Colleen Frakes had a very interesting childhood. Her parents worked, and so her family lived, on McNeil Island, Washington, the location of the last prison in the US only accessible by sea or air. Prison Island is a graphic memoir of moments from that life, framed within her final visit back.
The state decided to shut down the prison in 2011. Her parents had left in 2004, but the closing ceremony made it clear that Frakes couldn’t return any more to the closest thing she’d ever had to a “home town”. The family got one last chance to visit, and as they travel the island, Frakes shares her memories, from moving in to where the neighbors lived to what they did hanging out at the community center.
Their small outpost was connected to the mainland via ferry. She had to commute to school or for the most basic shopping, including groceries. That made it difficult to do normal teenage things, such as ordering a pizza or having a sleepover, particularly when the search is on for an escaped inmate.
The art is straightforward, driven by narration. Frakes’ style is simplified, which puts emphasis on her cast’s feelings and adds an air of universality. It doesn’t matter what, exactly, the houses looked like, but how it feels to remember growing up there, seeing what you can recall and knowing you can never return. She’s using background grey pencil shading at times to make the foreground figures pop. Although mass-produced, the book feels homemade, which suits the way she’s rummaging through memories.
Prison Island is a fascinating portrait of a very different way to grow up. Parts of this were previously published as three “Island Brat” mini comics, but Frakes’ story has been greatly expanded and contextualized here. The publisher has posted preview pages. (The publisher provided a review copy.)
Update: This short interview with Frakes talks about why she decided to make the book.