Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days: Artifacts and Bone Fragments

Posted by on March 18th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Al Columbia. Fantagraphics Books, 240 pp., $28.99; Hardcover, B&W; ISBN: 978-1606993040

In the tiny insular world of comics, Al Columbia’s reputation—you might even call it a legend—looms large. He’s one of those artists, like Salinger or Malick, who’s almost as famous for what he hasn’t done as for what he has. He was an apprentice to two of comics’ most famous and innovative figures, artist Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin) and writer Alan Moore (Watchmen). His critical reputation is based on a handful of works—mainly, two issues of the comic book The Biologic Show and the scattered short stories, strips, and covers he’s contributed to anthologies. The first piece by Columbia I ever saw was the 1998 eight-page story “The Trumpets They Play!”, which presented the apocalypse from the Revelation of St. John as a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon.
When I saw his depiction of the Beast—its hateful idiot faces grinning and swaying at the ends of thick serpentine necks—I experienced a dreadful shudder of recognition: Yes, I thought—that is what the face of Satan looks like, and I’ve always known it. I’d just never seen it until now. That story alone would’ve been enough to convince this reviewer that he was one of the greatest living cartoonists—or could be, if he’d produce more. The rumor was that he destroyed a lot of his own work. The perennially recurring question “Whatever happened to Al Columbia?” became a tired in-joke on comics message boards.

Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days does not exactly answer that question. This hardbound collection of Columbia’s art may well frustrate as many expectations as it rewards. It has a table of contents listing “The Stories”—with titles like “funny incest stories #6,” “the kitty murders,” and  “grampa’s laboratory”—but readers hoping for short stories like “The Trumpets They Play!” will be disappointed. As the book’s sub-subtitle, “Artifacts and Bone Fragments,” has it, it’s less a collection than a found document, like some tattered manuscript in a Lovecraft story that breaks off abruptly amid increasingly frantic scrawls and a lot of sucker marks. Some of the pages are spattered with ink or spotted with mold. Several show evidence of having been ripped to pieces and taped back together. This does not feel like a clever Chip-Kidd-type design conceit.

At first I couldn’t help but mourn the collection of finished stories that that table of contents seems to promise—it’s the same sort of pang of tantalizing loss I’ll feel when I look through Taschen’s book of pre-production material from Kubrick’s Napoleon, or read David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. You could look at this book as a document of failure, a poignant testament to unrealized potential. But an artist’s brilliance is often fueled by the same forces that hobble it, and in such cases, I suppose, we have to be grateful for what we get.

And the more I look through this dark and beautiful book, the more I wonder whether my regrets aren’t misguided. Presented in stark visual isolation, shorn of what Francis Bacon liked to call “the boredom of narrative,” these unfinished sketches and paintings take on something more like the iconic power and emotional charge of fine art. Leafing through the collection, you see one grotesquely poetic image after another: multi-limbed figures like insectoid Shivas juggling kaleidoscopes of knives, their heads thrown back in bloody ecstasies; trees screaming with their mouths full of offal; children holding a flashlight beam that illuminates a figure made of black fire rushing down a staircase. And leering out everywhere that same demented face of the Devil from “The Trumpets They Play!”—a depraved and imbecilic chuckle, lips glistening with spit, fangs bared. The work that Columbia’s reminds me of is not by any other cartoonist, living or dead, but the drawings of Austrian expressionist Alfred Kubin, the paintings of Joe Coleman, and the films of David Lynch—art whose intimate, cryptic imagery seems to allude to some horror for which the euphemism trauma seems way too clean and clinical.[1]

Once, during a midnight screening of Eraserhead I attended—it was around the time The Baby first appears—one mind-blown young viewer was heard to demand: “What is this movie?” I love works of art that do this to us, eluding any genre or formal definition, putting us as off-balance as we are in real life (more so, even, since in real life there is no implicit creator/audience contract to betray). Part of Pim & Francie’s disconcerting effect is that it confounds easy categorization, leaving the reader uncertain what exactly this book is, or how to approach it. It doesn’t contain discrete, coherent stories, but it’s also more unified and linear than a sketchbook; there are continuing characters, recurring images and situations, even a discernable arc. It’s possible to piece together narratives from the fragments here, the way you might reconstruct a crime scene from bits of evidence, or a nightmare from fading details. These stories may even be all the more potent for having to be inferred, like the phantasms we imagine when we listen to horror stories on the radio. They will also, inevitably, be a product of projection, and likely reveal at least as much about the reader as about the author. Which here goes:

Pim and Francie are a brother and sister—apparently twins, since their facial features are identical, with snub noses, protruding lips and blank guileless Little-Orphan-Annie os for eyes. Pim has blond hair with three tufted cowlicks in front; Francie has black hair with two long pigtails (beribboned, need I add). They both wear those plump white four-fingered gloves with three stripes on the back and a dot on the palm and big clunky bulbous shoes seemingly manufactured by some specialty boutique since 1929 exclusively for cartoon characters. They’re drawn with clean, crisp lines, in contrast to the elaborate, decaying backgrounds, like cel animation overlays on painted backgrounds, and with a kind of meticulous uniformity, as if in conformity to the some imaginary animator’s guide. They look a little as if they’d been drawn by Chris Ware if Chris Ware had been abducted as a child instead of just never getting picked for kickball. They have various adventures together—they try to evade The Bloody Bloody Killer, they go a-hunting sparkleberries in the darkest part of the Haunted Forest, etc.—that tend to go unhappily awry. Bad things happen in these stories. As often as not Pim or Francie or both end up minced for a pie or fed into a sausage grinder. The stories are iterative, not cumulative; that is, as in cartoons, characters who are killed or dismembered in one story are back and fine in the next, all excited about their next outing.

As in “The Trumpets They Play!” there’s something uncannily disturbing about seeing such ghastly imagery rendered in this cloying, anachronistic cartoon style. It’s akin to that godawful moment in The Wizard of Oz when plaintive Auntie Em in the crystal ball melds into the Wicked Witch shrilly mimicking her and shrieking with laughter; something familiar and comfortable, associated with childhood and home, turns into something monstrous and sinister—or, worse, is revealed to have been so all along. There always was something kind of demented and over-cheerful about those old cartoons, everything jiggling and coming to life, grinning and joining in the madcap jamboree, like the curdled friendliness of a stranger who means you harm.

It’s clearly a deliberate effect. Again and again Columbia juxtaposes the juvenile with the macabre: the decayed, braying corpses of goofy anthropomorphic galoots, cracked and hollow figures of Disney characters, decapitated kittens, chocolate cakes and straight razors. This trope might get tired pretty quickly and start to seem like a morbid shtick if it weren’t conveyed with such hideous, breathtaking artistry, and if it didn’t feel so creepily sincere. The more you see of Columbia’s cartoony characters licking their chops and chortling over their meat grinders, aproned grandmas with hands sharp and elongated as manits’ pincers, and dolls with their faces smashed in to reveal nothing inside, the more it seems to express a kind of gagged fury at the lying smiles and false faces of childhood. Maybe it’s just the same disillusionment and anger we all experience at the ugly truths that grownups ineptly try to hide from us—their own capacity for incompetence and evil,the dirty secret of sex, and the grim facts of age, corruption and death.

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2 Responses to “Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days: Artifacts and Bone Fragments”

  1. Mike Hunter says:

    Whew! I feel like this guy here*:

    http://kmandla.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/wp-blown-away-ubuntu-1732×737.jpg

    That is one outstanding piece of critical writing! Perceptively describing the complex visual and emotional aspects of Columbia’s work; exquisitely written, with deft erudition; real-life incident and references further adding an almost physical weight to the whole. A lavish feast of critical delight.

    (Sound of one man clapping)

    *”…Steve Steigman’s iconic ‘Blown Away’……A pop culture staple, the image [was] used by Maxell in the 1980s to advertise audio cassettes…* ( http://www.arts-wallpapers.com/photography/blown_away/ )

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by ComicsJournal: Pim & Francie reviewed @ tcj.com http://www.tcj.com/alternative/pim-francie-the-golden-bear-days