The Anonymous mask, one of the most recognisable symbols of modern protest, is the subject of a new exhibition opening at London’s Cartoon Museum.
V for Vendetta: Behind the Mask explores the visual history of the mask, from its origins in a British comic series, to its modern popularity at protest movements.
What is now popularly known as the Anonymous mask is the creation of English illustrator David Lloyd. V for Vendetta, a comic series written by Alan Moore and Lloyd, tells the story of the masked and mysterious V, an anti-establishment figure who fights back against a totalitarian regime.
It originally ran as a black and white comic strip between 1982 and 1985 in British comic anthology Warrior. The story found a new home after Warrior was cancelled when it was bought by DC Comics and ran until 1989.
In 2005, the story was given a new lease of life thanks to a blockbuster adaptation featuring Natalie Portman. In the film, Portman plays V’s protégé Evey who eventually takes up V’s mantle following his death.
The exhibition has original artworks and covers by Lloyd on display, as well as costumes and designs from the 2005 film adaptation (including one of three masks worn by Hugo Weaving, who played V).
Lloyd drew on the history of Guy Fawkes masks for the original story. These masks were traditionally worn by people as a tribute to Fawkes – an “iconic and anarchic figure in British history”, says exhibition curator Emma Stirling-Middleton. Lloyd depicted the mask with a wide moustache upturned at either end, with a thin beard and red cheeks.
“They slightly adapted the look of it to make it feel more sinister,” she adds, pointing to the smile across the mask’s lips and eyes. Lloyd and Moore also spent a lot of time creating a “dark, film noir” tone for the series in the 80s, according to Stirling-Middleton.
Among other contemporary influences, Lloyd and Moore cite David Bowie, artist Max Ernst and the literature of George Orwell as well as comic book characters like Batman and Judge Dredd.
Why does the mask’s design endure?
Part of the mask’s endurance may lie in its ambiguous characteristics, according to Stirling-Middleton. “The way Lloyd has managed to make it so sinister even though it’s a pleasant-looking face immediately conveys meaning beyond words,” the curator says.
She adds: “A big part of the story is of smoke and mirrors and things not being as they seem and a lot of that is communicated through the mask.”
A final section of the exhibition highlights the relevance of V for Vendetta’s themes in the modern world, showcased through contemporary protest movements like hacktivist group Anonymous, Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. The design is now strongly associated with “anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian regimes”, Stirling-Middleton explains.
“The meaning has somehow come through from the graphic novel,” Stirling-Middleton adds. “People understand that it’s about anonymity, and that there’s something empowering about it.”
The mask was also picked up by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which protested the power of financial institutions. “With that movement, they were using the mask almost as a form of branding,” Stirling-Middleton says. It also offers practical value by hiding protestors’ identities – a call-back to the original character’s hidden identity.
The actual mask design from the graphic novel is now intellectual copyright property of DC Comics, the curator explains, which means that replicas used at protests all have slight alterations.
Stirling-Middleton believes that Lloyd feels “positively” about the design’s legacy. “He created a story in the 80s and I think his passion is about that story,” she says. “All the things that have happened since, I think he sees as bigger than himself.”
“I think people are yearning for that feeling in the world as it stands now”
The exhibition also draws attention to V’s motives and extremist actions, a strain that is still relevant to modern day movements. “That tension is really interesting,” Stirling-Middleton says. “Where’s the line between what’s too far and what’s peaceful? That can be quite personal.”
While it’s synonymous with the Anonymous hacking group, Stirling-Middleton explains that part of its popularity is also about solidarity. “Anybody can come together – no matter who you are – put this mask on and achieve things,” she says. “I think people are yearning for that feeling in the world as it stands now. It only becomes more relevant as the years go by.”
The future of the mask and how it will it be viewed by subsequent generations is unknown, according to Stirling-Middleton. “The essence of the story and the mask is that anything can happen and it’s people who make change and stand up to things,” she says. “It’s something that’s going to be generated by individuals.”
V for Vendetta: Behind the Mask runs from 18 May – 31 October 2021. More information can be found on the Cartoon Museum’s website.