Picture Book 005: Al Columbia, PIM & FRANCIE

Fantagraphics · 2009

If it were ten years ago, I'd have been the first in line to buy this the morning it was released. A whole book by Al Columbia? Are you shitting me? After all these years?

But it's not ten years ago, it's now, and I've only checked it out of the library and will be returning it Monday morning. It's not that it's bad, that it's a disappointment, or even that Al Columbia is not still the supreme twisted genius he's always been; I've just reached a critical-mass point in my comics consumption where I can't afford to buy handsome hardcovers I'm not going to be returning to again and again.

And sadly, despite the fucked-up gorgeousness of the images Fanta has scanned, blown up, and lovingly curated in this book, I've read through it once and won't need it again. I'm a narrative guy, and while there are snatches and hints of narrative here, bleeding through the unfinished artwork and close-cropped panels, it's not enough to satisfy me.

But I did enjoy what I got. The title characters are the boy and girl on the cover, and Columbia makes them the Hansel and Gretel of his own private funhouse nightmares, old black-and-white Disney or Fleischer cartoons gone horribly awry. Dismemberment, eyes being gouged out, and the slick slice of razor against flesh are only a few of the repeated horrors committed upon Pim and Francie in varying states of cartooniness, a method which I'm sure a worthwhile critic could work up into a symbolism if they cared to try, but to my jaundiced eye reads more like the plain fact that this material was all drawn over a period of decades and a man's style is bound to change. It hardly matters, anyway: the book follows its own sinister dream logic, bouncing from zombie apocalypses to flesh-eating flowers to multi-limbed serial killers to horrific swing-dancing accidents with the manic glee of a Winsor McCay under psychiatric evaluation.

It wouldn't be an Al Columbia book if it wasn't incredibly frustrating: what's been published is clearly only a fragment of a vast body of material he's been working on off and on for years (the number of repeated images, sometimes only slightly tweaked, reveals the depth of his obssessive perfectionism), and the tantalizing glimpse of further panels just beyond the border of the page makes you wonder what this book might look like if he had followed through on what was clearly at one point a fully-fleshed narrative with its own mythology and characterization.

But on the other hand this nightmare collage may be more effective. Pim and Francie die horribly in many ways throughout the collection, and the reset button at the turn of each page follows the kind of logic that only dreams, of all the major narrative forms, ever achieve. The artwork is stunningly beautiful — his tight, slick brushwork and sense of composition is second to none — and the grisly imagery suitably depraved; I just can't help feeling that it's all going to dissipate inconsequentially the moment I wake up.

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