Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days
By Al Columbia
What ever happened to Al Columbia? The answers, hopefully, are not found on these pages. If they are, the truth is positively terrifying. Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days is a downright sadistic journey through the lives of its titular characters, playing out like fragments of a fairytale, had the rawer stories of yesteryear from the likes of the Brothers Grimm been followed to their logical conclusions in the context of our hyper-graphic society, rather than having been hijacked by the likes of Walt Disney.
The children are dismembered, run through meat grinders, overtaken by giant insects in their sleep. Pim & Francie is a bit of a hard covered horror show, which, in spite of Columbia’s early century cartooning style and a sadistic tendency to bring the characters to life at the beginning of each subsequent strip, does not adhere to basic principles of rubber cartoon physics.
Pim and Francie are doing the jitterbug in their living room. Pim dips Francies and tosses her in the air. He misses her on the way down. She snaps her neck. He stares, horrified, and runs down a fantasy montage, which culminates with his being hanged, black bag over his head, torches of the townspeople silhouetted against the night. Understandably fearing this, Pim takes drastic measures, stuffing Francie into a suitcase and disposing of her in a swamp.
There are cartoony visual elements here, to be sure—Francie’s two legs and her bowed ponytail stick out from the small sticker-covered suitcase, as a stern-faced Pim hurls it into the water. But ultimately, there’s no silly misunderstanding. Francie is dead. Pim has killed her. The final page is an underwater scene, the suitcase perched lifeless on the floor of the river.
That Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days is a collection of incomplete pieces only adds to its ominous sensibilities. There’s nothing resembling resolution to be found anywhere in its pages. Fantagraphics doesn’t want you to call it a “sketchbook”—which is at least partially fair. The Golden Bear Days lives is that ever-expanding space between the sketchbook and the graphic novel, with stories that run the gamut of completion. One page has visible pencil marks and the next is fully inked and shaded.
All the while, it’s hard to say how much of this was really part of its artist’s vision. In some sense, the book feels less satisfying that if it were a comic of the same length. The packaging and juxtaposition, on the other hand, is so beautifully executed that, at its best, it feels as though Columbia is challenging many of the fundamental elements of sequential art, with closeups of panels that monopolize full pages, and stories that never really seem to begin or end.
The book’s uncompleted nature also goes a way toward perpetuating the enigmatic air that has collected around Columbia for the past decade, whether by choice or necessity. There’s a sense that Fantagraphics discovered these pages in the diary of a Henry Darger-like character and did their best to cull them together into something reasonably coherent. The sense of mystery is only increased by the book’s general lack of supplementary text.
Columbia is no Darger, of course. He used to be the lead singer of a band featuring Pete Bagge and Fantagraphics associate publisher, Eric Reynolds. He’s had work featured in the New York Times. His art clearly demonstrates a firm grasp of the medium in which he works.
As such, Pim & Francie’s incomplete feeling may disappoint those fans who have been waiting decades for a full graphic novel from Columbia. The book succeeds rather well as both an introduction to the artist’s work and as a standalone art book. It’s simultaneously lush and sparse and terrifying and wonderful. And for better and worse, it goes a long way towards leaving the reader wanting a lot more.