Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #3: Colleen Frakes

Colleen Frakes is a cartoonist who generally works in the genre of darkly tinged revisionist fantasy, with a feminist slant. However, with Prison Island, she tells a personal and unusual story with a bit of awkwardness. The fact that this book has gone through several smaller iterations, both through other publishers as well as herself, speaks to the way that the story she's wanted to tell took on a life of its own. She spent much of her childhood on McNeil Island, outside of Washington state. It was a prison island, and everyone on the island that wasn't a prisoner worked for the prison. The island was only accessible by sea or by air, making events like going to school or ordering a pizza a logistical ordeal.

Each comic that Frakes has released about the island and the return (Island Brat, Island Brat 2, Ghosts and Pizza) has felt fragmented, like pieces of a larger story that Frakes hadn't quite figured out how to tell. With Prison Island (published by Zest Books), all of the pieces have finally fallen into place. Frakes began with a chapter that gives some context to the rest of the book, as well as establishing that her attitude toward prisons is more nuanced than most. She defends the inmates as not being lazy, noting that they work; she also defends the volunteer work shifts to do things like fight fires, noting that this gives them real-life experience that they could use on the outside. Frakes also gives the reader a bit of context as to her family's tendency to move around.

From there, Frakes jumps forward to when the prison was finally going to be shut down for good, and everyone who had ever lived there as an employee or island brat was invited back. Frakes, her younger sister and their parents drove around the island, exploring old haunts and walking through familiar buildings. Scenes from the past get filled with light, fuzzy pencils to indicate that they're old, while scenes from the present have a simple white background. There's a bracing honesty about the attitude Frakes and her sister had in moving there: they hated it. It was weird, and they didn't cotton to their parents' attempt at making them excited about living on an island.

Frakes spends the balance of the book jumping back and forth in time, countering the modern-day narrative of exploring an abandoned home with stories of just how odd it was to live on the island--especially as a rebellious pre-teen and teen. She gets that balance just right, as her memories and the modern-day tramping around don't necessarily hold major revelations. There are memories of birthday parties on the beach while an escaped convict was probably right near them, the balance between the work needs of a family and children craving stability and normalcy (and often craving it in a bratty manner), and the mechanics of just trying to buy groceries from the mainland without a car and by using a ferry. For a book that spends so much time reminiscing, Frakes' approach is refreshingly unsentimental. There was a lot about living on the island that was unpleasant, but it was also a unique experience. As an adult, Frakes obviously appreciated the narrative aspects of living on the island, knowing full well while it was happening that it was weird. Having the modern-day coda gives the book a sense of structure, as well as providing perspective. It's all done in Frakes' trademark brushy, cartoony style. There are few cartoonists who can get so much clear expressiveness out of so few lines, but Frakes has refined her style in such a way as to do this both in fantasy stories and autobio. Indeed, her own self-caricature remains one of my favorites in comics.

From the very beginning of her career, Frakes has been a prolific self-publisher. That includes participating in a number of fanzines. Notorious R.B.G is a zine about the Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There's a story by Amber Nelson, drawings by Neil Brideau, and a hilarious sequence by Frakes that's a parody of a song by Beyonce'. You Missed The Point Completely! is a fanzine about the band Harvey Danger, done with Steve Seck. Seck's take is direct, albeit with a ghost character in his apartment. Frakes' strip is about a road trip dealing with a fragile friendship, one that finds some common ground in the band. Her page design, influenced in part by her fantasy work, is extremely striking. Finally, Witness is a Mad Max fanzine, focusing on the more feminist aspects of the recent movie. There are a couple of Furiosa-meets-Tank Girl moments here, an interesting review by Steve Bissette, and strip by Frakes that focuses less on the movie and more on her family's odd survivalist streak. For Frakes, the apocalypse is a nice place to visit, but she doesn't want to live there.

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