During the road safety protests last year, a photo of a schoolboy standing in a desolate road with V’s mask on became viral. It was seen as an expression of anarchy, a form of protest against an allegedly totalitarian rule. It was accompanied by the poem now made famous by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and the image seemed to really speak to young millennials, who were perhaps tired of rulers failing at their jobs.
The road safety movement of 2018 somewhat reflected the origins of that mask—origins that many of us have forgotten. The mask is considered an iconic part of modern pop culture, thanks to the graphic novel (and subsequent movie) V for Vendetta. Many take pop culture at face value, thinking that it merely stems from cheap entertainment. But our lives are shaped by pop culture, and oftentimes, pop culture is shaped by history.
Alan Moore’s character was inspired by a man who plotted to kill the king. Guy Fawkes, a convert to Roman Catholicism, had served in the Spanish army before getting involved with a group of rebels who conspired for the Gunpowder Plot. Their leader Robert Catesby came up with a plan to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament, and Fawkes was the man in charge of igniting the gunpowder.
It did not go according to plan. Upon receiving an anonymous letter about the plot, the King’s men found Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar on the ground floor of the Parliament. Thus, on November 5, 1605, the legend of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Treason was born.
He’d given the name John Johnson when arrested, but within three days of brutal torture he gave up his own name, and the details about their conspiracy. A year from the plot, the Parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act of 1606, mandating churches to deliver sermons on November 5, thanking God for the plot’s failure. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were executed.
Ironically enough, modern Brits know the date as “Guy Fawkes Day,” almost making it seem like a celebration of the man who tried to blow up Parliament, instead of a celebration of his failure. The day has become an integral part of British culture, celebrated with bonfires, fireworks, and little effigies called “guys.” In King James VI’s story, Fawkes is a villain. But in postmodern anarchism, Fawkes is a hero, celebrated for his brave stance against the regime.
Anarchism, as a political ideology, wants to remove the state’s supreme power and establish a world where all humans hold equal power. Alan Moore’s V, one of the most famous anarchists in literature, dawned a Guy Fawkes mask and did everything the real Fawkes couldn’t. This mask, a heavily stylised depiction of Fawkes’ face, was made famous worldwide by V for Vendetta.
That is how Guy Fawkes’ legacy, which Moore used as an inspiration for his protagonist, became a pop culture phenomenon. The irony here is that while anarchy denounces capitalism, Time Warner holds the rights to distribute all merchandise related to V for Vendetta, and many times people pay money to this corporation for the mask, then wear the mask to protest the actions of other big corporations. Fortunately, a lot of activists have caught on to this by now, and they print their own masks.
In an alternate timeline, Fawkes might have succeeded in blowing up Parliament. I imagine it would be exactly like how Cersei Lannister blew up the Sept of Baelor in Game of Thrones. I often wonder if he would be celebrated or vilified if he had succeeded, and I think it would be the latter. Even if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded in killing the king, the conspirators would likely still get captured and tried. History would probably mourn the death of the king, and paint Fawkes as a villain.
There’s a sort of romanticism in glorifying the man who tried to overthrow the monarchy but failed. People who succeed in overthrowing totalitarian regimes hardly get to be the subject of cult-classic graphic novels that inspire generations of readers. History is a difficult subject, and somehow pop culture has become the perfect vessel for it. That kid who wore the mask during road safety protests probably didn’t know all the details about Fawkes, but he knew that the mask sends out a message. He knew that people shouldn’t be afraid of their government, governments should be afraid of their people.
The next time you remember the fifth of November and think of V, know that this character actually has a 400-year old history. Sure, beneath that mask there is an idea, but there’s also the story of a Catholic man, a Protestant King, and 36 barrels of gunpowder, treason, and plot.