Even if you're not sure of his name, you know his face quite well: the pointed, drawling beard, the Hummel figurine complexion, the self-satisfied smile. He's been the face of almost every contemporary major protest movement or hacktivist group that has considered themselves an anti-establishment linchpin, from Occupy Wall Street to the cybervigilante collective Anonymous.
First introduced to audiences in the comic magazine Warrior (penned by writer Alan Moore with art by David Lloyd), published as the graphic novel under the title V for Vendetta in 1988, and then reintroduced to a wider audience in 2006 with the film adaptation, his visage has become the embodied ethos of the disenfranchised on a global scale, and declared "the face of the post-modern protest."
His name was Guy Fawkes, and in 1605, he and a ring of other Catholic recusants, sick of the Protestant monarchy in England, decided to assassinate King James I and other members of the British House of Lords by igniting over 30 barrels of gunpowder stored underneath the House of Parliament. Caught while checking on the stored powder hours before the plot was due to be set in motion, Fawkes was arrested, tortured into revealing the names of his co-conspirators, and subsequently executed.
The anniversary of the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is celebrated in the U.K. every year on the 5th of November, the day Fawkes was found. In commemoration, amongst the backdrop of fireworks and frenzy, effigies of Britain's most famous terrorist made with newspaper, straw, and old clothes are burned in bonfires, all adorned with masks bearing a likeness of Fawkes' face.
So how, exactly, did the face of a Roman Catholic dissident whose failed 17th century act of terrorism—the only event that would scoop him up from the annals of historical obscurity—become an iconoclast and an icon? And what is it like to witness your art come off the page and become an international symbol, far bigger than the comic book you drew it for?
I reached out to Lloyd, artist and co-founder of the online, serialized comics weekly Aces Weekly, in honor of Guy Fawkes Day, to ask how he came up with the mask worn by protagonist and dandy-like anarchist revolutionary V in V for Vendetta, what has now become the most recognized symbol of socio-political dissidence in the early 21st century.
As it turns out, the look of the mask came to Lloyd when the popularity of Guy Fawkes Day was giving way to the candy-collecting commercialness of Halloween.
"By the late '70s and early '80s the holiday [Guy Fawkes Day] was lessening in importance, and the politics of the event was being seen in a much more cynical manner by myself and my fellow creatives in comics," Lloyd explained via e-mail, elucidating both the decline of the holiday and the conservative context of the times. "Celebrating the survival of a corrupt government and the death of those who tried to undermine it was not such a good thing, really. Maybe it would have been better if the Houses of Parliament had been blown up ... symbolically, that was still a good idea."
Lloyd, along with the now-legendary writer Moore, needed a character who they could place in their dystopian comic while remaining relevant by speaking to the political climate of England at that time.
"The model for the society in V was Germany in the '30s, where a people emerging from mass unemployment and hyperinflation sought a saviour and found a monster in looking for one," said Lloyd, who also clarified that Moore's foreword included in most editions of V for Vendetta "misleads readers" in pointing to the rise of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's brand of conservatism. Despite this, there needed to be both an immediacy to the story as well as a timeless, universal kernel embedded within the narrative.
"When V was created by myself and Alan, we produced a basic character who had been persecuted, and tortured and had a mission to wreak vengeance ... but it was a skeleton not fully fleshed," said Lloyd. After brainstorming, Lloyd came up with Guy Fawkes "out of the blue," realizing that the animus of V would be to "succeed where Guy Fawkes failed."
"Our character would adopt the persona and look of that character ... the costume [would be] accurate to the dress of 1605," said Lloyd.
As for the mask itself? In the vein of the historically enigmatic Guy Fawkes, it would be based on the self-same false faces worn during his eponymous day.
"The original plan was to use the masks that you could still buy in stores around [Nov. 5]," recalled Lloyd, whose vivid recollections of "Guys" from his childhood pointed him to remember the papier mâché masks they wore, "but it was summertime and I couldn't get one anywhere, so I designed my own on what evidence we have of Guy Fawkes' features."
Lloyd is "fond" of the V for Vendetta adaptation that brought his mask out of the circles of comic fans, and considers the Wachowskis' V for Vendetta adaptation a satisfactory work, and that it "carried the core message of the original—to hang on to your individuality at all costs"—a polemic that would have floundered if the movie were made by other Hollywood hands. Ultimately, the film became the most successful disseminator for the icon adopted by a miasmic, global counterculture that, like V—and even Guy Fawkes himself—is unhappy with a political infrastructure that undermines human dignity.
Even though the image—at least, the image used in the Wachowskis' movie—is owned by Time Warner, Lloyd posits that it does not diminish the mythos of the image.
"That point about it being an object that raises money for a corporation that in some ways typifies the kind of structure that many mask-wearers oppose is a small irony—but a very small one in the bigger picture," said Lloyd.
"[V's mask] symbolises what the story calls for—freedom from tyranny, political, social, or cultural," Lloyd elaborated, "and even though it's used by many disparate causes all over the world, because [the mask[ is neutral and not tied to one set of beliefs, it's always used for what its users truly believe is good intent."
Photo: Osvaldo Gago | Flickr