He was a devoted Catholic and a stern army officer, drafted to the effort to restore the British monarchy to the hands of the church on account of his expertise with gunpowder. Guy Fawkes, known for his role in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the British Parliament on the November 5, 1605 and for centuries considered an enemy of the state, became in the twilight of the 20th century one of the most recognizable revolutionary symbols in the world. Some have even dubbed him “the only person to enter Parliament with an honest intentions”. How did it all happen?
At the beginning of the 17th century, in the first years that followed the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, the bonfires held across the United Kingdom every November 5th were a lightning rod for anti-Catholic sentiment, at which effigies of the Pope were burned. In short order, however, effigies of the Pope were exchanged for those of Guy Fawkes, as the latter became British monarchists’ most despised persona.
Three centuries later, with Britain battered by World War Two, the significance attributed to Guy Fawkes was no longer quite so unambiguous. “In those days, when parents told their children about Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Parliament Building, it always seemed as if their voices hinted at admiration,” said Alan Moore, who in 1982 together with the illustrator David Lloyd created the fictional comic series “V for Vendetta” about an anarchist who dons a Guy Fawkes mask and battles a fascist regime that has taken power in the United Kingdom following a nuclear war. “Children who grew up in the post-war era still did not think of Fawkes as a hero, but on the other hand they certainly didn’t see him as wicked, which had been the case up until that time.”
At the beginning of the 1980’s, when the ideas which would coalesce into the “V for Vendetta” comic began to swirl around in Moore’s mind against the backdrop of the anti-Thatcher riots which were sweeping across the United Kingdom, it seemed as if the conditions were just right for the iconic Guy Fawkes to be adopted as a revolutionary symbol. It was Lloyd, the comic’s illustrator, who first came up with the idea of making the Guy Fawkes mask the symbol of V’s anti-fascist struggle – and the comic’s readers enthusiastically embraced the idea.
In 2006, the comic was turned into a Hollywood movie with the same name – although the words ‘fascism’ and ‘anarchy’ were completely scrubbed from the final film – and it was not long before the mocking, mysterious mask of the film’s hero was adopted by anti-establishment protestors across the globe. It also became the (anti-)trademark symbol of the anarchist hacker collective Anonymous.
“If, during the 1980’s, there was still some discomfort with the [V for Vendetta] mask on the part of the authorities, it completely dissipated in the first decade of the 21st century, after the film industry decided to issue a new version of V for Vendetta, with the plot now serving as a metaphor for the rise of the neoconservatives in the United States in the post-September 11th era,” said Moore, disassociating himself from the movie. “The producers tried to f the plot to the Bush era, but they were wary of creating a true political satire about their own country. It is a disappointing, frustrating fantasy, lacking any courage, about someone with liberal American values battling a neo-conservative regime. That was not the topic of the original story – it was about fascism, anarchism, and it was about England.”
Ironically, the rights for the mask used in the film are owned by Warner Brothers, who produced the movie, so its worldwide popularity has the brought firm impressive profits. What’s worse is that the masks are made by exploited workers in third-world sweatshops.
Regardless, there is one aspect that is common to both the Hollywood production and the original comics version of V for Vendetta. In both, the identity of the hero V is never revealed, with the intention being to leave the reader or viewer with many questions as food for thought. “The central question is: Is he justified, or is he insane? And what do you, dear reader, make of it?” Moore said. “Suddenly I understood it to be the perfect anarchist solution. I didn’t want to tell the readers what to think, only to force them to think, especially about those small elements – they seem so small but they come back consistently over the course of history. At the close of the book, Evey comes to the conclusion that what is important is not V’s identity but the ideas that he represents. Or, as V eloquently expresses it after besting a group of soldiers that sprayed him with bullets: “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea… and ideas are bullet-proof.”
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