The real meaning of the Guy Fawkes mask seen around the world is sophisticated, self-knowing and carnivalesque
- The skin is pallid, the cheeks touched with pink. The eyes are holes.
And the smile is frozen, set forever, a fixed uncanny moustachioed grin
above a devilish goatee beard.
This is the face of protest in 2011. At Occupy demonstrations from Wall Street to St Paul's people choose to wear the same mask, an eerie phantom face of a diabolical musketeer, a cheerfully sinister underground d'Artagnan. The mask started its revolutionary career as the public face of the Anonymous movement. All in all it marks a massive change of fortune for one of British history's greatest villains.
For this is the face of Guy Fawkes, transformed into the mask of a modern avenger by artist David Lloyd and writer Alan Moore in their 1980s graphic novel V for Vendetta and popularised by the 2006 film of the comic book – not to mention merchandised; the mask is an official movie byproduct licensed by Time Warner, which has thus found a way to profit from the Crisis of Capitalism. A man demonised for centuries in British culture has become an icon of dissidence and defiance.
Guy Fawkes has taken to the streets, just as he disappears from his traditional starring role on Bonfire Night, 5 November. When Moore and Lloyd started their comic serial V for Vendetta in 1981 in a magazine called Warrior, British children still made rude effigies of the great inflammable Catholic and wheeled their lumpen creations around demanding "a penny for the Guy": today Halloween has taken over in children's culture and, in many parts of Britain, Guy Fawkes Night is merely Bonfire Night, with fireworks but no effigy.
Moore – whose wildly imaginative scripts for comics that also include From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen prove him one of the most original writers in Britain today – has acknowledged in an essay called Behind the Painted Smile that it was his artist collaborator David Lloyd who invented the Guy Fawkes persona for their modern freedom fighter. Lloyd wrote: "He'd look really bizarre and it would give Guy Fawkes the image he's deserved all these years. We shouldn't burn the chap every 5 November but celebrate his attempt to blow up parliament!"
It was, says Moore, "the best idea I'd ever heard in my entire life". It was certainly prophetic. Who knew that by 2011 the old Protestant demonisation of Guy Fawkes would be virtually forgotten and his attempt to blow up the mother of parliaments reclaimed as a great democratic act? In the 2006 film (which credits only Lloyd as it was disowned, with good aesthetic reason, by Moore) the culminating, triumphant scene has a mass movement of Guy Fawkes avengers removing their masks to reveal themselves as you and me, the 99%, as they proudly watch the Houses of Parliament explode.
Outside the world of sublime comic books and ridiculous films, is it really such a great idea to identify with Guy Fawkes? The impulse crosses political divisions: the Conservative blogger Guido Fawkes also uses the name, and the logo on his site resembles the V for Vendetta visage. This is all a colossal forgetting of history. There is not much to romanticise in the career of Guy Fawkes. Religious violence was a dark reality of life in 17th-century Britain, and the plot hatched by a group of Catholics in 1605 reflected decades of frustration at their faith's proscribed status. The would-be mass murderers planned to blow up the new King James I and his entire parliament in assembly at the Palace of Westminster on 5 November. They dug a tunnel from a nearby rented house, piled up enough gunpowder beneath the palace to send it into the sky in flames, but when Fawkes was caught down there with the barrels and kindling, the failed assassin went down in popular memory as a demon to be ritually burned by Protestant crowds on smoky Autumn evenings.
For many observers, the V for Vendetta mask has nothing to do with a Jacobean conspirator or a modern comic-book slash movie. It is just a very strange mask. It has taken on a life of its own, and its meaning is not fixed by its origins. Images slip their moorings. The Guy Fawkes mask is not Guy Fawkes. It is, in fact, the quintessence of a mask. "To each his own mask", says a Latin motto on a Renaissance painting of a masked face. The stylised face of the Fawkes mask resembles the monstrous and bizarre faces of papier mache, carved wood or leather donned by revellers at carnivals and masquerades in the early modern Europe that invented Guy Fawkes Night. A traditional carnival was a day when the world turned upside down, when the rules of society were mocked.
The Comic Strip Presents… The mask is surreal, self-mocking, funny. In fact it is truly carnivalesque. Those who wear it are not so much emulating Guy Fawkes as the masked revellers of yore who might mock the local bishop at a fair. Strangely enough, at St Paul's Cathedral this suggestion of medieval misrule has become very real as an attack on the City turned into a dissolution of the orderly facade of the Church of England. MORE