POWERFUL AS IT IS as a loosely affiliated group, one of the most powerful things about the Anonymous hacktivist collective is the mask behind which it hides itself.
Based on an image of Guy Fawkes, by way of the "V for Vendetta" graphic novel and film, the mask is ever present in Anonymous communications and is a mainstay at the Occupy protects that have spread across the globe. It is pale and chilling, and has a look of superiority and knowing and a powerful stillness behind it. It is legion, to borrow a phrase associated with the group that wears it.
"V for Vendetta" is a ten part comic book series written and illustrated by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. It was released in 1981 in a larger title called "Warrior" and instantly captured and retained readers' imaginations. It has remained in print in a paperback collection since that time and still remains relevant.
The image was used again in the 2006 film version that cast the Matrix's Agent Smith, Hugo Weaving in the V role, and it is that image, the officially released mask of "V for Vendetta", that Anonymous has borrowed as its symbol.
This means that each mask sold kicks money back into a film company, in this case Warner Brothers, a firm that is probably as distant from Anonymous' heart as any. It's a very unfortunate twist for the mask that has come to symbolise protest and dissatisfaction.
"My feeling is the Anonymous group needed an all-purpose image to hide their identity and also symbolise that they stand for individualism - V for Vendetta is a story about one person against the system," explained Lloyd, who came up with the idea of using Guy Fawkes as a symbol, in an earlier interview the BBC.
Alan Moore is reluctant to talk to the press about anything, but we imagine that he might enjoy seeing the image used in the Occupy protests, as well as their weight that it carries with it. Back in 2008, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly he did comment on the masks that he had seen used in protests against Scientology.
"I was also quite heartened the other day when watching the news to see that there were demonstrations outside the Scientology headquarters over here, and that they suddenly flashed to a clip showing all these demonstrators wearing V for Vendetta [Guy Fawkes] masks. That pleased me. That gave me a warm little glow," he said.
The mask is so powerful that in some states in the US, where masked protests are banned, some activists have been arrested for wearing them. So far, at least, there have been no moves to ban their sale, but according to a report at Gawker, a woman who had her house searched by US law enforcement said the masks are on the police radar.
"The agent in charge of my particular warrant actually asked me if I owned a Guy Fawkes mask. I told him no and then asked him if he was disappointed that he wouldn't have a picture of "a real live Anon's mask" to hang in his office," she told Gawker. "He actually said yes."
You can pick up the controversial-in-context mask at Amazon for less than a tenner and at comic book store Forbidden Planet. "Great for every anon out there. Epic Lulz !," says a buyer's comment on that web site from early 2006. "Very useful to hide your identity from the public while you go about your anonymous deeds," adds another, this time posted on Amazon.
We contacted Forbidden Planet to see whether it could provide any information about increases in sales or interest in the masks. However, it refused to enter into any discussion about them at all, and would not refer us to anyone within the organisation that could.
Amazon was more helpful, but since the masks are sold through third parties it was not able to say whether sales had increased or not. If you check its list of best selling items, via toys and games, dressing up, and then finally Masks, you see that the V model is the web site's top seller, even higher than a Darth Vader helmet and cape combo. µ