J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Moore and Lloyd’s Vendetta

In 1981, the writer Alan Moore and the artist David Lloyd began planning a comics series called V for Vendetta. It was a commentary on Margaret Thatcher’s Britain set in a post-apocalyptic near future in which Britain has become a dictatorship. A rebel named V tries to undermine the regime through terror, his face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask.

In a 1983 essay about the development of V for Vendetta, Moore quoted a letter from Lloyd:
Re. The script; While I was writing this, I had this idea about the hero. . . . I was thinking, why don't we portray him as a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those papier mache masks in a cape and conical hat? 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 Nov. 5th but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!
An interview in George Khoury’s True Brit: A Celebration of the Great Comic Book Artists of the U.K. quotes Lloyd’s recollection:
Guy Fawkes…was one of the great anarchists of history; he wanted to create disorder from which a new order would arise. Just as V plotted to do. It was just a suggestion I made to Alan ’cos it tied in to everything he wanted to do with the character and it had the theatricality he preferred. At the time it was agreed on, there were no Guy Fawkes masks around—it not being November, when the festivity around the character takes place—so I imagined one, which had a spooky smile that always seems part of even the meanest Guy Fawkes masks I’ve ever seen. It worked.
Later, Moore reported, “Dave sent designs for the V character which were perfect apart from the fact that Dave had got the shape of the hat wrong.” Lloyd probably first drew the sort of conical cap seen on many traditional Guy Fawkes effigies. The finished character wears the tall-crowned, broad-brimmed hat standard in the early 1600s, which has more dignity.

The result wasn’t exactly like any Guy Fawkes masks from before 1981, it seems to me. Rather, it was the melding of Lloyd’s memory of those masks and what he and Moore wished their character to represent. And their V for Vendetta started to establish a new political meaning for the mask.

To begin with, the historical Guy Fawkes wasn’t an “anarchist.” He was a zealot who wasn’t above using violence to support his version of religion. (Of course, so were James I and many members of the Parliament that Fawkes and his co-conspirators wanted to destroy.) The “new order” Fawkes hoped to create would have been much like the old order, with a monarch, noblemen, bishops, and so on; they simply would have been English Catholics instead of English Protestants.

On the other hand, by the 1700s Guy Fawkes had come to be associated with a type of anarchy: the boisterous misrule of the Fifth of November celebrations. Only on that day in colonial New England were apprentices allowed to parade through the streets and demand money from gentlemen. Only on that day in Victorian England were boys expected to play with firecrackers and bonfires.

My articles on Pope Night argue that youths got license to run riot on 5 November precisely because they were showing loyalty to the royal Protestant order by lampooning and burning Guy Fawkes or the Pope. The festivity was a celebration of the existing order disguised as disorder—or perhaps the other way ’round.

For Moore and Lloyd, attracted to the idea of anarchy, the real Fawkes’s plans meant less than his methods—blowing up the whole government—and the misrule he’d come to represent. By making V their (anti)hero, they were attacking the existing order.

TOMORROW: And that’s not the end of the irony.

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