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31st Aug 2014

Review: Koré by Anna Fitzpatrick

Koré by Anna Fitzpatrick

I don’t do many reviews, particularly of Irish comics. The Irish comics scene is a tiny cottage industry and everybody knows everybody; a lot of the work is amateurish and unoriginal but it’s hard to be too harsh in your criticism because you want to encourage people and don’t want to hurt their feelings. Fortunately we have Leeann Hamilton who isn’t scared of letting rip when she thinks it’s necessary.

Sometimes, though, the work is far from amateurish or unoriginal, but is hard to review just because it’s bloody hard to describe. Such a work is Koré by Anna Fitzpatrick. I received my copy of the book shortly after the Kickstarter funding campaign closed in September 2013. It’s now just a kick in the arse short of September 2014, and I’m having a go at last.

Anna first came to my attention with her webcomic Between Worlds, a fantasy in a sort-of early modern European setting, notable for its sprawling plot, its emotional intensity and its beautiful digitally-painted colour artwork. Koré, other than the covers, is in black and white, and even the colour covers are sheathed in a slipcover printed in black and white on tracing paper, through which only the bright eyes of the pictured character can be clearly seen. The front cover and its slipcover are at the top of this review; the back cover and its slipcover are below.

Koré by Anna Fitzpatrick - back cover

Eyes are important, women’s bodies are important, and mythic symbolism is important. Koré is an alternative name for the ancient Greek underworld goddess Persephone, and means “maiden” or “daughter”. The snakes suggest the gorgon Medusa, but their juxtaposition on the back cover with medical tubes reminds us that the snake is also a symbol of healing.

Why am I talking about symbols, and things being “important”, rather than telling you what the book’s about? Well, I’m attempting to do both, but it’s not easy. Koré is told almost entirely in images, no words other than the title and a series of titles applied to the characters, or perhaps the same character in different lives, at the end, and while there’s a sequence and a narrative I’m not sure it can really be considered as a story. Will Eisner coined the term “sequential art” many years ago, and that’s what this is. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics defined comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader.The sequence of images in Koré certainly produces an aesthetic response, but it’s an impressionistic one that depends on the reader’s response to images, in symbolic as well as narrative terms.

Double page spread from Koré by Anna Fitzpatrick

The impression it creates in me is a strong sense of womanhood, in particular the physicality of womanhood, and womanhood experienced as something assumed, or felt as imposed, not entirely willingly or happily. The figures are drawn androgynously, broad-shouldered, small-breasted and square-jawed, but the persistence of blood as well as vulval and uterine symbols and the anguish and fear of the character(s) is undeniable. The eyeballs in the blood are more difficult to interpret, except perhaps by reference to the goddess Koré as “The All Seeing”, or by how women are judged by how they look creating a paranoid feeling of being under constant observation and scrutiny, but that seems too rational an explanation to be entirely satisfying. I wonder how much of Koré‘s symbolism was determined rationally and how much was a series of subconscious decisions.

Fitzpatrick writes on her Kickstarter page aboutfinding a path through depression in comic form”, and while I’ve had my own struggles with depression I experienced it in male terms, Anna experienced it in female terms, so for me there’s a sense of recognition, but also a gulf in understanding. I’m a man, and I don’t have any sisters, and an awful lot of the experience of growing up female is lost on me, but growing up female seems to me to be the overarching theme of the book.

Koré is a book that demands your attention, requires interpretation, and gives the reader access to a mind not their own (whether or not that other mind is entirely comprehensible), which to me is the highest purpose of art of any sort, and makes Fitzpatrick perhaps the most interesting and challenging artist Irish comics have yet given us. Koré‘s impressionistic, symbolic approach makes an interesting contrast to the work of another challenging Irish artist, John Robbins, which is framed in a more masculine way by its unflinching concrete specificity. But that’s another review that may or may not actually get written.

Koré is available from Anna’s Etsy store, for US$16.50, which currently works out at UK£10.21, or €12.89, a snip for such a handsome 74-page graphic novel.

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