August 30, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Colleen Frakes and Island Brat

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

I'm a little sad that I didn't become aware of Colleen Frakes' comics until last year, but I am very happy that I did.  She has earned a Xeric Grant and won an Ignatz award, and it's easy to see why.  Last year, her Tragic Relief 12 (Drag Bandits), which was published by Retrofit Comics, made my best mini-comics list.  Colleen is extremely talented, and I'm looking forward to seeing her at SPX again this year.

For the spotlight, I'm looking at Island Brat, the mini-comic she put out last year, with the assistance of Koyama Press.  Frakes, as it turns out, spent almost ten years of her childhood living on a prison island!  Now that doesn't meant she was such a terrible brat that they locked her away and threw away the key. (Though wouldn't THAT make for an interesting mini-comic?)  Her parents had a job there, and because the prison was only accessible by air and sea, it was easier to just live there.

It's a very unique situation, and makes for an interesting look at how different life can be if you are not connected easily to the outside world.  In some ways, it reminded me of my recent visit to Ft. Monroe, which, while far easier to reach, still has that sense of being its own entity, and, just like Frakes' prison island, it is recently shut down.

Frakes opens the comic by talking about the difficulty of writing autobiographical comics and muses about whether she's lost the ability to express herself outside of comics.  It's a great intro and gives some insight into her thought process and why her comics are so detailed.  From there, we get a tour of the island, as Frakes and her family take one last look at the place they called home for nearly a decade.  It's a bittersweet tour, as many of the objects on the island slowly begin their inevitable decay, away from human hands.  This is especially true when they visit their home one final time.  The knowledge that this is the last time they'll ever see it really hits home, especially when they find a memento left behind.

Over the course of the comic, Frakes gives us a brief history of the island and even a map, so that we can place the geography she illustrates for us and that her family interacts with.  I thought that was a really nice touch, reminding me of something I might use if I were going to an old historic site.  Which, when you think about it, is exactly what Frakes is doing for us.

The story is not just about nostalgia, however.  Frakes splices a few old memories here and there, including her frustration at not being able to easily see her friends, but finding a way to deal with the isolation by reveling in the beauty surrounding her (the island was also a nature preserve).  I can understand how the memories might be mixed like that, as I lived a rather isolated childhood myself, which grew harder as I aged and my friends wanted to hang out, but were too far away.

Frakes discusses her desire to make things as accurate as possible, and I think she did a great job.  Her sketches of the buildings and people are done in varied kinds of brush strokes (unless I miss my guess), giving the whole thing a distinctive look that you don't find in very many mini-comics.  Frakes' art resembes something you'd see in the New Yorker more than in, say, MOME, and that's perfectly okay with me.  Her figures are loose and able to show a wide range of expressions with just a few simple lines, which is important in a memoir-style work like this one, where the internal monologue is minimal.

Funny at times and wistful at others, in just the right amounts, Island Brat is a great autobiographical work that would be perfect for anyone just experimenting with the genre.  If I am reading Frakes' store correctly, she should have Island Brat 2 available at SPX as well as this book.  Anyone who likes personal stories, childhood memories, or short stories with great art need to stop by Colleen's table at SPX this year.  If you can't, her website is a good place to start, with links to the books she currently has available.