Kathryn Briggs – Story(Cycle); Magpie; Triskelion 

First things first: if you’ve not done so already, I’d highly recommend that you go back the Kickstarter for the complete edition of Kathryn Briggs’ Triskelion, which has a week to go and could really do with your support.


As to why, well… there’s a specific challenge that comes with writing about art that is so obviously accomplished, so unashamed of its ambitions, so confident in the way it ranges across styles and subjects. The fear of showing your whole arse is strong, but the temptation to overcompensate by dressing yourself up in all your finery… that’s the one that’ll get you in the end.

“This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart…”

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It should come as no surprise that Kathryn Briggs comes from a fine arts background. The most immediately appealing element of her work is its painterly aspect, which is equally well applied to the depiction of classically composed scenes…

…as it is to more intimate portraits:

This is a million miles away from overworked heavy metal style of a million sub-par Simon Bisleys, thought still recognisably in the tradition of comic book artists from Eddie Campbell to JH Williams III, artists who have brought a range of effects to the comics page that are more at home on canvas:

From The Fate of the Artist, by Eddie Campbell

We should be careful that in making such comparisons we aren’t just trying to box an artist in, especially when we’re comparing a women with their older male peers. So for the avoidance of doubt: those references are broad brush strokes, while the real story in Briggs’ work is in the details, all of which are very much her own.

Kathryn Briggs knows more about the visual arts than me.  If I try to pretend otherwise it will end badly for all of us.

Those provisos in place, all I can really do is talk about the experience of reading the damn things! The painterly aspect of Briggs’ work comes through most clearly in Story(Cycle), which started life as an art school project. In this case, the pages have literally taken the journey from the gallery wall to printed pamphlet:

Taken in sequence, Story(Cycle) lives up to its name, taking the reader on a round trip through feminine archetypes drawn from myth and fiction. Portraits of the artist are worked into this scheme that we may work through it. In a move that will be developed further in her later work, Briggs builds multiple levels of text into the story, from narration overlaid in the form of caption boxes (“They kept me in a garden once, and I let them, for a while“) to hand-written notes on the images themselves and pasted-in excerpts from sources both academic and personal.

It’s in this clash between different modes of information that Briggs’ voice can be found, in the revelation that the artist’s use of collage is not merely decorative, that it’s an aesthetic built to integrate abstract knowledge with physical experience.

“The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A shorter and snappier way of saying all of this would be to quote Briggs collaborator Brother Bobsy: “Kathryn Briggs draws like Alan Moore writes.” The short comics collected in Magpie (previously two single issues, now available as one snazzy paperback from Throwaway Press) do a lot to support this claim.

Magpie provides all of the pleasures of the art comic anthology, allowing the reader the rush of discovering something of an artist’s range of interests as well as a chance to watch them attempt a variety of styles. Taken together, they present a picture of the artist as a young formalist, keen to demonstrate the thousand ways they’ve just discovered to make the comic book page contain the world.

There are literary adaptations, fan-comics for cats, adventures in myth and biography, and all of it clever in a way that you feel with your whole body. A sense of connectivity is built into the fabric of every page; learning to read them is always purposeful, even revelatory, because it involves tracing the different lines and materials on the page to where the artist has been and might be going.

Sometimes this is carried off by sheer strength of concept. In ‘Wall Cats’, for example, the meticulous, panel-by-panel observation of what’s going outside the artist’s window is re-framed in the last panel as exactly that:

Those who’ve made their way to the end of Alan Moore’s Unearthing (one of his best works, if not his most famous) will find this use of the old pull-back-and-reveal approach very familiar, but while this strip is impressive it’s the use of collage and mixed media elsewhere that is most emotionally arresting.

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists – I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Did I mention that you should back Kathryn’s Kickstarter? Because you really should. She’s a great artist and Triskelion is her most fully realised and personal work yet. The collected also features an essay by some guy called David Allison, which is… well fuck, it’s the least good thing in the book and it’s still really fucking good, so do yourself a favour and treat yourself to the whole damn package why don’t you?!

I won’t repeat anything I say in that essay here, but what I will say is that Triskelion applies the full range of Briggs’ talent to a long-form story about what it’s like to be a women in a world that won’t stop telling you what it is to be a woman. It combines explosive expressionism with deep thought about the uses and abuses of archetypes, and again, it’s in this mixing of modes that Briggs finds the voice of her story, her on-page drama.

Triskelion is a story that has been built make sense of what mythic time has to say to living memory and to work out what social reality has done to the soul.

It’s the sense of unifying purpose that makes me want to move past the parade of halfways famous white guys I’ve mentioned so far in this post and compare Briggs with her peers. While talking about other painterly artists or witchy writers might help locate Briggs, her work’s alive to the difficulties of the moment in a may that makes me want to compare her to contemporary women and non-binary artists. Artists like Jules Scheele, who uses their clean, forceful line to give solid form to unfamiliar ideas and complex concepts. Or Sophie Bainbridge, whose 2018 zine You Can Be AnythingTM examines one person’s relationship with pop iconography with jarring clarity. Or Sarah Horrocks, another artist who asks you how to relearn how to read comics with every page. None of these artists are producing work that looks like Triskelion, but they all share a certain intensity, an attentiveness to form and what it’s being used for, what it can tell us about the world outside of itself.

If I try to tell you about how feminism intersects with lived experience, I’m going to look even stupider than I would trying to tell Kathryn Briggs about visual art, but what I will say is that Triskelion is worth listening to, that it’s out there, that it wants to talk back to you.

It is more than worth the effort.

Believe me, I will never desert life until this last hope is torn from my bosom, that in some way my labours may form a link of gold with which we ought all to strive to drag Happiness from where she sits enthroned above the clouds, now far beyond our reach, to inhabit the earth with us.

Mary Shelley, Mathilda

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