Just how did the Guy Fawkes mask become an icon of dissidents worldwide over four hundred years after the execution of the insurgent?
Guy Fawkes was once an obscure figure in British history. The annual festivities of Bonfire night, or Guy Fawkes night, kept him in the public eye in that country but the international success of the 2005 film V for Vendetta brought international attention to the story of the "last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions".
The original V for Vendetta
The film was based upon the successful serialised graphic novel of the same name. The story of an overtly theatrical anarchist, draped in a cape and a Guy Fawkes mask, who was on a mission of vengeance against the dystopian tyranny of the United Kingdom in the imagination of Alan Moore.
Originally published in 1982, the serial was illustrated by David Lloyd who is credited with the idea of dressing the titular character as Guy Fawkes. The idea of giving him a mask stemmed from a long standing tradition that people wore masks of the 17th century plotter around the November 5th festivities. Lloyd suggested the insurgent could be portrayed as a resurrected Guy Fawkes dressed in the cape, conical hat and papier-mâché mask. Moore commented that Fawkes should be celebrated for attempting to blow up Parliament rather than have effigies burnt every year and the story started to explode into life.
V for Vendetta on the silver screen
Producer Joel Silver had acquired the rights to two Alan Moore graphic novels, The Watchmen and V for Vendetta and he teamed up with the Wachowski's (of Matrix fame) to put together a film interpretation. The mask design from the original graphic novel was maintained. It can be compared to the Japanese Noh theatre styled masks but was set to become as much a part of pop iconography as the yellow smiley face icon which was so significant to the Watchmen imagery.
Alan Moore distanced himself from the film. He felt the story had been hijacked to tell a political narrative addressing issues affecting Bush era America and that the film removed references to anarchy in the revolutionary actions of V. David Lloyd was more appreciative whilst recognising the adaptation had made some significant differences to the source material.
The emergence of the stylized mask as a symbol of protest was a rapid reaction. Warner Brothers handed out replica masks as a marketing campaign to publicize the film premier and the mask was quickly adopted as a phenomenon of protest as people used it for a combination of anonymity, intimidation and imagery on street protests. For a time, it became the best selling mask on Earth and it should always be remembered that Time Warner receives a percentage of every sale. An irony not lost on Paul Staines, the political reporter who writes under the name Guido Fawkes. He did also describe Fawkes as the "most anti-political figure you can pick".
The Mask takes a life of its own
On 17 April 2006 a pair of rival mask wearing groups confronted each other outside the New York offices of Warner Brothers and DC Comics. One group was protesting the misrepresentation of anarchism in the film. The counter protesters were purportedly provided masks by a Time Warner employee.
The hacker collective Anonymous protested against the Church of Scientology in 2008. The Scientologists would photograph the protestors so they adopted the mask to hide their identities. As more protestors took up the symbolic mask it became so distinct that it became the image of the group in wider protests and as an instantly recognisable brand online.
Further protests and Occupy
Guy Fawkes masks were noted on May 23 2009 in Parliament Square during a protest in relation to the MP's expenses scandal but it was the 2011 Occupy protests starting in Wisconsin moving to Wall Street and then internationally. London, Cologne, Bucharest and Sydney all saw the masks used in the Occupy protests. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange attended a 2011 Occupy protest in London wearing such a mask before being asked to remove it by police.
David Lloyd attended the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011 to witness his design making the transition into real life. At the time he spoke to the BBC stating:
"The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny - and I'm happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way".
Lloyd had expressed concern that he had heard reports of the police in the US searching house's for masks as evidence of involvement in hack attacks.
The Arab Spring & banning
Widespread use of the mask in Arab spring uprisings in 2010-2012 saw the item actually banned in the UAE , Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It was reported that after the ban the use of the mask increased.
By this time the mask was standard apparel at anti government protests across the world wide with examples on display in Thailand (2012), Turkey, Brazil and Egypt (2013).
Wearing the masks in a riot or unlawful assembly in Canada was pronounced as illegal at the risk of a maximum ten year prison sentence in 2013.
Venezuelan protestors used the Guy Fawkes mask, among others, in 2014 and the Hong Kong protestors in October 2019 started to use the mask in response to the banning of masks during protests.
Some Guy Fawkes masks were visible during the 6th January 2021 US capitol protest.
The thoughts of Lloyd and Moore
Lloyd has gone on record to say that the widespread use of the mask and Alan Moore, while having different intentions over the creation of the character, explained to the Guardian "suppose when I was writing V for Vendetta I would in my secret heart have thought: wouldn't it be great if these ideas actually made an impact? So when you start to see that idle fantasy intrude on the regular world ... it's peculiar. It feels like a character I created 30 years ago has somehow escaped the realm of fiction."
As the Guardian interview with Moore concluded, the bearded creator gave a small anecdote that encapsulates the popularity of the mask. Back in the early 1980s, toward the end of the 38 part epic graphic novel Moore was struggling to think up another word beginning with V to give the chapter title. He would opt for Vox populi. He enthused "Voice of the people. And I think that if the mask stands for anything, in the current context, that is what it stands for. This is the people. That mysterious entity that is evoked so often – this is the people.”
The story of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot, the history of bonfire night, a conversation podcast on the topic and some downloadable classroom materials are all available here