From an ill-fated conspiracy of 400 years ago, to the graphic novel V for Vendetta wrote in the 80s by Alan Moore, what is now arguably the most powerful internet meme stayed alive through the centuries, morphing in synch with changes in the political and cultural consciousness. The British state must have thought it had safely contained and reframed the act of defiance of a handful of conspirators by turning their demise into a national holiday. But while they could kill the men, they could never truly erase their ideas. And in their latest symbolic incarnation, the Guy Fawkes mask, these ideas have taken to the streets. And so far, the Genie refuses to go back in the bottle.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
‘Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.
The story behind the mask began on the night of November 5, 1605. Throughout the months before, a revolutionary named Guy Fawkes and his cohort of co-conspirators had plotted to remove King James from the throne. They had filled the basement of the British Parliament buildings with gunpowder. Late that night, Fawkes was caught and arrested after the British royalty had been alerted by an anonymous letter. Fawkes was then tortured until he confessed and also gave information leading to the arrest of other the conspirators. On January 31, the day of his execution, he jumped from the scaffolding he was to be hanged from and broke his neck.
Throughout the following 400 years, November 5 was celebrated in England as a day to remember the thwarted plot. It became known as Bonfire Night, with fireworks and bonfires in which effigies of Fawkes (and later other unpopular leaders) were burnt. However, in the last 100 years, the image of Fawkes has morphed dramatically. Instead of being labeled as a murderer and terrorist he is now often seen as a hero, “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions”. Today, the fifth of November has become a day commemorating Fawkes subversive ideas.
“My feeling is the Anonymous group needed an all-purpose image to hide their identity and also symbolise that they stand for individualism – V for Vendetta is a story about one person against the system.” David Lloyd
Since the inception of Anonymous as a hacktivist collective, the Guy Fawkes mask has stood, along with the headless suit, as the quintessential symbol of the movement. It must have been strange for David Lloyd, the graphic artist who penciled the iconic Guy Fawkes mask in the graphic novel V for Vendetta, to take a stroll in Zucotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests and to see the protesters wearing his creation. The story wrote by Alan Moore is a modern tale about an anarchist, V, fighting against a dystopian UK Fascist State .Back then, It was a powerful political critic against the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. The mask was worn by V, called by some a terrorist, and by others a freedom fighter. Where Guy Fawkes failed, V succeeds in destroying the Parliament building. Most importantly, his violent and theatrical political statements transformed his audience. At the end of the movie, it is not just the stone building that falls. The whole government apparatus is undermined as the people take on the mask and march in the streets of London in a single act of mass revolt.
The Guy Fawkes mask was practically unknown outside the circle of comic book aficionados until V for Vendetta was turned into a movie in 2005. James McTeigue and the Wachowski brothers revamped the story to make it relevant to a post 9/11 context, but they kept the iconography. And this is when the internet entered the scene. Later in the year, in September, a cartoon character known as ‘Epic fail Guy” on 4chan.org picked up the mask. It soon became a popular meme on 4chan.org, and spread virally throughout the world-wide-web.
Then, in 2008, came Anonymous against the Church of Scientology Epic Battle. It marks the first widespread and real life usage of the mask during Operation Chanology. The masks were sported by Anons protesting outside the locations of the Church of Scientology all over the world. They were deemed a necessary precaution because it had been claimed that Scientologists harassed mercilessly their critics. But wearing the mask also represented a political statement in itself. After this point, its usage exploded. It became widely used during Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and numerous other protests. Guy Fawkes had morphed into this anti-authoritarian figure on which the netizens could project their aspiration for freedom of the internet. In the words of one Anonymous member: “It’s not about blowing up Parliament, it’s about the idea of returning power to the people”. Behind the mask, we can all be this Guy. And as its presence spread to a kaleidoscope of causes, its meaning expend. No tits were mentioned but we bet it kept you reading until the end .