Remember, remember – V, Guy Fawkes and that day in November

This Saturday occupies a very interesting date on the calendar.

We’ll get to why in a moment, but first, a question:

Does this face to the left look familiar to you?  Can you put a name to it?

If you said V, from V for Vendetta, you’re right.

But that face stands for a whole lot more than just one of Alan Moore’s great works.

To some, it’s the face of religiously-inspired terrorism.

To others, it’s counter-culture made material.

In truth, it’s actually a stylized representation of one Guy Fawkes, known to some as Guido, an English-born Catholic that was implicated in the famous Gunpowder Plot of November 5th, 1605.

Guy wasn’t a fan of protestant rule in England.  He, along with a few other Catholic folk, decided they wanted to put one of theirs back on the British throne, instead of King James I.

As part of the revolutionary effort, Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators had planned to blow up Westminster Palace, also known as Britain’s Houses of Parliament.  Receiving an anonymous letter, authorities searched Westminster in the early hours of November 5th and found Fawkes guarding numerous barrels of, you guessed it: gunpowder.

Fawkes was arrested, tortured and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for his participation in the plot, the standard sentence at the time for high treason.  On January 31st of 1606, the scheduled day of his execution, Fawkes evaded the pain of his punishment by jumping from a scaffold and successfully breaking his neck.

In the years that followed, the fifth of November became a day to celebrate the King’s successful escape from assassination, by order of an act of Parliament.  Celebrants would enjoy a fireworks display preceded by the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy.  As the years passed, revelers on November 5th would spice things up by burning an effigy of the pope, and even came up with a bit of verse to go along with the festivities:

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent

To blow up the King and Parli’ment.

Three-score barrels of powder below

To prove old England’s overthrow;

By God’s providence he was catch’d
(or by God’s mercy*)
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

And what should we do with him? Burn him!

No one quite knows who came up with the doggerel, but author Neil Gaiman offered a suggestion of his own in the last issue of The Sandman, #75, in 1996.

Unlikely though it may be that William Shakespeare and fellow writer “Honest” Ben Jonson would be the source of the lyric, that the story of the “Gunpowder Treason and Plot” would serve as artistic inspiration is undeniable when looking back through history. Author William Harrison Ainsworth turned him into a romantic figure his 1841 novel Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Plot, while 19th and 20th century children’s books furthered the trend by fictionalizing his childhood and turning Fawkes into an action hero.

Then, of course, there’s 1981.  Alan Moore was a rising star in the comics world and was given the chance by the publisher Warrior to create a long-form series with artist David Lloyd.  Resurrecting an old idea from his indie zine days, Moore decided to comment on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign with a freedom-fighting terrorist struggling against the oppression of a totalitarian England.

The result?  V for Vendetta.

As detailed by Gary Spencer Millidge in his book, Alan Moore: Storyteller, artist David Lloyd was inspired by that famous date in history to create the series’ defining visual characteristic, and Alan Moore ran with it.

“We wanted to make him almost the quintessential romantic anarchist hero,” explained Moore.  “A lot of the characters that populated British comics in the ’60s were psychopathic villains or criminals, and in our folklore there are a lot of characters like Robin Hood or Guy Fawkes fighting against authority.  We thought we might try to boil all of them into the character of V for Vendetta.”

Collected by DC Comics in 1988, V for Vendetta remains one of the most highly recommended graphic novels ever published, ultimately inspiring the 2006 film of the same name, with actor Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) as the titular antihero.

Earning Warner Brothers a cool $132.5 million at the worldwide box office, V for Vendetta became a big success, especially at popularizing the story of Guy Fawkes through V’s fight against tyranny.   As an added means of cashing in on the film’s success, the company released a promotional version of the V/Fawkes mask.  Fans ate them up.

And then, something funny happened.

Protesters for various causes around the world started wearing the masks.

Protestors in Guy Fawkes masks outside the TD-Canada Trust building at King and Bay St. in Toronto on October 15th, 2011, as photographed by Jayme Poisson and published online at TheStar.com.

Now, five years later, as Occupy Wall Street protests and similar demonstrations rally a new counter-culture against the world’s wealthiest 1%, Guy Fawkes is everywhere.  Noticing the biggest fashion trend in civil disobedience since Che Guevara first showed up on a t-shirt, the BBC tracked down David Lloyd to get his thoughts.

“The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.”

From pro-Catholic revolutionary to the 21st century’s latest symbol of popular protest, the story of Guy Fawkes has been written, rewritten and, yes, rewritten again – enough in 400 years to turn a man into myth, and a myth into an idea.  As  anonymous protesters the world over shout rallying cries through the pantomime face of a man long dead, critics wondering what they’re on about can be sure of one thing:

It’s not about promoting Catholicism.

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