Monday, May 9, 2011

New Post: The Trials of Sir Christopher

The Trials of Sir Christopher
, by Colleen Frakes, is a collection of two stories born out of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) written in drawn in consecutive years. In the span of a month, Frakes created a 100-page story from beginning to end. As such, this book has the feel of a drawing & writing exercise more than a carefully-crafted work with multiple levels of complexity. Compared to Frakes' Woman King, for example, this book is little more than a pleasant lark. That said, there's much to like here. The art throughout is fabulously loose and expressive, conveying information with grace and wit. No line feels tortured or overly labored, which I imagine is the purpose of exercises like this: to excise an artist's tendency to be overly precious or OCD about particular panels or lines and instead focus on images that move along the narrative. Frakes clearly uses different tools for each of the stories; the first story looks like it's drawn with a thin-line pen, while the second story is drawn using a thicker line, looking more like Frakes' standard work.

The book very much falls into Frakes' favored storytelling bailiwick: the fractured fairy tale. Frakes enjoys mining the darker edges of such stories, with few of her stories winding up with happy endings. The narrative follows a slightly hapless knight who's charged by his king to rescue his daughters from a dragon. He initially is roundly defeated by the dragon, who has already burned the princesses to a crisp. After a series of misadventures, a lady in the lake aids him and he kills the dragon. The ending is quite downbeat, even as it's punctuated by odd moments of humor. The second issue finds Christopher becoming a sailor and going to an island where he encounters an oracle and inadvertently unleashes a monster. This chapter is sillier than the first, and there seems to be a lot of wandering around hitched to a few plot points.

If the story itself doesn't contain much substance, the actual storytelling is remarkably fluid. The spontaneity of Frakes' line brings a lot of life to the proceedings. Her thick squiggles and curves bring Christopher to life, and her selective use of backgrounds creates a world for him to explore. The backgrounds frequently drop away on the page when we close in on Christopher talking to someone, but the expressiveness of those scenes makes that irrelevant. There are few true talking head scenes; when there's a conversation, we generally see full bodies, and the characters do something interesting in relation to each other. Creating a geometric space in those panels between the characters and perhaps a single object establishes a nice tension that makes the reader want to keep going even if there isn't true action on the page. That tension may well be the key to this book's success. The actual panel-to-panel flow isn't especially smooth, nor are the actual fight scenes, but the beautiful panel composition is a model of how to solve storytelling problems. I'll be curious to see how she carries over these fast-moving techniques to her future work.

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