atop a building, observing the blast only from an elevated position. In fact, similar to Haroun, V never dwells in the city’s ground.

Even his residence, the underground shadow gallery, is physically removed from the everyday ground. He therefore never has to reside in the ruins he creates; his experience of the society he seeks to restructure is minimal. As does Haroun’s to the street vendors, the presentation of V’s gaze constrains citizen experience to a single panel. Despite this and his personal removal from the quotidian, he undemocratically appoints himself to restructure the city in aid of social change.   

In this self-elected reshaping of the city, V enacts a form of gentrification. Indeed, his actions mimic urban planning projects and the complex power relations they entail. The space between 56th and 57th streets on Fifth Avenue, New York, for example, was once occupied by a department store. After it was bulldozed, the space was rebuilt as Trump Tower, a branded memorialisation of the man who organised the destruction: Donald Trump (US President). Trump, a powerful figure, organised the building’s destruction to rebuild this branded signifier of himself. V’s actions are not dissimilar: he decides which buildings to destroy, transforming the urban landscape. Following the explosion at the Houses of Parliament, V tells Evey, “there’s more…” (14). Fireworks fill the sky, spelling the letter “V”. He therefore fills the empty space he creates with a signifier of his own identity. His destruction, like Trump’s, tears down elements of the urban to reconstruct with self memorial. Indeed, V’s final action seals the memorialising ends of his urban destruction. At the moment of his death, V requests of Evey that she “give [him] a Viking funeral” (245). In a final chapter entitled “Valhalla”, Evey, who has donned V’s mask with the intention of continuing his mission, places V in the coffin of his own creation: a tube car decked with flowers. Posthumously, V enacts his final destruction: his self-made hearse transports him to “where the line is blocked ‘twixt Whitehall and St. James… right under Downing Street” (262). Evey watches, again from above, as Downing Street explodes. As with the explosion of the Houses of Parliament, V’s self-created funeral pyre rends an emphatically empty space in the skyline. His selected ruins reduced to rubble, V reconstructs the space into a signifier of his passing. Much like gentrified urban planning projects, V, a single figure of power, decides what to destroy and what to put in its place. 

Notwithstanding his self-aggrandizing, gentrified acts, the results of his mission are unclear.

Despite urging governmental change, Britain’s fate in the wake of V’s destructive actions is never revealed. Before the totalitarian rule of V’s present, war ushered in governmental reform. Recounting her memories of this time, Evey explains that “Britain didn’t get bombed” (27), which differs from V’s method of urban destruction. However, she continues “not that it made much difference. All the bombs and things had done something to the weather. Something bad.” (27). It transpires that the Thames Barrier has burst, flooding London. Her father calls Evey and her mother up to the bedroom “as he wanted to show [them] something” (27), and she wonders as “[they] could see right across London from the bedroom window” (27). Rushing up the stairs to observe the ruins, Evey and her family display Macauly’s pleasure in ruins: a reaction strikingly similar to the citizens responding to the exploding Houses of Parliament. The very governmental system V wishes to overthrow launched itself from visually impressive destruction, much as V intends for his explosions to germinate new social order. Despite V’s apparently antithetical political stance, his encouragement of social reform is strikingly similar to the system he opposes. As a result, there is no guarantee that the unstated results of V’s social reform enact a system less fascistic than his current one. 

V’s garb casts pertinent historical light onto the relationship between memory, destruction and social reform. He wears a Guy Fawkes mask, thereby aligning himself with the Gunpowder plot of 1605. Marcus Oppolzer reads V’s mask: “though his major source and greatest inspiration, the Guy Fawkes legend, adds a political tincture to his violence, the primary function of his iconic mask is to provide the means to perform his new identity” (109). Whilst the identification of “political tincture” is pertinent, it is reductive to tie the mask only to identify reformation. Fawkes, like V, sought to reconstitute social order through urban destruction. However, his aim was to replace the Protestant rule of King James 1st’s court with Catholic dominion, not to liberate society from oppressive leadership (Sharpe 1).

Crucially, Fawkes paid no mind to social conditions; the changes he wished to enforce were religious. The plot failed, so the ends of Fawkes’ mission, like V’s, remain unstated; it too could have resulted in a regime similar to that it wished to overthrow. Interestingly, as James Sharpe recounts, Guy Fawkes’ plot is inscribed into folklore, with its most important message being that we “remember remember” (2) the tale. Retellings of the “major source and greatest inspiration” behind V’s work depict the crucial nature of memorialising attempted social reform through destruction. In assuming Fawkes’ mask, V ties himself to the tale of an individual social reformist whose new regime may have enforced the same social conditions as the ones he sought to overthrow. 

Both “Ramadan” and V For Vendetta coalesce in their myopic protagonists, whose aims circulate preservation. Whilst Haroun wishes for his city to last forever, V transforms the urban landscape into a self-memorial. Both texts exploit the politics of urban destruction to unpick these protagonists’ actions. “Ramadan” sees the levelling of Baghdad as a revelation of masked poverty, whilst V For Vendetta calls out the gentrified ends of a self appointed city restructurer. Both protagonists evade ground level activities, and cast themselves in a role of authority over the urban landscapes in which they reside. They differ, however, in revelation. “Ramadan” finally unmasks the narrativity of the short story, simultaneously uncovering the evaded poverty, and, in doing so, casting irony upon Haroun’s preservative aims. The city is indeed recounted in terms of its grandeur, yet this vision only exists in the narrative memory of an impoverished, ruined Baghdad. Despite V’s gentrified restructuring of the city, the results of his work remain unstated. His ends, then, could result in a regime as fascistic as the one he wishes to overthrow. Conversely, “Ramadan”’s revelatory ending is backgrounded by towering buildings: this gaze does not, in the fashion of Guy Fawkes, merely exchange one perspective for another, rather it foregrounds poverty to recast the peripheral. For V, material destruction is the means of memorialisation. In “Ramadan”, destruction probes a city which is remembered grandly despite its material decay. To remember, it seems, is to destroy. 

Works Cited

Al-Mohammad, Hayder. “Poverty beyond Disaster in Postinvasion Iraq: Ethics and the ‘Rough Ground’ of the Everyday.” Current Anthropology. 56:11, 2015. JSTOR. 15th December 2016. 

Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. London: Verso, 2006. Print. 

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac: Poorhouse, 2006. Print.

Gaiman, Neil and P.Craig Russel. “Ramadan.” Fables and Reflections. New York: DC Comics, 1993. 225-258. Print.

Macauly, Rose. Pleasure of Ruins. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1953. Print.

Mellor, Leo. Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print. 

Moore, Alan and David Lloyd. V for Vendetta. New York: DC Comics, 1989. Print. 

Oppolzer, Markus, and Matthew J. A. Green. “Gothic Liminality in V for Vendetta.” Alan

Moore and the Gothic Tradition, Manchester University Press, 2013.103–118. JSTOR. 15th December 2016.

Sharpe, James. Remember Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005. Print.   

“Trump Tower.” Real Estate Portfolio: New York. The Trump Organization. 2017. Web. 11/01/17.