Austin Briggs was one of the most successful illustrators and commercial artists of his generation, and, as one of the founders of the Famous Artists School, he died a millionaire. In the 1930s and 1940s, before he achieved fame and fortune, he drew two popular comic strips, Secret Agent X-9 and Flash Gordon.
Briggs was born in Michigan and grew up in Detroit. Before he was out of his teens, he went to New York with his portfolio. His drawings were very similar to those of the exceptional pen-and-ink artist, Joseph Clement Coll. He quickly got assignments from such slicks as Collier’s and McClure’s. “This auspicious beginning was blighted by the Depression,” art historian Walt Reed has pointed out, “As the magazines retrenched, Briggs, who had not yet developed his own individual style, was expendable.” A period of scuffling and self-doubt followed for him.
The magazine that helped Briggs to survive was Blue Book. Its editor, Donald Kennicott, saw to it that his adventure fiction pulp was better illustrated than any of its newsstand competitors. While he could not pay Briggs slick magazine fees, he did encourage him to experiment and expand. Briggs turned out a great number of illustrations for Blue Book throughout the 1930s, and developed from a gifted imitator of Coll to a powerful and inventive illustrator with an approach all his own.
To add to his income, Briggs also took a job assisting Alex Raymond, whom he had met at a cocktail party sometime circa 1935. He went to work assisting with, and sometimes ghosting, Secret Agent X-9, Flash Gordon, and Jungle Jim.
Starting in the late 1930s, Briggs began working toward a more naturalistic and relaxed approach to drawing. He officially took over X-9 in 1938 and even signed it. His new approach could also be seen on the G-Man strip. In 1940, he gave up X-9 to take on the new Flash Gordon daily that King Features was launching. Briggs used his newer style there, too, taking his version away from the stiff, posed look Raymond was still favoring on the Sunday Flash Gordon. But a certain amount of sloppiness became evident in Briggs’ newspaper work. He grew increasingly unhappy as a comic artist, and was not especially proud of the profession. He decided not to sign the new strip.
By the time he took over the Flash Gordon Sunday in 1944, the daily had ceased, and Briggs worked in an even looser style than before. The page looked like the rough sketches of a very gifted artist who was short of time. He refused to sign the Sunday page, and finally in 1948, he balked at renewing his contract. He would later admit that when he left the syndicate that day he felt sick, and perhaps worried that maybe he had made the wrong decision. But, he went on to do years of impressive and award-winning illustrations for such magazines as Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as numerous advertising illustrations including a much-admired series for TV Guide.
Briggs died in Paris in 1973.
(Information for the biography above is based on writings from The Encyclopedia of American Comics, From 1897 to the Present; edited by Ron Goulart)