Books in my house tend to spill off shelves and take over corners and any other space (it can, as one friend observed watching V For Vendetta, look a bit like the book-strewn room where Evey wakes in the Shadow Gallery). Tidying one pile recently I found several comics works I picked up at the small press fair at the Edinburgh Book Festival last summer, buried for several months, now freed from their paper tomb, so cue pleasant afternoon curled up by fire as wind and rain pelted down outside, me inside with nice little pile of (belated) reading…
One of those comics I found hidden away beneath a pile of other books was Story(cycle by Kathryn Briggs. I spotted this at the small press fair and was drawn straight away to the artwork, some beautifully soft-toned watercolours which suggest and hint at the events and story rather than insisting on it by telling you this is it; here Briggs’ delicate painted artwork (assisted sometimes by mixed-media elements) and fragments of words (some from famous tales, others by friends) instead create an almost dream-like space hinting at the journey being portrayed in, the sort of art that conjures up ideas and other images in the reader’s mind.
(Kathryn signing at the small press fair at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic by me, click to see larger versions on my Flickr)
It isn’t a traditional looking comic format; from what I can gather on her site it began as a college art project to be exhibited but later on, after some comics reading, Kathryn began to think how the art and story might work as a comic, and I am glad she did. Eschewing panels and speech bubbles, instead we have these luscious watercolours and mixed-media, fragments of text pasted in, sometimes prominent, at other times being subsumed into the art, like those thoughts that run through our minds when pondering decisions, some voices being loud, others, fading or being replaced by other thoughts and voices (some encouraging, some doubting, some positive, some negative).
Story(cycle) isn’t a straightforward narrative, but as it reflects on the nature of story itself (and why we tell stories and listen to them and read them) there is a narrative thrust, that of a journey – the classic Hero’s Journey, made most famous by Joseph Campbell (whose Hero With a Thousand Faces I’d commend to anyone who loves storytelling). Except here Kathryn replaces the usually male heroic figure on their quest/journey of discovery (and really most good quests are also journeys of discovery at the same time) with a female perspective, the feminine voice which has too often been in the background through history, literature and myth (odd when you consider our earliest prehistoric depictions of mythical beings or deities tend to be feminine, but those pesky male gods and heroes shoved their insistent way to the front of the line).
“But I hate to hear you talking so like fine gentlemen, as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days…”
Using a variety of female perspectives from myth and literature, from immortals like Jane Austen (whence came the wonderful line above about the intellect and independence women can show – radical for early 19th century society when mighty sideburns ruled the land) to Lilith to Amaterasu and Red Riding Hood, Briggs explore notions of the female hero and her journey throughout the history of literature and folklore. As with all the best journey of the hero this isn’t just about that hero (or heroine) figure, this is about us. All our best stories are, and our hero quests are our best, passed down through millennia, from Gilgamesh to Wonder Woman, aren’t just about telling a good story to entertain us, or inspire us, they also teach us about what it is to be human, that we all face challenges. We may not have to deal with mythical beasts in faraway lands, but every single one of us deals with moments that we must face and pass as we grow to be the person we want to be (and it that often takes heroic courage, to stand out and be yourself when society tries to insist you should conform to societal norms).
The journey of the hero and the best old tales have always been as much about self discovery for the reader as they have been about simply telling an entertaining tale; it’s one of the reasons why certain tales and archetypes endure for centuries, sometimes even millennia, and Briggs’ exploration of this mythic hero’s journey from the female perspective also takes in this quality, being about a woman’s own challenges, obstacles, how to overcome them, find her own voice, to stop being the Moon goddess simply reflecting sun but reclaim Amaterasu, the shining sun, be herself. Throughout the artwork is beautiful, the sort you go back over and drink in. I was reminded very much of some of the great Dave McKean’s work as I read this (which is a compliment, given Dave has long been one of my favourites) and perhaps a touch of David Mack too. And indeed I noticed when reading some of Kathryn’s blog later on that she acknowledges Mack as an influence, especially in her decision to adapt her exhibition into a comic tale.
If you are interested in story, in heroic archetypes (and anyone who reads really should have some interest in that, because it so often informs many tales spun even in the modern day), folklore, myth and how they illuminate the human condition (male or female) then you’ll find this an intriguing work to get lost in, replete with lines and imagery (from the trickster crow to elegant origami shapes to the great spirals and circles of Celtic folklore) to wallow in, the sort of work that seeps slowly into the imagination and keeps on doing so long after you finish reading. And on a purely aesthetic level, it’s just gorgeous to look it. Do also have a look at the extensive blog Kathryn has about the creating of the work as both exhibition and then as a comic where she goes into great detail about how she approached each section. And here’s video (borrowed shamelessly from her blog) of Kathryn giving a tour of the installation art version of Story (cycle), which I think I’d rather like to walk through: