Thursday, December 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #361: Pim & Francie: "The Golden Bear Days" by Al Columbia

I can't tell you what's the deal with Al Columbia. Maybe no one can.

He famously was going to take over from Bill Sienkiewicz on the Alan Moore-written Big Numbers comic nearly thirty years ago, but had a nervous breakdown (maybe), disappeared (sort of), and destroyed all of his finished art (almost certainly). His career in comics since then has been occasional, with short pieces in anthologies and other random appearances. As far as I've seen, this is his only book-length publication.

Pim & Francie: "The Golden Bear Days" came out just about a decade ago, collecting material about the title characters that Columbia had created over many years before that. It's not a graphic novel.

It's not a story of any kind. It's a lot easier to list the things Pim & Francie isn't than explain what it is: it doesn't have any finished stories, any complete narratives, any obvious through-line.

There's no explanation for the random artifacts in the book, but I like to think of it this way. Imagine there was an animation studio, back in the early days -- late '20s, early '30s -- more influenced by Grand Guignol than happy musical theatre. Imagine that their main characters were two child-sized figures, Pim and Francie. Imagine that unnamed studio generated a number of cartoons and comics stories about those characters, full of horrors and terrors. Imagine that work was suppressed, violently, and almost entirely destroyed. And imagine that someone -- call him Al Columbia -- assembled what was left three generations later, with haunting, tantalizing hints of the stories of Pim and Francie.

You can imagine a coffee-table book, telling the history of that studio, with scraps of memos and release dates for the material, wrapped up in a narrative explaining who the people behind Pim & Francie were and what they did. Columbia provides none of that here. All he gives us is the art: sketches, torn comics pages, random animation cells, model sheets, sketches for background art or covers, isolated vignettes, things that might be comics panels or might not. All of it is only barely in sequence, if at all. No stories are complete; no stories are explained; no stories are more than a handful of isolated moments.

Pim and Francie's world is full of death and mayhem of all kinds: self-inflicted, since we see these "children" being horribly cruel to themselves and others; supernatural, with the child-snatching Cinnamon Jack and some kind of forest-dwelling demon-witch they call "grandma;" and just plain human, as in the knife-wielding Bloody Bloody Killer. Pim and Francie are occasionally perpetrators, often about to be victims, and regularly onlookers at something that is about to happen. The overall town is of ominousness and menace; this is a world stuffed top to bottom with horrible things, and there can be no end to them, no safe place for children...or for whatever Pim and Francie actually are. Sometimes they're with what seem to be friendly, loving grandparents -- but those are also clearly ineffectual and unable to protect the moppets from the horrors of the world.

Pim & Francie is a monument to something, but it's hard to say what. It's a window into an alternative world of entertainment, one more sadistic and cruel than our own, presented as torn pages, coffee-ring stained art, and random scraps. I don't know if Columbia has an overall vision for this project: if there's anything larger than a bunch of horrific and ominous moments. But the moments he has presented here are powerful, and the atmosphere is like no other book I know. And he's a killer draftsman in that rubber-hose '30s style. If all that intrigues you, you might as well check it out. There is nothing else like Pim & Francie.

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