SPX Spotlight 2014: Colleen Frakes Has Tons of Stuff for You

Lots of new things from Colleen Frakes
Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press ExpoYou can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

As we move into the final week of SPX Spotlights, some of my favorite creators--the ones I also call my friends--are coming into focus, and we'll start with Colleen Frakes, whose ability to tell a wide variety of stories, from a fantasy about a girl who  leads a tribe of bears (Woman King, reviewed here) to transvestite thieves (Drag Bandits, reviewed here), is really impressive. When combined with her economic line work that always provides just the right visual for each part of her story, it's a combination that will draw you in and make you want to keep reading her work.

It doesn't hurt that Colleen herself is a really good person, too. :)

SPX is often a stressful time for my creator friends and associates, as they prepare for a new show. This year, Frakes is armed and ready, with two really new comics, two mostly new comics, and even a tote bag to help you carry all your SPX purchases. As she quipped on her website, there's no saying, "I think I read everything" to Colleen this year!

I had the pleasure of reading Tragic Relief 17: Witch and The Saint's Eyes and Other Stories, and both are excellent work that are highly recommended.

In Witch, Frakes uses a throwaway line in a book about Witch Hunting to tell the story of two Scottish women who "disguised themselves as men" in order to "become witch-finders." Though brief, Colleen gets straight to the point, namely that these two women are engaging in activity that, if caught, would make them victims of the witch trials they're benefiting from. After all, a woman of advanced age without a man is surely up to no good, so what exactly are they?

When a woman is killed for being a witch, they receive their blood money. But in the end, it tears them apart, as one comes to regret what they did, even if it was necessary. With her faith gone, there can be only one ending, which is sudden and starkly drawn by Frakes.

Witch is a great study in compressed storytelling. We don't get a lengthy history or aftereward. Only the most crucial elements are shared, drawn for the biggest effect possible. We see how the accused witch is defiant not be a long speech but in her body language and a simple refusal to play the game.Her trial is only a few panels, with her exposed flesh showing "signs" of imps. Her burning is never shown. Instead she's a figure in black ink, already a shade and pronouncing her curse. The effect is extremely chilling in a story that is definitely tragic.

That sense of imagination carries into the collection of shorts, Saint's Eyes. As with many other mini-comic creators, Frakes often contributes to anthologies. This book puts together some of that work, along with a mini she collaborated on with Sean. T. Collins, a few selected reprints from various Tragic Relief minis, and a new story that closes the collection.

These stories cover a wide range of concepts, none of which are extremely long, just as with most of Frakes' work as a creator. There's a definite theme of legend and fairy tale for many of them--even the original works--which of course is right in my own personal wheelhouse in terms of story interest. The opening feature, which lends its name to the title of the collection, is about a wronged sister, who is blinded by her siblings only to receive the gift of sight from St. Lucia, who Frakes draws in amazing butterfly-style glasses. She recovers to rule wisely, with just a sting of revenge.

The Hunt is a bit of a departure for Colleen, where she opens with a jungle girl fighting for her life to reach a book. Next is a maiden fighting against dragons and magic--all for a book. We then shift to a librarian, who also "hunts" for a tome, which relates back to the jungle girl. It's a fun exercise in imagery, with slightly rougher inks because it goes back to 2010. Revenge, also from 2010, is a breezy story where two figures, male and female, race to kill each other. But we all know what happens when you seek revenge, and the ending is fitting. As with Hunt, the work is much sketchier than you see from Frakes now, with the characters even slightly distorted at times, but her narrative frame and decisions on what to show the reader are as good as ever.

I think my favorite story might be Late for Tea, which shows Colleen's ability to tell a story that sticks with you. A family shown as being nearly skeletons waits for the father of the family to return from a trip that could change their lives. But hope is running out, and perhaps death is better than the life they're leading. The idea of a cute little girl (except for you, know, a near-skull head) despairing in an empty village devoid of life is positively chilling. The end just hits you square in the face, too, and we are left wondering what happens next--and none of the options are positive.

On the other hand, Here at the End of All Things, the collaboration with Collins, shows that there can be hope in desperate situations. The protagonist narrates in boxes while Frakes shows how bad things have gotten. She does a great job with the visuals, but even when I read this the first time, I thought the story was a bit too over-written. It's a tad to maudlin for my taste overall, but it's still a good example of her art.

The playful Gleaners closes out the collection, and was written for the book. Two people break into a farmer's fruit trees, collecting only that which fell to the ground because anything else is stealing. It's a fun justification, and when one of them breaks it, that's when the shooting starts! The art is lighthearted, even when running from the angry farmer, and the looks on the character's faces really sell the story, especially when bantering. I love the idea of a person quoting the bible to justify stealing--it's so obviously ironic and typical of Frakes' dry wit.

Colleen may be a friend, but she's also a great storyteller, and is someone who knows how to tell her tales in a short manner with a lot of power, even though her lines are never extensive or overly detailed. You don't have to cram everything into a panel to be a good comic-maker. Sometimes silly, sometimes deadly serious, Colleen Frakes continues to be an amazing and prolific creator, and if you aren't a fan yet, make sure you pick something up from her at SPX--and you soon will.

Can't make SPX? Visit Colleen on the web here.