Tragic Relief

Tragic Relief cover

Tragic Relief is a Xeric Grant-winning wordless comic by Colleen Frakes, a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies. It's the story of a man, his mother, the women that come between them, and the tragedies that result.

There's a lot to discuss here. The protagonist's first three relationships are with mythological creatures - they may represent a yearning to be free rather than actual relationships. His potential paramours keep running afoul of his ancient mother who, with her dark glasses and shriveled lips, resembles nothing more than a grinning skeleton - the eternal clash of eros and thanatos. Our protagonist clearly realizes that his relationship with his mother is killing any chance of having a relationship with another woman - and I'm not quite sure whether that indicates that he's too nice for his own good, or just a wuss. For that matter, when he finally gets that nice girl, she winds up filling the void left by his mother in a rather creepy way - and I'm not sure whether that says something disturbing about him, or her. Or even me.

What I really want to discuss, though, is Frakes' effectively minimal drawings. Here's a page from the end of the first chapter, after our protagonist has loved (and lost) a mermaid...

Tragic Relief p. 20Tragic Relief p. 20

The magic of comics - on their own, each of these drawings is just a bit too simple, too pared down to represent anything concrete or moving. But together, and in context, they make a terribly affecting sequence.

The initial drawings of the boat, of course, are almost childishly simple - we can recognize the sea, and the boat, and a small man standing on the deck. The only stab at particularizing the proceedings are some strange details in the ship's sail. But that's okay - what's important here is the contours of the storm-tossed sea, mimicking the contours of the protagonist's life, being briefly lifted and then plunged into despair. The contour of the sea help ties the three panels together - you can easily connect them by continuing the terminal arc of each panel - while the semi-random positioning of the boat and the and off-center placement of the third panel prevent the page from feeling overdesigned. All that turmoil is contrasted with a hunched figure, which at first seems still but which is actually coiled into knots of despair in a way that's visually effective, if physically impossible. There's not a single line on his body which doesn't seem misplaced or awkward, which only enhances the dynamic tension of the figure. And then there's the overpowering white space, which effectively isolates the character from the world, slows the pace of our reading, and effectively brings the chapter to a stop.

I've rarely seen such an excellent graphic depiction of soul-crushing loneliness. This is great stuff, folks, go get it.

Tragic Relief can be purchased at fine comic shops everywhere (I got mine at Copacetic). More of Colleen's work can be viewed on-line at

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