I first met Colleen Frakes a couple of years back at GeekGirlCon, a local convention devoted to supporting fans from outside the normal white male cohort to be proud of their geekly pursuits. I had a pleasant time talking with her – she even agreed to be a part of our short-lived video series about “The First Comic You Ever Fell in Love With”, and she was quite gracious to share her story.
At that convention I picked up a few of Colleen’s mini-comics that told the story of her life as the child of a prison warden on McNeil Island, Washington, a small island in the Puget Sound, reachable only by water or air. Frakes and her family lived on that island for several years, in a unique, almost cloistered life that seems to have both been thoroughly calm and very weird.
Frakes has assembled and revised her mini-comics for the graphic novel Prison Island, published by San Francisco’s Zest Books, and they’re an interesting read.
As I mentioned in a 2013 review of her minis, Frakes does a wonderful job of describing life that seems to be almost on another country even though it’s a short ferry boat ride away. If I met her at a party, I’d want to hear stories about everyday life there, and she would share the cute (and terrifying) story of the worst birthday of her life, or about the time she and her friend tried to order pizza to the island, or the stories of the abundant wildlife that lived on the island. This graphic novel does an effective way of telling the stories, using the comics page to convey, for instance, the boredom of the girls’ wait for pizza.
The framing device of the book is simple and very real as well: during the 2011 financial downturn, my state finally shut down the prison after over 100 years of service. The Frakes family decided to return to the island one last time to remember where they spent so many years of their lives and wander around one last time. After their visit, nobody would be allowed back on the island, so they really had no other chance to visit. The visit is as bittersweet and you might imagine –the kids obviously had a love/hate relationship with McNeil Island – but Frakes brings the past and present alive vividly.
Though the setting is important, what I’ll probably remember the most from this book are the more social aspects of it. Frakes does a nice job of showing how life on the island increased her adolescent feelings of awkwardness. As a middle-schooler who ferried every day to the mainland for school, Colleen not only was tall, but she wore braces and she lived on the strange prison island. It was hard for her to make friends, and as one especially awkward sleepover in the book shows, had trouble fitting in with other kids. Islanders were different from others, and that was good and bad.
The artwork is spare and light but conveys exactly enough to show detail and add depth. She accomplishes a lot with her simple shapes and spare style, with a nicely supple brush (or digital brush) that eloquently seems to hold life inside its lines.
Prison Island is a quiet book, which seems appropriate for its subject matter. It’s also an interesting journey to another world that’s just a ferry ride away.