Monday, December 3, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #3: Colleen Frakes, Josh Lees

Iron Scars Book 1: The Changeling, and Iron Scars Vol. 5, by Colleen Frakes. Frakes is one of the first graduates of CCS and has been one of the most consistently prolific artists as well. She's always used a loose line that emphasizes gesture and expression, varying line weights depending on the situation. Most often, the typical Frakes figure is one with a heavy black line marking the outline and a relatively iconic facial expression: a few lines here, a few squiggles there. Most of the comics Frakes has done have been fractured fairy tales: dark takes on classical tropes, going back to their roots.

Iron Scars in many ways is the culmination of a decade's worth of experiments. Frakes' best work features children in conflict with terrifying, mysterious forces. She's also written extensively about her unusual childhood growing up on an island housing a prison that was fairly cut off from the outside world; it was accessible only by ferry. Iron Scars is similarly set on a small island with a few families on it, also accessible only by ferry. Frakes takes these childhood memories and fantasies and transforms them into a vivid, funny and frightening epic. Instead of a prison island, it's an island where the line between the mortal realm and faerie realm is extremely thin, and a group of witches lives there to guard over the link.

The plot revolves around the dark faeries ("the Unseelie Court") starting to kidnap the children of witches, breaking a treaty, and the efforts of some kids to get them back. There's also the matter of one of the children in this tight-knit community actually being a changeling, switched at birth with an actual human child. What separates the story from typical fantasy is Frakes' uncanny knack for writing children. There are nine different kids, all of whom are written as unique individuals. Frakes obviously has an understanding of what it's like to grow up in that kind of isolation and what effect that would have on a close-knit group of kids. She took that understanding and added the fantasy plot as an overlay, but the relationships have an authenticity born from experience.

Frakes also has a knack for alternating humor and horror in equal measure. One of the running plots is the relationship between the women in the coven, which include a sky witch, a sand witch, a sea witch, etc. They constantly squabble and are quite quirky, especially the slightly confused sea witch and her frequent offers of fish. The faerie changelings are inky creatures that look like part cat, part demon and part spider: they look like they're made out of nightmares. The Unseelie Queen is almost alien in her ability to terrorize. The most notable child is Tyee, a girl who actively resists her heritage as a witch but winds up embracing it in an effort to rescue her friends. The book is full of close friendships, betrayals, attempts at rapprochement, and kids outfoxing adults. It's a thrilling, funny story by an artist with a well-developed aesthetic, from her brush strokes to her vibrant hand lettering.

Liberty High School Detective League #2, by Josh Lees. Lees describes this as a "Teen Mystery series for fans of Nancy Drew, Disney's Fillmore! and Case Closed". The premise of this comic is clever, in that the high school that new student Ray Griego attends has its own amateur Detective League, dedicated to solving various local crimes. Lees ticks a number of boxes with this comic, including distinctive character design, varied and realistic characterizations, and a genuinely interesting mystery plot that has a satisfying and sensible conclusion. Lees also has fun with the series' premise, including the fact that the titular Liberty High has a rival that it engages in mystery contests. The only problem with this issue is that parts of it look rushed, especially scenes where characters are interacting with each other in space. There are figures here and there that just look awkward as a result. Lees also tries to cram in a lot of panels on some of the pages, and a number of them feel cramped as a result. The problems with the comic are mostly of reach exceeding grasp on a visual level, and while that kind of ambition is admirable, the comic's rough patches hurt the flow of its narrative. The Archie digest presentation was a nice look, but not for a comic as jam-packed as this one. Lees has a great concept here, and it's one that only needs some refinement.

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