Monday, June 04, 2007

Tragic Relief, Indeed!

Cover: Tragic Relief #1 by Colleen Frakes;
interview with Colleen awaits you, below!

Morning, all -- and a rainy Monday it is too, here in Vermont.

A big happy birthday to Bruce Dern, my favorite character actor next to the late, great Strother Martin and the still very-much-with-us Eli Wallach. Bruce Dern home film fest to follow!

Tomorrow, I'll write a bit about Ichii and Me -- yep, I'm part of a new DVD release, in stores and online everywhere, and I'll blarf about it here.

If you love Ichii, you must have savored the Republican debate on Fox News last week.

Marge and I watched the Democratic debates last night (on CNN and our local New Hampshire public television station), and it was engaging and enlightening -- far superior to the race-to-fascist-bottom of the Fox News Republican debate, which I found completely alarming and discouraging. If one of these Republican shits denounces the likes of Hostel II after the verbal torture-fest they all (with the notable exception of Senator McCain) reveled in on Fox News's debate, they'll have a lot to answer for. When Mitt Romney boasted he'd double the size of Guantanamo, my gorge rose (along with my blood pressure).

If anyone had written a sf novel 15 years ago proffering the reality of the Fox News Republican debate, word for word, I simply wouldn't have believed it -- much less believed it possible. What a sad, sick time we live in. It'll be interesting to see what tomorrow night's NH Republican debate brings after the rabid fear-mongering of the Fox News event. Did the network or the candidates set the tenor, tone and content? We'll soon know.

Anyhoot, The Democratic debate was an oasis of rational conversation by comparison, though Wolf Blitzer (the moderator)'s ongoing rewording of audience questions into increasingly polarized, extremist 'what if?' scenarios and 'raise your hands if you agree that' reductionism was a sad reflection of the Fox News polemics and loopy 'what if?' questions. The candidates last night finally refused to engage in such nonsense, and the debate was the richer for it.

I'm still stunned, though, that no one is truly calling Bush on the budget issue -- that is, the ongoing refusal to incorporate war funding in the annual Federal budget, making the continuing spectacle of these sidelined war funding bills such a hot spot.

Not once did the Democratic candidates articulate this simple fact -- thus, the core issue (the Bush Administration's refusal to include the cost of war in the annual Federal budget) again gets a slide, and the Bush Administration's ploy of 'blame game' nonsense is sustained. Why do the Democrats fall for it? Because they do, the American public does.

Call a spade a spade: THE WAR COST HAS BEEN SIDELINED since the war began in Afghanistan in 2002. This is Bush's tactic; let him eat it. We're sick to death of it, and the only thing more disgusting and tiresome than this ongoing spectacle is the Democratic Party's continual rising-to-the-bait of the President's ploy. Colbert Report got it right: it's identical to Charlie Brown falling for Lucy's football stunt every goddamned year.

Well, enough on that for now. Let's look to a brighter immediate future:

It's time for lift-off --

As mentioned Friday, the upcoming MoCCA comics convention in New York City (June 23 and 24) will offer a venue for you to meet, greet and sample the Center for Cartoon Studies graduates, artists, students and their creations.

As Robyn Chapman notes, “The CCS table will be B5, a prime location near the front door of the first room,” and it’s my understanding that at least one group of CCSers may have another table, too, at the show.

In anticipation of that event, I’m going to offer a series of interviews here with some of the artists -- students and our first-ever graduates! -- who are planning on being at MoCCA with their comics, mini-comics and zines for sale.

These will be spread over the weeks to come until the weekend of the 23rd. These will also give you a peek at some of the artists who are part of the CCS scene -- and please, don’t forget you don’t have to wait for MoCCA or (if you’re not going) some other event. Many of the comics you’ll be seeing previewed and discussed in this series of blog interviews are
  • available right now, at the I Know Joe Kimpel site; check ‘em out, check some out!

  • First up, recent CCS pioneer class graduate Colleen Frakes -- take it away, Colleen!

    Colleen Frakes: Tragic Relief

    SB: Colleen where do you herald from?

    COLLEEN FRAKES: I'm from Washington State, born in Walla Walla, but the family moved a lot within the state so I grew up all over the place. When I was 12 we settled down for a while on McNeil Island, where I lived until my second year of college.

    SB: When did you first get into comics -- as a reader?

    COLLEEN: I first got into comic books in the second grade. I was out of school for a few weeks with chicken pox, and spent almost the entire time on the couch reading my dad's old issues of Mad. This led to some benevolent family member getting me a subscription. Beyond Mad, I didn't read many comics until I got to college. Living on an island, even things like newspapers were hard to come by.

    SB: You’re among the CCS graduates who had already graduated from college before you became part of CCS’s pioneer class --

    COLLEEN: I graduated from the Evergreen State College in 2004 (other cartoonist alumni include Lynda Barry, Craig Bartlet, Charles Burns, Matt Groening, David Craig Simpson, Megan Kelso, Tatiana Gill, and many more). Evergreen is a big hippie school -- no grades, departments, tests, majors, requirements, etc. I went there planning on becoming a history teacher, but ended up taking mostly book arts and writing classes.

    Colleen Frakes; photo by Elizabeth Chasalow, 2006

    SB: What got you into creating your own comics, and what were some of your first?

    COLLEEN: I first started drawing comics in 2002. Until then, I'd always thought comics were beyond me. Draw the same thing more than once, I could never do that! It was in 2002 that
  • Curtis Retherford, then comics editor of Evergreen's Cooper Point Journal, encouraged me to submit a weekly comic strip. So I did, and it got a surprising amount of response, both positive and negative. The attention amounted to less than five e-mails and a handful of comments from professors, but it was enough to start something.

  • In the spring of 2003, I wrote an independent contract to spend the quarter working on a comic book. My advisor, Peg Tysver, took on three other students with similar projects that quarter. The way I'd set up the project, I ended up only having a month to write and draw the 18-page booklet, then self-publish and distribute it at the Olympia Comics Festival. Because of this, it's a pretty surreal and badly drawn story, Peg called it "refreshingly female". I ended up destroying most of the copies. But, as horrible as that first experience was, I learned a lot from it, and the zine I put out the following year, It's Always the Quiet Ones, is far less shameful.

    SB: So, what led you to CCS?

    COLLEEN: In my last quarter at Evergreen I met Jon-Mikel Gates while working with him at the school's literary magazine, Slightly West. His best friend, Pat Mapp, owns Olympia's downtown comic book shop, The Danger Room. We'd hang out on the couch there a lot and read comics. I'd been looking into grad schools, and had been advised by my favorite professor at Evergreen to figure out who I wanted to learn from, then find out where they were teaching. One day at The Danger Room, people started talking about this new comic book school that was starting in Vermont. Everyone I wanted to learn from was teaching there, so it sounded like my best option.

    SB: Your latest comic is Tragic Relief, which is already a series -- could you tell us about it?

    COLLEEN: Well, the back cover says "Tragic Relief is a bi-monthy series of zines self-published by Colleen Frakes. These largely silent comics, based in world folklore, meditate on sex, love, and the 'unknowable other'." These started out as just something to do while taking a break from working on my CCS [senior] thesis, but eventually turned into the thesis itself. I'll have the first three issues available at MoCCA, but right now you can buy #1 at Jim Hanley's Universe in New York, and both #1-2 at [see link above].

    SB: Tragic Relief grew out of a planned longer work based on a Russian folktale. What was that, and how did that energy get channeled into this new series?

    COLLEEN: The Russian folktale adaptation, Marya and Death, grew from a short story I wrote in 2003 as part of a writing class with Bill Ransom about a woman who discovers the physical manifestation of death inside of an egg. Then, with the help of CCS writing prof Sarah Stewart Taylor, it was expanded into a comic script during the freshman year, and I spent the first half of our senior year working on that as my thesis. Sometime in late January, for a variety of reasons I won't go into here, I ran out of steam.

    Since I didn't have the energy to work on my thesis at that point, and since not drawing has never been an option, I started doodling on scraps of bristol. That grew into the first chapter of "Mother's Son", which I took into class critique that week. The response from my classmates (mostly positive, a little horrified) was enough to encourage me to continue.

  • Greg Cook illo, copyright Greg Cook; one of Colleen's inspirations

  • SB: That was a pretty amazing crit session. Given the breezy nature of your storytelling and art in TR -- however grim the emotional content at some points! -- I'm wondering if Greg Cook's work was an inspiration or springboard for Tragic Relief.

    COLLEEN: I haven't read many of Greg's comics (much to my shame) but his visit to CCS and lecture was a definite inspiration. His talk about dissecting his own visual style and attempting to tell a story with as few lines and little visual information on the page as possible was what inspired the spare, paneless look of Tragic Relief.

    SB: 'Paneless,' yes, but Tragic Relief is painful reading at times; the emotional content hits surprisingly close to home! Do you derive any inspiration from some of the 'textless' graphic novelists of the 1920s and '30s, like Lynd Ward?

    COLLEEN: I can't think of any that I've read (again, I am full of shame). My comics have never had much text to them, which just comes from my background as a writer. Omit, omit omit! Take out anything that isn't essential to the story! Also, Jason's comics have been a huge influence since before I attended CCS. He's the reason I stuck with the six panel grid for so long, and I've always admired his ability to tell long, emotional and engaging stories with so few words.

    SB: Who is Jason?

    COLLEEN: "Jason" is the Norwegian cartoonist who doesn't use a last name, he did Sshhh!, Hey Wait, The Living and the Dead, etc. Wikipedia tells me his real name is John Arne Sæterøy.

  • Photo: Jason aka John Arne Sæterøy, photo from

  • SB: The fusion of humor and the macabre is also quite distinctive in Tragic Relief, but you handle it with such disarming candor. There's a philosophy of life that informs all the stories thus far --

    COLLEEN: Thanks! Um...I have no idea what that philosophy is. But when in doubt, quote Charles Schulz, "drama and humor come from trouble and sadness, and mankind's astounding ability to survive life's unhappiness." Yup, that'll do.

    SB: There's also a rather uncanny fusion of the timeless aura and 'authority' of myth with the feeling these stories are inventing themselves as they progress. These should be at odds, but everything just flows, as a reader. Are you drawing from specific folk tales at this point, seeking them out, or drawing from memory of past readings and just letting the stories flow, or are these wholly invented?

    COLLEEN: It seems like all of these folktale and mythic elements are such a part of my subconscious now they creep their way into everything I write. For the most part, I just draw until the story starts to form itself, then go back later and flip through books trying to figure out where the hell I got these crazy ideas from. There's a lot of editing, too. Half of what I draw never makes it into the comic, a lot is added later after I've shown a few people the first draft. I already want to go back and re-draw book one.

    SB: Given the taboos you've rather blissfully broken from the first issue, is there anywhere Tragic Relief won't go?

    COLLEEN: I don't think I could draw bad things happening to kids. I'm not much for blood and gore either, and usually keep it out of frame. I'm against kicking puppies. So, yes! I guess there are a lot of places Tragic Relief won't go. I didn't think of anything I draw as taboo-breaking because so much of it draws on myth and folklore traditions where murder, cannibalism, abductions and sex with weird things are common themes.

    SB: Fair enough. How far do you foresee going with this series, in terms of issues or length?

    COLLEEN: I'm dedicated to sticking with it for a year, so, at least seven more issues. Beyond that, I'll quit when I get bored or when I can't afford to do it anymore. Whichever comes first.

    SB: Will we be seeing your original planned graphic novel Marya and Death as well, or do you think that will become an installment of Tragic Relief?

    COLLEEN: It definitely won't become part of Tragic Relief. I already tried re-drawing it once in that style and it just didn't work. I think I will eventually complete it, I just need to find the right working method.

    A happy reader of one of Colleen's kid-friendly creations (photo compliments of Colleen Frakes)

    SB: What other projects are you working on this summer?

    COLLEEN: I've been doing painted comics for the show "Arts, Crafts, and Jackalopes! Area craftswomen exhibit top-notch wares" at the Main Street Museum. It opens this Friday, June 8th (for more information, contact curator Josie Whitmore at Gabby will be there playing the banjo!

    And I did a piece for this amazing Sundays Anthology a group of the CCS freshman have put together, which is also debuting at MoCCA. You can find more about that
  • here.
  • [Note: I'll be interviewing the Sundays creators here, too! -SRB]

    I'm also writing a series of short stories about failure, several of which have already been rejected by prominent literary magazines.

    SB: You've just graduated from CCS. What are your current plans in this big, bad world?

    COLLEEN: Just to keep drawing. I now have an extra eight hours a week to draw that I use to spend in class! Long-term plans include learning to play the ukulele and maybe some contra dance classes.

  • For more of Colleen's thoughts, art and comics, along with those of Jon-Mikel Gates, visit -- Enjoy!

  • See you here tomorrow -- Ichiiiiiiiiiiiiii...

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