Friday, April 6, 2012

V for Vendetta and Guy Fawkes

While travelling the London Underground a few weeks back, I brought along a copy V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. I hadn't read it since the film release in 2006 and wanted to enjoy it now that I was living in London. Originally a ten issue series released between September 1988 and May 1989, this story has since been reprinted in trade paperback numerous times and become a modern classic known to both fanatical and casual readers of comics alike. 
'V' from Vertigo's V for Vendetta originally published 1988-1989. Republished in 2007.
V for Vendetta tells the story of a dystopian United Kingdom, that while having avoided the carnage of nuclear war, has never-the-less survived the global political and economic collapse by walking the dark path of totalitarianism. ‘V’ our protagonist, is the mysterious and dramatic character who having been incarcerated and experimented upon by the government, uses the superpowers he acquired during these experiments to change the UK back to the free society it once was. He does this with the help of a young prostitute named Evey Hammond and wears the guise of a 17th century English revolutionary as he does it.

"V' again.
V for Vendetta is right up there with Watchmen as a masterwork of the genre and because of this I won't comment much more on the work itself. Rather, I'd like to take this opportunity to talk about one of the images that anchors the story throughout: Guy Fawkes, the above mentioned revolutionary. 

The story is about how 'V' takes his revenge and changes UK society.
Born in April 1570 in York, Fawkes lived in a time of religious tumult. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the Church in England had become the Church of England and broken with the Catholic Church in Rome. Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, continued to foster this schism, but there was still many questions about the two faiths during her reign and beyond. Indeed, parts of Northern England were especially resistant to the Church of England and among these 'Recusants' numbered Guy Fawkes' step-father. Guy himself would eventually convert to Roman Catholicism. 

The Guy Fawkes mask worn by 'V'.
And events in England were not taking place in a vacuum. Indeed, much of Europe was embroiled in religious based wars and soon Fawkes found himself fighting for the Hapsburg Spanish in their rebellious Dutch provinces. When a temporary peace returned in that area in 1598, Fawkes returned to England where he fell in with a group of conspirators wanting to assassinate the protestant King James I, a Scot who had ascended to the English throne upon the death of his cousin Elizabeth. On the fifth of November 1605, the King, having been invited to Westminster to take part in the State Opening of Parliament, was supposed to go to Westminster where the conspirators were to explode their stashed gunpowder underneath him,  thereby killing him and much of the England's parliamentary and legal establishment. The attempt failed when it was uncovered by the King's officials and Fawkes and his co-plotters were taken into custody.
The Great Hall of the Palace of Westminster. This may have been the view Guy Fawkes during his trial.
Not without irony, Fawkes trial occurred in the Hall of Westminster, the oldest existing part of the Palace of Westminster. Now largely used for joint addresses of Parliament or other state events, this hall until the late 1800s also served as a courtroom. The indictment against Fawkes was interesting because while 17th century England had a distance to go before resembling today's justice system, the Fawkes trial was laced with language that would be anathema to any idea of natural justice. For example, most counts of the indictment are preceded with adjectives such as ‘treasonous’ or ‘traitorously’ whereas the potential victims of the crime are nearly always proceeded with ‘virtuous’ or ‘gracious’ in front of their names or titles. 
Looking at the Big Ben and the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster outside the doors into the Hall of Westminster.
So as you can probably guess, Fawkes and his co-conspirators were found guilty of their crimes, tortured and killed. Fawkes, never-the-less escaped the fate of a rope around his neck, when he jumped off the gallows and broke his neck before the executor could place it. He was still quartered and since then the fifth of November has subsequently become a night to celebrate the King's survival. 
The UK leader and V's antagonist, Adam Susan, monitors things in V for Vendetta
But back to the story at hand, it is a true testament to the power of V for Vendetta that the image of Guy Fawkes has surfaced in the imagination of many throughout the world as a protest figure. Indeed, his 'face' is now seen in many places -- from the Occupy Movement to the online group Anonymous. Naturally, this may have something to do with the 2006 feature film, but it is still demonstrative of the awesome power of this comic story. David Lloyd's idea of bringing Guy Fawkes to a modern context and Alan Moore's poignant and gripping story gives modern readers a new reason to explore the fascinating legal and political story of the man behind the mask. Go read V for Vendetta if you haven't already, and if you have, I hope you've enjoyed this little to voyage into English history. 

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