Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days
Al Columbia, writer/artist
240 pages, hardcover
At SPX this year, a friend of mine approached Al Columbia for a sketch in his themed sketchbook. Columbia started drawing, didn’t like it, tore out the page, crumpled it up. Started drawing again, didn’t like that one either, tore out the page, crumpled it up. Told my friend he couldn’t do it with all the noise and distractions in the room. Stopped drawing sketches for anyone for the rest of the day, except for a tiny circle-dot-dot-curve smiley face next to his signature for anyone who purchased a copy of this book. After I heard this story I told it to a couple of friends. One remarked that if he’d been forced to concoct a story about what trying to get a sketch from Al Columbia would be like, this would have been it. Another said he’d agree with that assessment, but only if Columbia had been paid for the work first.
Al Columbia may be the closest alternative comics has come to producing a Syd Barrett, an Axl Rose, a Sly Stone, a Kevin Shields, a sandbox-era Brian Wilson, or heck, a Steve Ditko–a prodigious, world-beating talent chased off stage by his own…ugh, I don’t want to say demons, but even if you ascribe Columbia’s Big Numbers flameout and lack of published work post-Biologic Show to perfectionism, surely perfectionism that total and unforgiving is a demon of a kind.
The genius of Pim & Francie is harnessing the power of that demon–whatever it is or was that led Columbia to abandon his impossibly immaculate conceptions of monstrousness and murder half-drawn on the page time and time again–and deploying it as a conscious aesthetic decision. Reproducing unfinished roughs, penciled-in and scribbled-out dialogue, half-inked panels, torn-up and taped-together pages, even cropping what look like finished comics so that you can’t see the whole thing, Columbia and his partners in the production of this book, Paul Baresh and Adam Grano, have produced a fractured masterpiece, a glimpse of the forbidden, an objet d’art noir. As I wrote on Robot 6 the other day:
my favorite thing about Columbia’s comics–many of which can now be found in his new Fantagraphics hardcover Pim and Francie–is how they look like the product of some doomed and demented animation studio. It’s as though a team of expert craftsmen became trapped in their office sometime during the Depression and were forgotten about for decades, reduced to inbreeding, feeding on their own dead, and making human sacrifices to the mimeograph machine, and when the authorities finally stumbled across their charnel-house lair, this stuff is what they were working on in the darkness.
The horror of Columbia’s sickly-cute Pim & Francie vignettes–a zombie story, a serial-killer story, a witch-in-the-woods story, a haunted-forest story, a trio of chase sequences–is extraordinarily effective. And the stand-alone images both inside and outside those stories–the Beast of the Apocalypse as story-book fawn, a field of horrid man-things staring right at you, a broken-down theme park and the phrase “there’s something wrong with grandpa,” a forest of crying trees, some dreadful being of black flame running full-tilt down the basement stairs, zombie Grandma stopping her dishwashing and glancing up toward where the children sleep–are as close as comics have come (hate to keep using that formulation, but there you have it) to the girls at the end of the hall in The Shining, the chalk-white face of the demon flashing at us in Father Karras’s dream in The Exorcist, the inscrutable motionlessness of characters in The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. The craft involved in their creation is simply remarkable, with Columbia’s assuredness of line, faux-vintage aesthetic, and near-peerless use of blacks all actually gaining from his panels’ frequent extreme-close-up enlargement throughout the collection.
But moreover, these scary stories and disturbing images are all so gorgeously awful that they appear to have corrupted the book itself. They look like they’ve emerged from the ether, seared or stained themselves partly onto the pages, then burned out, or been extinguished when the nominal author shut his sketchbook and hurled it across the room or tore up the pages in terror. It’s comic book as Samara’s video from The Ring, Lemarchand’s box from Hellraiser, Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon from Lovecraft, the titular toy from Stephen King’s “The Monkey”–an inherently horrific object. Bravo.