We ComiConverse With Colleen Frakes
September 5th, 2015 | by L. K. Roberts
Our Lydia K. Roberts recently talked with Seattle author Coleen Frakes – creator of the graphic memoir “Prison Island”.
Though it will surely sound like a cliché, the lush beauty of Washington State with its seemingly endless expanses of evergreens, sparkling waters, and the majesty of Mt. Rainier, lured me from the East Coast. I’ve been here twelve years but still stop to look on days when “the mountain is out.”
I continue to learn about this area and aspects of life that are far removed from what I’ve known in the past, such as using a ferry instead of the train or subway. The novelty of riding one of the vast ships has not yet worn off and neither has the quaintness of small-town life that I glimpse when visiting one of the islands. I have to wonder, though, how I’d feel if, instead of visiting Anderson Island or Vashon Island, I actually lived there, and – even more critical is – how would my kids feel about it? In her new graphic memoir, Prison Island, Colleen Frakes reveals what provincial, island life is like for a teenager, but there’s an added factor that makes her story even more unique: the island in question was McNeil Island, where the last island prison of the United States was located.
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While Frakes was growing up, her parents’ jobs in the prison system required them to relocate a number of times, sometimes even necessitating for them to live in separate places all together. When they were both given the opportunity to work on McNeil (which had transitioned from a Federal Penitentiary to a Washington State prison), they jumped at the chance. Being familiar with the ups and downs of moving helped her and her sister somewhat, but living in such an isolated location took getting used to. On top of that? Some of the inmates served as workers throughout the community, cutting grass in the park, for example, and were a constant reminder that their lives revolved around the prison. The memoir focuses primarily on the early years of their tenure on McNeil, which lasted ten years, and as is true with protagonists of many coming-of-age stories, Frakes struggled a bit to find where she fit. However, years later, when she learned that the prison was scheduled to close, Frakes was adamant about returning to attend the accompanying ceremony, visit various locations, and to reflect back on memories of her time there.
After reading through the book, which was published by Zest Books as a part of their new line of graphic memoirs, I contacted Ms. Frakes through her website, and she was gracious enough to chat with me about her experiences, Prison Island, and some of her other work.
LKR: How did you get started making comics?
CF: I’ve drawn my entire life, always read comics and wanted to make them, but didn’t really make a go of it until after 9/11. I’d been working as a hotel maid, but was laid off because the tourism industry crashed. I had nothing to do and life couldn’t get any worse, so I started making comics!
LKR: What was the response from your family when you told them you were working on Prison Island?
CF: They were excited about it, and the whole family helped out with researching the project. It was surprising, because it’d seemed like I got almost no reaction from them when working on my previous graphic novels (Tragic Relief, Woman King, or The Trials of Sir Christopher), but I’m sure it’s easier for them to relate to stories they remember and characters they recognize rather than my weird art comics.
LKR: Do your parents still work in the prison system?
CF: My mom has retired – possibly for good this time? She’s retired several times in the past, then gotten bored and gone back to work. My dad was recently appointed as the Director of Corrections for the state of Nebraska, so it’s been really weird seeing other people draw (political) cartoons of him!
LKR: Prison Island definitely illustrates some of the difficulties growing up on an island. As you look back, though, what are some of the things that you would identify as benefits of having grown up there?
CF: I had a lot of freedom and independence as a teenager, which seems antithetical to the idea of living near a prison. But because there was often a literal ocean between me and my parents, most of the time I was left to my own devices.
LKR: In one scene, when one of the other “island brats” was showing you around your new school, she pointed out that she kept clothes and food in her locker in case she ever got stuck on the mainland (after missing the last ferry). Did that ever happen to you?
CF: Oh sure. The boat did make a few trips at night during shift changes for officers who worked late. But it wasn’t easy to get home if you just needed a change of clothes, and missing a late boat could mean waiting hours until the next one. I learned to nap on benches in the dock house, and kept extra clothes, food, and a book on me just in case.
LKR: Many – if not all – youth experience feelings of being misunderstood by and isolated from peers. In your case, the uniqueness of your situation must have exacerbated that. How did you handle that?
CF: One way was to find my “real” peers. People aren’t necessarily going to have anything in common with you just because you live next to each other. I made friends with shared interests on the mainland, started volunteering at the theater and local arts groups with them, and found my community. Also, I got really good at being isolated! It’s a necessary skill for a cartoonist, you spend most of your time inside your own head, working alone.
LKR: In one chapter, you describe a time when a few friends from the mainland came out for your birthday – right around the time when there was an escaped convict. Were they ever allowed to visit you on the island again?
CF: …I don’t think anyone told their parents about that. At least not until years later 🙂
LKR: Do you have any friends from that time who are still a part of your life?
CF: Oh sure! There is a McNeil Island Historical Society group on Facebook and regular reunion picnics for both former federal and state families. We stay in touch.
LKR: In Prison Island, there seemed to be added pressure when it came to socializing with other island kids because doing the wrong thing could negatively impact the status of your family and possibly the careers of your parents. Were the stakes that high in reality or did it just seem that way at the time?
CF: I think the stakes FELT higher for me because I was such a little goody two-shoes overachiever. The more rebellious teens didn’t worry about it so much, but I did see families lose their residence on the island or face disciplinary action because family members were caught with marijuana or fireworks or had inappropriate interactions with the inmates. Residency on the island was tied to being “essential personnel” at the prison, so if a parent lost their job or was transferred for breaking the rules, then the whole family lost their house, too.
LKR: I imagine that living on a prison island could be somewhat spooky. Several ghost stories were alluded to during the slumber party chapter. What was your favorite ghost story related to places on the island – if you have any at all?
CF: My favorite supernatural story (which I did not include in the book because I didn’t learn about it until years after I’d moved off the island) is of the McNeil Island Sea Serpent!
LKR: There is a chapter in which you and your mom go to the mainland to get groceries and stop at the mall. Were there any small shops on the island for essential items like toilet paper or milk?
CF: There were no stores on the island! And because the boats could stop running during extreme weather, we learned to stock up, and the garage became one giant pantry full of non-perishables and an extra freezer. Milk and bread could be frozen (it doesn’t taste as good, but you get used to it), and you could usually find a neighbor to help out if you ran out of something vital, like toilet paper.
LKR: Using a ferry to get back and forth is something not uncommon for many people here in Washington State, but can you explain the use of the barge in that chapter? How did your car end up remaining back on the mainland?
CF: The ferry was just for foot traffic. The barge (which was large and flat and pulled by a tug boat) was necessary to move cars back and forth from the island to the mainland. But large trucks bringing supplies to the prison got first priority, so if you wanted to bring a car on the barge you might get bumped and have to wait several hours until there was room. Most families kept “island cars” (old, rusty vehicles often missing seat belts) and “mainland cars” (a well-maintained vehicle), and you could usually get a ride from a neighbor if you didn’t have a car at the dock when you needed it.
LKR: How would you say your time on McNeil Island influenced your life?
CF: Living on the island taught me to plan ahead, and it’s made me one of those annoying people who is always early because I learned pretty quick that being a minute late meant missing the boat.
LKR: Did your time living on the island bring you and your sister closer together?
CF: I don’t think so. We’ve always been very different people. She was outgoing, athletic and good and math while I was quiet, slow and good with English/art. (We did trade homework sometimes, though!) When we were kids we fought like, well, sisters! Like a lot of siblings, we didn’t figure out how to get along until we were adults.
LKR: When you first moved to the island, your sister attended the school on the island. Can you talk a little about her experience with that?
CF: Funny, I’ve never even been in the school building on the island! But as I understand it, Harriet Taylor Elementary taught grades K-5; there were two teachers, and it was a little like “Little House on the Prairie” where all of the grades were mixed together. It closed down when the island did, but it’s my understanding that the elementary school on nearby Anderson Island still operates the same way.
There was an apocryphal story tale that the school was named after a teacher who worked there for fifty years then died the first time she took a day off. Who knows how all these kid’s stories get started!
LKR: What would you say is the overarching theme that unifies the stories of your comic collection “The Saint’s Eyes?”
CF: Alternate titles I had considered were “Everybody Dies” and “Stories About My Fear Of Death”…
LKR: Would you mind explaining the subtitle of the story “Saint’s Eyes” (‘an A T-type 706 fairy tale’)?
CF: You see a lot of common themes repeated in fairy tales, and the “Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index” is one classification system (and my day job is in a library, so I am all about organizing data). 706 in the index is “The Girl Without Hands”, supernatural stories about a girl whose loses a hand (or sometimes her eyes, or her breasts) and then is magically restored.
LKR: Like much of your work, the illustrations in “Late for Tea” tell the story with limited dialogue to flesh out the tale. Do you ever worry that your meaning will be misconstrued?
I hope it will be! Or rather, I like leaving things up to interpretation and hope the readers will draw their own meaning and conclusions from the story. This is where having an editor came in very handy with “Prison Island.” He would step in every now and then and remind me that THIS book actually needed to make sense.
LKR: I was so intrigued by “Late for Tea,” that I looked up and watched the short film “Red Summer” for which it was created. How did the collaboration with “Red Summer” writer and director, Vanessa Williams, come about?
CF: I’ve known Vanessa Williams since high school. She lived on Anderson Island, and we both went to school on the mainland. All that sea air must be good for creativity!
On Saturday, September 5th, Colleen Frakes will be at Destiny City Comics in Tacoma (218 St. Helens Avenue, next door to King’s Books) from 2:00-4:00 to meet with fans and sign copies of her books. Stop by and say hello!
L. K. Roberts is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @Lyderary