Sridhar Reddy's Reviews > Pim and Francie: The Golden Bear Days

Pim and Francie by Al Columbia
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Nov 23, 09

bookshelves: graphic-novels
Read in November, 2009

There have been a great many tomes dedicated to the relationship between the sacred and the profane in art, and while it is an engaging and enlightening process to learn of this divide from an academic standpoint, to experience it is altogether different. Few works of commercial art manage to accomplish this.

But to call Al Columbia's work "commercial" is a challenge in and of itself, as he plays with commercial sacred cows and mercilessly leads them out of hallowed halls into macabre slaughter. Columbia, throughout his vast, varied and largely absent career, has been consistent in his assault on the status quo, and Pim and Francie is his masterpiece.

To call the book a dangerous piece of work is hyperbole, but a more accurate and apt moniker would likely be that the book is ferociously provocative, terrifying and unrelenting. Columbia dissects - almost literally - the icons of an era thought to be perfection, and infuses it with the grime, blood, dirt and perversity that has long been sequestered to the recesses of the human mind.

Upon initial glance, Pim and Francie hearkens the golden age of family entertainment, with rounded, toy-like characters that frolic through imaginative slumberlands chock full of surprises and wonderment hiding around every marshmallow corner and candy-striped tree. It is a collection of stories of a brother and sister, close and often tied together by holding hands or by a line as they traverse the treasures and pitfalls of a fantasy world. It is a smattering of innocence that oozes wholesome, pure and sacred entertainment for a principled America, circa 1950; a sanguine and demure vision of childhood as presented by all-knowing elders, thought to be safe and sanitized.

Closer observation reveal that darker demons lay beneath, as Columbia places within billowed, white-gloved cartoon hands a plethora of throat-slasher blades and knives. Beneath the soft, rounded lip of a doe-eyed girl lay rows of razor-sharp reptilian teeth, spilling blood and bile onto a modest dress. Columbia pushes the envelope further by enveloping these Disney-esque characters in a full world of surreal terror, weaving in tales of incest, body horror, and murder. Unsettling for any adult, and absolutely, positively not appropriate for children.

The work of Al Columbia is ruthlessly demented in its portrayal of the horrors of the human mind, and that he chooses to express this darkness using the sacred icons of golden age cartoons further plumbs the depths of human depravity. His point is clear: the visage of normalcy is as artificial as a cartoon character, and even the most virginal souls are subject to what religion or culture have decried as flaws.

It is a territory explored recently by Columbia's famously one-time collaborator, Alan Moore, who in his controversial and highly important graphic novel series Lost Girls explored the sanctity of fairytale icons such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland by subjecting them to hardcore pornographic treatment, and in doing so obliterating the puritanical facade of purity in both reality and mythology. While Moore chose to go over the top in his desecration of virginal children's icons, Columbia chooses to take - if it is even possible - a more subtle approach to his challenging of the sacred.

Columbia's drawings, by nature of his gorgeous art style and impeccable draftsmanship, are genuine works of art that require investment and slow discovery, as opposed to Moore's approach to bludgeoning his readers over the head with heavy-handed literary smut. Columbia's art goes beyond shock; with his beautiful depictions of vivisection, mutilation and mutation he treads in the rarefied company of artists such as Francis Bacon and Francisco Goya as creators of genuinely disturbing works that comment on the forced fragmentation of the human mind.

Credit must also be given to the editors at Fantagraphics for their masterful assembly of Al Columbia's Pim and Francie drawings, as many of them are presented as incomplete sketches without words or any decipherable order or chronology. Many of the frames are awkwardly cropped, at times cutting off the images and word balloons and leaving the reader in a chaotic state of disarray. To experience the book in this manner is to participate in Al Columbia's downward spiral into madness, to physically assault the pages in trying to piece together narratives, symbols and secondary and tertiary meanings. As aforementioned, this is not just studying the sacred and the profane, reading the book is literally experiencing the desecration of all things judged as normal, pristine and well-adjusted.

While I tend to hold the graphic novel in very high esteem (two of my favorite books of 2009 are graphic novels), Pim and Francie goes beyond simply being a graphic novel and extends into the realms of one of the truly great art books, one that engages the eye and holds deep, philosophical and introspective debates about the nature of the human soul, much of it without saying a word. Al Columbia is one of the most underrated and thought-provoking artists working in our modern times, and one can only hope that this book will expose his work to an open-minded audience that is willing to be challenged head on. Terrifying, beautiful and absolutely essential.
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