Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #20: Beth Hetland, Colleen Frakes

Beth Hetland has slowly, subtly refined her line and storytelling through sheer hard work. The first chapter of a longer story that she's doing with writing partner Kyle O'Connell, Half Asleep, is easily the best work of her career. It's the first time that Hetland has seemed to be in control of her line on a panel-to-panel basis, particularly in the way she draws her characters. It's the second time she and O'Connell have collaborated on a major project (their first such project was Cycles), and this time around, O'Connell left a lot more room for Hetland to tell the story visually. That's generally the biggest problem with writer-artist collaborations, that the writer over-writes and doesn't trust the artist to tell the story, but it's O'Connell's sense of restraint as a writer that allows Hetland to reveal details through body language. The story involves an unusual university and a brilliant professor whose research in "Hypnology", a science that basis its neurological and engineering insights on dream symbols, makes her a campus celebrity. Conflict is set up between her and her eleven-year-old daughter, whose preciousness made her the youngest-ever undergraduate at the university. However, it also introduced tension between her hyper-focused mother and her status as a daughter. Hetland and O'Connell cover a lot of ground and background detail in the form of a campus tour given to a visiting dignitary, as the reader is slowly introduced to this world and the unusual technology that's come about as a result of the professor's research. By the end, the artists have laid down a lot of narrative pipe, and I'm eager to see how the conflict is further explored.

Colleen Frakes continues to mine her childhood spent growing up on an isolated prison island off the coast of Washington, and Ghosts & Pizza is in some ways the purest distillation of that experience so far. I noted in her earlier attempts at writing about McNeil Island that she seems to have a book's worth of stories and memories about the experience, and they seem to be seeping out, slowly but surely. This minicomic features both of her approaches to telling her story. "Ghosts" is written from a present-day perspective looking over the past, as Frakes employs a thick, brushy line on single-page panels to illustrate various buildings on the island and recall their status as either haunted or not haunted, wondering if ghosts only haunt old places. In "Pizza", Frakes uses present-tense story structure to describe she and her sister attempting to get a pizza from the mainland and the comic obstacles that get in their way. Here, Frakes uses a thinner line weight to reflect the "present-ness" of the story, as life lived in everyday moments rather than a more isolated look back at images. That's also reflected in the way she crams as many as eight panels into the small pages, once again reflecting time passing quickly. It was also a good move on Frakes' part not to worry too much about explaining the backstory of the island and how she wound up there once again; those who had read the other comics would certainly know what's going on, while the story was still perfectly intelligible for someone who hadn't. Frakes still seems to have barely scratched the surface of her experiences growing up there, and these stories seem to work best in bite-sized doses that are less reflective than they are immersive.

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