From Millais’ Ophelia to Alien’s Ripley, Kathryn Briggs’ Magpie utilizes a myriad of symbols to explore and subvert the female experience. Told through and over layers of illustrations, maps, comic strips, anatomical drawings as well as classical art, literature and religious references, Magpie takes the reader from the mundane every day to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. The book is a piece of art in itself, and the writing is lyrical and poetic, the two perfectly matched in tone. Magpie encompasses eight individual short form comics, scattered in various anthologies including Sliced Quarterly and Dirty Rotten Comics, but brought together in Magpie by Ess Publications.
Across two comics, the sixth and final of the collection, Alle Meine Neue Woerter sind Lebensmittel (roughly: All My New Words are Food) and Aber, Das Freuest Dich (But, that Makes You Happy) Briggs discusses in frank and at times uncomfortable terms, a Scottish woman’s experience as a refugee in Germany, as she downgrades to a job she sees as being beneath her; (“How do I say this without sounding like an arsehole?”) waitressing in a restaurant. The story takes care to intersect sexism with the WWII-esque xenophobia and racism rampant in the modern West; while keeping the protagonists’ identity as a well-educated white woman in the forefront, a reminder of privilege which if absent might have lent it an ignorant tone.
Although the story ends with our protagonist returning home to a Romantic depiction of Scotland worthy of a Rabbie Burns sonnet, (something many refugees are unable to do), the slight stumble seems to be in-keeping with the scope of the entire collection. Briggs’ cannot unpack the experience of a Syrian refugee in Scotland or a black woman in the US, so she doesn’t. The experience of woman she depicts is the one she can relay, the one she has lived. In short, she stays in her lane.
Having said that, Magpie doesn’t exist so much to tell stories, but to frame thoughts and explore ideas. Some stories are simply quotes with illustrations, lending a new tone to the familiar. Some are moments captured or trains of thought allowed to run on until they stop. On the whole, Magpie is a beautifully orchestrated wander, which leaves you thinking, questioning and reflecting on everything from witches to space cats.
Magpie is available as a comic from Comichaus here.