Guy Fawkes’ mask in the mass culture


Guy Fawkes’ mask in the mass culture



Many historical figures, stories of battles or historical events have become, during the history, symbols of political movements, artistic, or have become part of the collective imaginary and now they are so mass culture that sometimes their origin gets lost.

Guy Fawkes’ mask, in today’s world, represents the struggle of the people against any deprivation of the exercise of democracy and against the most repressive government actions.

Yet it is curious (or perhaps not so much to think about it) that Guy Fawkes has been considered (and he still is) the greatest conspirator in history and his puppet have been burned by British children every year, for 4 centuries, even today.


“The story of Guy Fawkes”

The conspiracy’s developer was clearly more than one and the leader was not even Guy Fawkes, but Robert Catesby.Fawkes was called to participate as a Catholic, an expert in the military techniques learned in his years as a soldier and because his face was little known in London, as for so many years he had been away from the city.But, as often happens, only a few characters are remembered of historical facts: only Guy Fawkes has gone down in history as the one who had dared to plot against the British government.

Well, the English conspirator was born Protestant in a half-Catholic and half Protestant family and only in his youth had converted to Catholicism (he even called himself Guido to look more Catholic).However, he must have been a very resolute person and faithful to his cause, so that in two days of torture, after the foiled conspiracy, he never bowed to his torturers and never revealed the name of his companions.This firmness of spirit was also recognized by King James I (that if the conspiracy had been successful it would have been one of his victims), who admired his “Roman resolve”.


“The Gunpowder Plot”

A group of English Catholics had planned to blow up the Parliament using 36 barrels of gunpowder placed in a cellar, rented for the occasion by one of the conspirators, placed under the House of Lords.                                                                                          Fawkes should have to turn on the fuse and then quickly move away.

But the attack never took place because it was discovered before it could be accomplished: an anonymous and very confused letter, delivered to Lord Monteagle in the middle of the night, begged the recipient not to go to Parliament in the following days because the Catholics had developed a plan to bring down the government building.                                                                   Naturally, King James I was informed and so started the investigations that led to the arrest of Fawkes and his companions, in the night of November 4th.

At that point, the conspirators hoped for a riot by other Catholics, especially those in Wales, but this never happened.  Indeed, as soon as the news of the conspirators’ capture was spread, for the whole of London the people lit bonfires to celebrate the salvation of the king and the crown and Guy Fawkes was hanged on 31st 1605.

Today, in mass culture, the mask created by the illustrator David Lloyd for V, the faceless cartoon man written by Alan Moore, which later became a film, “V for Vendetta”, became famous and used by many protest movements, and represents a modern version of the Guy Fawkes mask.                                                                                                                                                                         After representing V, a kind of “anarchist for a good purpose”, which explodes the parliament (just like Guy Fawkes) in a dystopian future’s London, oppressed by an establishment that is anything but democratic, filling the subway cars with dynamite; thanks to this film, the mask has become a worldwide symbol of popular justice.

On the other hand, it is not the first time that a symbol takes on different meanings throughout history.Since 2008 the mask created by David Lloyd has been chosen as the “face” by the members of the Anonymous movement, when they went out to denounce the abuse of the church of Scientology and, just as the protesters did in “V for Vendetta”, they too remained in silence on the streets, masked by V.                                                                                                                                                                                Later, the mask was also adopted by Occupy Wall Street and by the Spanish Indignados, to be used by protesters of various parades around the world, as a symbol of protest towards the establishment and against acts of violence by the armed forces.


“The mask”

The first time the mask was designed by David Lloyd in black and white: a stylized face with a mocking smile.                            Often the effectiveness of a symbol is directly proportional to its simplicity and the mask of V is a clear example.

The goatee recalls the way to shave in England in 1600 and is a clear reference to Guy Fawkes, on a challenging expression set in a white porcelain color that recalls the face of a doll: the façade smile that conceals subversive intentions (a positive one in this case).The references and inspirations from which the comic book was born are innumerable and so are the elements that inspired the mask beyond, clearly, to Guy Fawkes.                                                                                                                                                     Behind there is Orwell’s novel “1984”, the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, the “Doctor Phibes” by Vincent Price and many more, and all this is clarified in an article entitled “Behind the painted smile”, written in 1983 by the same Alan Moore, at the end of the books “V per Vendetta”.

“Parliament is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it … it is men who confer power to symbols … by itself a symbol is meaningless but with a number of people behind it to blow up a building it can change the world. “

(V, from the film V for Vendetta)


Words by Federica Diaz Splendiani