EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX's Reviews > Pim and Francie: The Golden Bear Days

Pim and Francie by Al Columbia
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King of Creeps: Al Columbia's 'Pim and Francie: The Golden Bear Days'

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Al Columbia is an anomaly in the world of comics. He first emerged in the late 80's, working as an assistant to Bill Sienkiewicz when the older artists' fully-painted work on series like Elektra: Assassin had established him as one of the most influential and successful names in comics. When Alan Moore quit DC and began writing edgier material for independent publishers, who were enjoying a temporary but massive sales increase thanks to a speculative market gone mad, Sienkiewicz was the artist who would collaborate with him on a creator-owned title, 'Big Numbers'.

Bill Sienkiewicz, from the unfinished 'Big Numbers' issue 3:
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Al Columbia:
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It was an astonishingly complex and ambitious work, and the first two issues were a critical and financial success. For reasons never fully understood, Sienkiewicz quit the project after completing most of issue 3. Al Columbia was announced as Sienkiewicz's replacement, beginning with issue 4, and a new publisher was on board. He was a talented artist, and likely the only one capable of replicating his former boss and mentors' style (with the possible exceptions of Dave McKean and Barron Storey, who were busy with their own respective projects at the time).

But as the deadline got closer, Moore and the publisher, Tundra (who agreed to release issues 3 and 4 if they liked Columbia's finished pages; Moore's own company, 'Mad Love', had handled issues 1 and 2, but Moore wanted to focus on writing), had a harder and harder time contacting him. When they did, it was clear he wasn't going to make the date originally solicited. So they pushed it back, and made their excuses and apologies to the distributors, assuming a bit more time would allow young Al Columbia to get it together. But it didn't.

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He dropped out of sight completely, and no one could find him. Finally, they searched the studio, hoping to find whatever had been completed in a state close enough to finished work that it could be published, with a little doctoring. But what they found was evidence Columbia suffered a nervous breakdown; the studio had been trashed, and all that was left of Columbia's art for Big Numbers issue 4 was shreds and scraps.

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With the deadlines for both 3 and 4 blown and no high-profile artists willing to work with Moore on the cursed project that had sent one artist fleeing across the ocean and driven another one insane, Tundra pulled out. Moore reluctantly let his promising story go and turned to other, equally ambitious tales. Issue #3 was never published in its proper form, but in 1999, 10 pages were printed in a one-and-done magazine called 'Submedia'. In 2009, a photocopy of the complete lettered art for Big Numbers #3 surfaced on eBay. The purchaser contacted Moore, and with his permission published scans of the art on LiveJournal.

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In 2001 Eddie Campbell, who was the artist behind Alan Moore's greatest work, 'From Hell', published a sequential art account of the Big Numbers-meltdown in his book 'Alec: How To Be An Artist'. From Wikipedia: 'Columbia declined to address the subject publicly for several years, writing in a 1998 letter to The Comics Journal that "I could easily launch into a tirade about the extensive horror of my Tundra experience, but I much prefer the very entertaining and conflicting accounts already in circulation." In later statements he confirmed that he destroyed his artwork but disputed other claims by the principal figures in the fiasco.'

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His career after the Big Numbers meltdown has been suitably strange. In the last 25 years he has produced five or so comics, most notably The Biologic Show #0 and 1 for Fantagraphics, and around 20 short stories for comic anthologies like Zero Zero (which he also founded and curated), Blab! and Mome. Despite his extremely limited output, his work is among the most original and beautifully rendered in modern comics. His style quickly mutated in the early 90's, as he abandoned the Sienkiewicz influence and pioneered a heavily inked chiaroscuro approach that incorporated the painted black-and-white backgrounds and thickly-lined characters and foregrounds of early animators Max Fleischer, Pat Sullivan, Otto Mesmer, and Winsor McCay (whose comic-strip masterpiece, 'Little Nemo in Slumberland', was probably more of an influence than his innovative pre-WWI animation).

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It was his short stories that first blew my mind, as it likely was for many people. His 8-page story from Blab! Volume 10, 'The Trumpets They Played', featuring his character Seymour Sunshine, is a hilarious and horrifying vision of the biblical apocalypse. The artwork is ineffable, a gorgeous black-and-white horror-show starring the many beasts described in Revelations, with scriptural excerpts included like the story-boards from silent films... which is exactly what this story looks like, a cartoon from the silent era.
For me, 'The Trumpets...' is the best 8 pages in comics history. Together with other classics like 'Amnesia' and 'I Was Killing When Killing Wasn't Cool', this spare oeuvre has fascinated and influenced an entire generation of artists. He remains a mystery, and that works to his advantage. He also does what very few artists are able to do -- he always leaves his audience wanting more.

From 'The Trumpets They Played', Blab!; 'Amnesia', Zero Zero:
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That made the news that his long-time publisher Fantagraphics would be releasing a 240 page book of NEW Al Columbia work so fucking shocking; if you took all his comics, stories and illustrations from the previous 20 years it probably wouldn't add up to much more than 240 pages (NOTE TO FANTAGRAPHICS: That is a collection every Columbia fan is still impatiently waiting for).

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The material included in 'Pim and Francie' (named for the occasionally murderous siblings who have been Columbia favorites since The Biologic Show #0) is a disjointed compilation of stories, illustrations and sketches, some pages only half-inked, others torn or stained with coffee-rings. A longer story will begin to surface, then abruptly terminate, or change direction entirely. Pim murders Francie, then Francie murders Pim, then both kids are fed into meat-grinders by a demonic stranger, or pursued by the cat-decapitating 'Bloody, Bloody Killer'.

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Recurring images indicate a narrative left unexplored. Faint pentimentos from drawings and dialogue erased by the artist provide some fascinating clues, without quite crossing the evidentiary threshold that would allow us to declare Al Columbia a proper fucking genius. In a long article from the first issue of the deluxe Comics Journal Special Editions (with huge, full-color 12" x 12" pages), the writer sums up the frustrating probable-genius of Columbia perfectly, and provides a detailed history of his comics career. Columbia provided quite a few full-color illustrations to accompany the article, including promotional art for the Pim and Francie book that was said to be coming out later that year... in 2002. Needless to say, it never materialized.

Six years later, the painfully self-critical Columbia appeared to have denied his perfectionist impulses, and in an incredible feat of will, burst into Gary Groth's office screaming 'Take it! Just fucking take it, take it, TAKE IT," simultaneously hurling a massive portfolio full of blood-&-cum-stained 'Pim and Francie' pages at the notorious publisher's head. Before Groth could respond or draw his pistol, Columbia disappeared from firing range & fled screeching into the Seattle night. Groth was distraught over squandering the chance to legally shoot a cartoonist in the comfort of his own home, but he got over the loss when he realized he had enough Al Columbia material scattered across his hardwood to publish an art monograph. Then he imagined how much more popular the book could have been if Columbia had suddenly/tragically passed away after a brief-but-courageous battle with 8 gunshot wounds to the face, and the regrets began to eat at him again. 'Maybe I can shoot him when he shows up looking for money,' Groth mused to no one in particular. Eric Reynolds, meanwhile, had begun gathering up the portfolio contents, and was occasionally squealing & grunting in response to the artistic awesomeness he beheld. Kim Thompson, wise man that he was, agreed with Groth that the monograph was a fine idea, but once again advised his friend against murdering the cartoonists they published, and to instead unleash his unfathomable rages on rusted-out automobiles & washing machines.

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That's not what really happened, but after 'reading' this glorious testament to the genius of Al Columbia, it's how I like to imagine it. 'Pim and Francie' is not a graphic novel. While it contains short stories and story fragments, it is actually a beautifully produced art monograph. I couldn't believe I finally had an entire book full of Al Columbia art, from sketches to finished illustrations and everything in between. It took a long fuckin' time, but it happened.

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In the intervening years since it was first released, his reputation has grown. His influence on sequential art is a given, but lately, it is being acknowledged by more and more gallery artists that he was a defining inspiration -- artists like Aaron Horkey, Camille Rose Garcia, and Marguerite Van Cook. Columbia, like his fellow Zero Zero contributor Dave Cooper, has made the move to galleries, and has been profiled by Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose. His second appearance in Hi-Fructose magazines' thirty-first issue included one of their awesome 16-page inserts devoted entirely to his art (Hi-Fructose Magazine Volume 15 - His first appearance, 12 pg; Hi-Fructose Magazine Volume 31 - 18 pages, 16 of them in a booklet insert. It includes new art, while much of the material from V.15 is from Pim and Francie and his older stories; but the article/interview is great. Both are a must for Columbia fans, and if you haven't read Hi-Fructose, you should). Good news, for Al Columbia fans.

Top & Center: The first and second Hi-Fructose appearances.
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As Aaron Horkey put it in Juxtapoz: "countless successful artists continue to pillage [Columbia's] back catalog, propping up their half-baked careers on the well-worn spines of second hand copies of Biologic Show." It's time Al Columbia stepped into the spotlight.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 28, 2014 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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Dave Schaafsma I really appreciate all the work you put into this review. Invaluable to me. Awesome.


EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX David wrote: "I really appreciate all the work you put into this review. Invaluable to me. Awesome."

Thanks David, that's really nice of you to say, and encouraging. Sometimes reviewing on Goodreads, where there's so many smart and talented people both writing and reading, I start to wonder if there's much point adding yet another unsolicited opinion. Knowing you liked it is validation enough. :)


message 3: by Paul (new)

Paul There's at least two of us reading and enjoying your reviews, so please don't stop.


Steve Cooper Make that three! I always feel really smart after reading your reviews


EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX Thank you, guys! I'm glad you like them, and the feeling's mutual, I always enjoy reading your reviews as well! :-)


message 6: by Jan (new)

Jan Philipzig Four:) Really awesome review! I've been aware of the name Al Columbia for a long time, now I REALLY have to check out his stuff.


Dave Schaafsma Very very edgy and somewhat disturbing stuff. Feels crazy, feels like revisiting the golden age of comics though the eyes of horror, and feels like genius. I think I said this about Cole Closser, that it feels like imagination at the end of time. But maybe a lot of horror is like that; I'm not that well read in this area. This feels new and raw to me.


message 8: by EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX (last edited Nov 28, 2015 07:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX Thanks Jan. :-)

'Imagination at the end of time' -- nice. And applicable on many levels with this book. Columbia is constantly berating his own work, sabotaging it. That's tragic. I think the uncharacteristic act of giving up his unfinished art for publication was based on his realization that he had spent several years on a book that still would never satisfy his own expectations. In a way, Pim and Francie is Al Columbia surrendering, compromising, and admitting failure. For me, it's the opposite. This failure succeeds in the grandest ways as a work of Bibliographic and illustrative art... something new and wholly original.


Dave Schaafsma Agreed!


message 10: by Dov (new) - added it

Dov Zeller Thanks Eisnein! This is a great review (and for me, introduction to Al Columbia.)


EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX Thank you, Dov! As someone waiting years for an Al Columbia comic and an Al Columbia art-book, this was one of my comic-art holy grails. And he's appropriately way past due for a follow-up.


message 12: by Trish (new)

Trish I might have nightmares thanks to your review - does that count as appreciation? ;P
Seriously, this book might not be to my taste but I always like reading your reviews!


message 13: by Dave (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dave Schaafsma I think Al Columbia is great evidence that horror can truly exist in comics.


EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX Thanks Trish, thanks David. He conjures up some dark, beautiful and disturbing images, usually all at once. :-) We're looong overdue for a collection of all the stories from Zero Zero and Blab! and Mome. They've been OOP for years, and are so damn good. Hopefully he didn't pull a 'Big Numbers' and tear all the original art to pieces.


message 15: by Dave (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dave Schaafsma I think I recall some discussion about whether horror could as effectively happen in comics as film or non-graphic-novels. I was even part of it, I think. It may have started with a discussion of Uzumaki. Which for me does work as horror. And I like Joe Hill's Locke and Key. Film MAY be easier to pull off. But I look forward to more from him, right, if he didn't tear it all up. Another up and coming guy I Iike that resonates with me like Al Columbia (that chill, I mean) is Cole Closser. Now, I feel like I am just at the tip of the iceberg with this stuff as Closser in his acknowledgements mentions two dozen people as his influences I never even had heard of.


message 16: by EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX (last edited Feb 07, 2016 07:12AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX Yeah, I agree, horror can and has been done in comics; I've been meaning to check out Black Rat and Closser's earlier work since reading your review, so thanks for reminding me. :-)

Charles Burns' NitNit trilogy and Black Hole are great examples of psychological horror done right.

Josh Simmons and Thomas Ott make some excellent, atmospheric horror, esp. the latter.

Ben Catmull, Bryan Ralph's Daybreak; to some extent -- Brian Chippendale, Gary Panter.

Japanese horror manga can get very disturbing; Junji Ito's Uzumaki, Gyo, and Museum of Terror all have effectively horrific moments; so does MPD: Psycho.

But the works of Suehiro Maruo and Shintaro Kago frequently put cinema to shame; terrifying and sickening stories you sometimes wish you could unsee. The same applies to Hideshi Hino, but to a lesser extent.

In English language comics, the survival horror of The Walking Dead was very effective in it's original medium.

Crossed, by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows, is absolutely horrifying... to an extent I haven't seen replicated in novels or films.

Renee French's Marbles in my Underpants is surrealistic horror of the best kind; I'll submit Han's Rickheit's Squirrel Machine and Max Andersson's Pixy share the same category.

Beautiful Darkness... I don't think it's proper horror, but it's related.

Hellblazer had it's ups and downs, quality-wise, but it could be good, shocking horror at its best.

Gravel, Caliban, Neonomicon -- you can debate the quality, but they all had truly disturbing moments, courtesy of Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Alan Moore. Moore's 'Crossed + 100' is another Avatar horror-show worth reading for horror-fans.

Then there's Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and all the pre-code horror that sure as hell scared people in the 50's, enough to get them banned. Then the Warren books of the 60's and beyond, Creepy and Eerie.

There's quite a few others, but I'll have to go through my library later and hunt them down...

I'd argue comic-horror can be just as effective as film-horror. :-)


EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX Fantasy-horror manga: Berserk, by Kentaro Miura, and Blade of the Immortal. It doesn't get much more shocking. Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King.

SF-horror manga: Otomo's 'Domu' is very suspenseful and shocking, as are Biomega and Battle Royale, though very different. Drifting Classroom and Cat-Eyed Boy.

Prison Pit, by Johnny Ryan.

Hellboy and the BPRD universe; it's often more supernatural adventure, but some of it is definitely old-school horror.

Sanctum, by Christophe Bec and Xavier Dorison was a fine horror BD, but the film sucked.

2000AD books like Leviathan, Zombo, Missionary Man. Flesh, Canon Fodder, Chiaroscuro, American Gothic -- which is similar to --

American Vampire, Wytches, Harrow County, The Creep, Smoke and Ashes...

Vertigo has done less Horror than they pretend, but the western horror of Jonah Hex by Lansdale and Truman from the 90's was brilliant.


message 18: by Dave (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dave Schaafsma I have read a lot of this not all. And as you know I also read a lot. But this is a joy and a little breath-taking to encounter, this list, which now I have to read, all of it. And to think I was never a horror reader. Film, some, tending more to psychological horror, Hitchcock. Never slasher stuff, though I had been in conversation with a horror film buff and teacher here over a period of time. And a good friend taught a Monsters in Film course the syllabus of which he shared with me, and then I watched most of them. Horror, sure. But maybe it was Locke and Key that started me on this comics horror kick. And Gaiman. Then followed by a lot of above. I think you should write about this. I feel I am (maybe) too "late" to take it on, really, to fully articulate horror in comics. You are the one to do it. ARE doing it. But it's a fascinating topic, and amazing journey, to read in this area. And frightening, at times, sure!


message 19: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Wonderful, again.


S̶e̶a̶n̶ "Six years later, the painfully self-critical Columbia appeared to have denied his perfectionist impulses, and in an incredible feat of will, burst into Gary Groth's office screaming 'Take it! Just fucking take it, take it, TAKE IT," hurling a massive portfolio stuffed with the pages that make up 'Pim and Francie' at the notorious publisher's head. Before Groth could respond, Columbia disappeared into the Seattle night."

Haha...you had me for a minute there, until I scrolled past the next (well-placed) image. But I agree...it is nice to imagine it happening that way.

(Excellent review!)


EisΝinΕ|v|XenoFoneX S̶e̶a̶n̶ wrote: ""Six years later, the painfully self-critical Columbia appeared to have denied his perfectionist impulses, and in an incredible feat of will, burst into Gary Groth's office screaming 'Take it! Just..."

Thanks S̶e̶a̶n̶! Pound for pound, taking into consideration the numbers of comic pages he's produced, and dividing that number by the sum of his hardcore artistic admirers, Al Columbia might be the most beloved name in comics (after Kirby, of course, whose work is celebrated to an extent completely out of proportion with his admittedly considerable talents, thanks to the warping effect that nostalgia has on the ability of Marvel fanboys to assess the relative quality of comic art).

I'm patiently awaiting the announcement from Fantagraphics that an Al Columbia Studio Edition and/or Catalogue Raisonne is forthcoming. You could fit his entire published output in a single AE-format volume, and seeing the original art - reproduced at full-size, in full-color - for his 'prime period' contributions to FB anthologies 'Zero Zero' & 'Blab!' would be fucking glorious. If Ed Piskor* deserves to join the ranks of Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, & Hal Foster, then Al Columbia does as well.

*[No offense intended for Ed; Cartoonist Kayfabe is great, and the Studio Edition is a thing of beauty. I DO think the promos stressed the X-Men: Grand Design work more than is proper, given the paltry 6 or 7 pages included. He's continued to evolve & improve as an artist, and the X-Men art is his best to date, so I would have loved a 50/50 split between HHFT & X-Men: GD. It might have been a Marvel copyright issue, and copyrights might explain the absence of Wizzywig pages; but the material featured is still fantastic, and could/should have been titled 'Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree Studio Edition'.]


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