Recently, a Brazilian reporter wondered where the Guy Fawkes masks worn by protestors came from. He learned that, locally, masks were being manufactured by Condal, a company that specializes in Carnaval masks. Right now, Condal sells sometimes 800 Guy Fawkes masks in a day, which is nothing compared to their output of 200,000 Carnaval masks a day during the season. (These numbers are from the article .) Condal, and the reporter, were somewhat bemused by the fact that individuals would come into the factory to buy several hundred masks at a time while stores and distributors might buy 60 or so per order. They understand that the mask is a phenomenon of the moment and Condal’s sales of the object may dissipate along with Brazil’s protest movement — or expand with it, as the case may be.The mask is based on that worn by the lead character in V For Vendetta, Alan Moore’s 1982 comic book account of an anarchist fighting against a fascist government in England. The design was done by artist David Lloyd. Originally, Lloyd had wanted to copy masks worn on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, but the designs were done in the summer when there were no live models. That is probably for the best, since it forced Lloyd to strip down the mask to a stark, but memorable design.
The series originally ran in Warrior Magazine, but when Warrior ceased publication in 1985, Moore and Lloyd signed a deal with DC Comics to run the series. That run led to a 2005 movie production, one of several that angered Moore and caused him to sever his connnections with the film industry. But the movie did popularize the mask and a US outfit called Rubie’s bought the license to produce V For Vendetta merchandise. Rubie’s sells perhaps 100,000 a year of the masks — $8.77 at your local Wal-Mart.
Then, in 2008, a collection of anonymous people connected to 4Chan, decided to protest Scientology. Because of that organization’s reputation of intimidating individuals who expressed negative opinions about the group, the protestors decided to wear masks. There was some discussion of what kind of masks — the fledgling Anonymous group had adopted a symbol of a black-suited man with a globe and question mark for a head, but that really didn’t translate into a good mask. So Anonymous wore Guy Fawkes masks. Partly this was a case of labeling Scientology as Epic Fail, since Epic Fail Guy was seen on 4Chan wearing the mask and Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot was exactly that. But the symbol proved more powerful than Anonymous had thought and has become the preferred streetwear of protestors all over the world. The popularity of the mask pleases Alan Moore. Part of the reason he disliked the movie version of V For Vendetta was that it watered down his concept of an anarchist rebel to that of an American-style vigilante fighter for justice. Although Nazi Germany was the model for Moore’s fascist England, the comic was seen as an open attack on Thatcher and the destructive government policies that she introduced. Ironically, Moore thought Thatcher was going to be a one-term PM; now he admits to being a lousy prophet. Anyway, he hated the movie. Moore:
As far I’m concerned, the two poles of politics were not Left Wing or Right Wing. In fact they’re just two ways of ordering an industrial society and we’re fast moving beyond the industrial societies of the 19th and 20th centuries. It seemed to me the two more absolute extremes were anarchy and fascism. This was one of the things I objected to in the recent film, where it seems to be, from the script that I read, sort of recasting it as current American neo-conservatism vs. current American liberalism. There wasn’t a mention of anarchy as far as I could see. The fascism had been completely defanged. I mean, I think that any references to racial purity had been excised, whereas actually, fascists are quite big on racial purity.
The real Guy Fawkes was part of a group that tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. The intent was to foment a rebellion that would oust King James I and bring a Catholic sovereign to the throne. The plot was a fiasco: the gunpowder was wet and didn’t explode, Guy Fawkes was caught and, under torture, named the other members of the conspiracy. All were executed.
In the Alan Moore version, the man known as V actually succeeds in blowing up Parliament but he is not fighting for a Catholic monarchy nor any other kind of king. He wears Cavalier dress in opposition to the Roundhead puritan garb of the fascists who run England. Moore is mixing eras a bit, looking forward from James I to Cromwell’s puritan dictatorship of the 1650s. Oliver Cromwell, the English ayatollah, murderer of Irish Catholics and Scots Presbyterians, was who Moore wanted people to associate with English fascism.
There have been a number of articles pointing out that people buying Guy Fawkes masks are paying into a movie industry that is one of Anonymous’ enemies, but these articles miss the point. It is unlikely that Condal has actually paid Warner Brothers to license the mask. Probably there are as many knockoffs seen in protests as there are licensed objects. And, of course, you can print your own mask. Sooner or later, someone is going to distribute a template for 3-D printers and then Rubie’s will be redundant.Meanwhile, governments have been working to outlaw the mask or to make illegal the wearing of any mask during a protest. But when masses of people are arrested simply for wearing a mask that is a symbol of protest, then the mask will have become not only a symbol, but a means of radicalizing those who wear it. [Gallery of 2011 protests with the mask.] Like Alan Moore, David Lloyd is quite pleased with the success of the mask and proud that he designed something that is useful to street politics. He is “[h]appy that a symbol of resistance to tyranny in fiction is being used as a symbol of resistance to any perceived tyranny in real life.” Unlike Moore, however, he does still collect his royalties for V For Vendetta and its merchandise.