Monday, July 30, 2012

CCS Comics: Colleen Frakes and Friends

Colleen Frakes has long been one of the most productive of the CCS alums, and her recent output reveals that her work ethic has not abated. Frakes got a Xeric grant for her first book, won an Ignatz award for her second book, did National Novel Writing Month two years in a row to compile a third book, and had her fourth book (Island Brat) published by Koyama Press. Frakes continues to publish books as part of her own Tragic Relief series as well as do shorter minis and collaborations. Let's look at her recent work that manages to touch on several of these venues.

Island Brat 2 is a sequel to her Koyama Press-published book; it's a shorter and smaller mini that fills in some of the background details she didn't have room to expand upon in the initial discussion of what it was like to grow up on a prison island off the coast of Washington (state). I found the first book a little uneven, as she was trying to juggle a lot of ideas at once: memories of growing up on the island, drawings of the island, and going back for an island reunion as the state was getting ready to shut down the housing units permanently. This mini is a little less ambitious in its format, presenting life on the island as a series of vignettes. I love any comic where Frakes herself is a character, because her self-caricature is so delightfully angular and delicately rendered. Her loose, feathery line glides across the page and takes the reader with it as she discusses the details of moving to the island (after her parents are surprised that neither she nor her sister are all that excited about the idea of moving to an island), the ordeal of grocery shopping (a process that involves waiting for boats and then bus travel on the mainland because the island has no stores), and what it was like when a prison break occurred. Frakes knows that this aspect of growing up there is the most exciting to readers, but other than one incident, even this was mostly pretty dull. I'm hoping that Frakes continues to draw on these experiences for future minis, because there's a poignancy in relating the isolation and angst that teenagers feel in an environment that is actually completely isolated. It's also obvious that Frakes' feelings now about living there are complicated; part of her obviously relished the experience of living in nature and doing something unusual, and part of her still feels the whole thing was weird.

Upon returning to the west coast after living in Vermont for seven years, Frakes teamed up with fellow CCS alum Nomi Kane to do a split mini.  Frakes' half is called Kurt Cobain Once Slept Here!, a series of gags and observations about readjusting to Seattle. Frakes only offers up five strips, but they're all funny and well-drawn, as she uses gray-scaling for the first time in order to add some weight to these minimalist, small drawings. Both Frakes and Kane draw on the humor of their particular towns, confirming that the stereotypes about each are true. Seattle residents are still hung up about the 90s, obsessed with coffee and mostly keep to themselves. Berkeley residents (Kane's home) are hippies in precisely the way one would expect: smoking pot in public, subsisting on just salt and water because being vegan wasn't enough, and letting kids play with matches so they'll have "agency".  Kane's clean and naturalistic style is a nice counterbalance to Frakes' sketchier style. Even if the punchlines are obvious, given the stereotypes of where they're living, the strips are so well-constructed that it doesn't matter--especially since both Kane and Frakes appear in most of the strips as characters.

Finally, Frakes recruited  fellow CCS alum Betsey Swardlick to write a story for her Retrofit Comics submission, Drag Bandits. Swardlick likes writing caper stories, and this certainly fits that bill. What's interesting is that Swardlick's own frantic, scribbly art is replaced by Frakes' more serene, feathery line, a tension that doesn't always work smoothly. Swardlick also likes screwing with gender roles, and this period piece set sometime in the 17th century is no exception. The story follows what appears to be a masked female bandit who robs carriages in the countryside, but who is in fact a man dressed up in his wife's riding habit. His wife is bemused by her husband's little "hobby", until she's kidnapped by a vengeful victim of theft. She has to pull her own drag act later in the book, as the reader is led back and forth on a variety of shenanigans. It's a pleasant bit of silliness (if a bit padded at 32 pages), though honestly I prefer Swardlick's stories done in her own more manic style and to see Frakes' art used in her more typical thoughtful, restrained and dark stories.

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