So, what really happened to Al Columbia? Simple, really—he created some comics, for Fantagraphics, did illustration work for the likes of The New York Times, collaborated on with folks like Archer Prewitt, recorded some music, and did design work on The Postal Service’s 2003 debut, Give Up. Oh, and he also recently launched a Website, just in case you’re have some trouble keeping track of all that.
Al Columbia has kept fairly busy for the past two decades, though many people seemingly have some difficulty accepting this fact, judging from the enigmatic air that seems to surround his works in the online community. Maybe it’s dark nature of much of his work—evidenced most recently by the strips that comprise his new book, Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days. Perhaps it’s the artist’s self-describe concentration problem, which has hampered his ambitions of creating longer works.
Columbia can’t say for sure how the notion initially arose, though he’s more than happy to discuss the subject—and nearly anything else, for that matter, including his music, meditation, and his thoughts on Top Shelf’s upcoming re-release of Eddie Campbell’s Alec stories.
Are you doing a lot of interviews, these days?
I did one, but not really. But I guess I’ll do them as they come. Not yet, anyway.
Are people not really asking, yet? Or are you choosy?
I think it’s more a case of your being only the second person to e-mail me. I guess it’s the early stages of it.
Do you think people might consider you difficult to approach about some things?
Possibly, yeah, because I don’t really get asked to do a lot of these. I never really have, either. Which I guess could either be a good or bad thing. I don’t really know. I’ve noticed that. I don’t really understand why, but I think people might have a difficulty approaching me, sure.
There was that whole long running thread on The Comics Journal message board—you seem to almost have this air of mystery about you, at least on Internet.
[Laughs] Yeah, sure. I’ve heard people say that. I’m not sure why. It’s a big mystery to me.
Do you think it might stem from the fact that you don’t put out a book every year?
Possibly. I guess so. I guess for most people, their primary goal as a cartoonist is to publish their work. And certainly that’s the case for me, but in all honesty, it’s kind of been a matter sticking to one thing. I have enormous difficulty sticking to one thing, but all of those vignettes in [Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days] were all attempts make a full-fledged comic and do things right—to put out comics regularly. But it just never really happened that way for me. After a while, I just stopped caring about publishing at all. I just figured I would, eventually. I guess when I loved something enough.
Short of making a film, there are few art forms that require as much concentration for as long as a comic book.
I’m always amazed, and hats off to anyone who can do it regularly and do amazing stuff. I’m really always impressed by that. I just don’t have the concentration. I’m hopelessly distracted all the time. It’s weird, there’s such a silence that occurs when you cartoon. It’s almost like a meditation. Sometimes that can be a strange place to be, so I tend to like to have as many distractions as possible when I’m doing it. just a sort of light fuzz of radio and television. Just to get rid of that strange feeling that occurs. Anyone who can just draw all of the time, I’m amazed by, and I know some people who do, and can’t understand it.
I used to do it all of the time, too, but now I can’t remember doing it [laughs]. Now I don’t really draw, so I don’t know what it’s like to do it all of the time.
Do you just not enjoy the process the way you used to?
No, I just really have to like it a lot. And it’s got to eat at me first, and then I’ll sit down and work on it. But I used to just work every day for hours and hours and hours, and that’s all I really did. Now I don’t so much. I don’t have the focus like in used to. So I have to be more focused about when I’m going to sit down and draw a comic, because it produces such strange feelings. At least in me. I know some people really like that quiet and meditation. But to me it gets eerie, and I just want to get out of there.
Do feel yourself entering that space most of the times that you draw?
Yeah. These days, sure. It’s a full process of just doing a little bit here and a little bit there. It gets to be, at some point, after about four hours or so, I’m in an eerie place. I have to get back to normal. I go spend time with people. I think it could be because I drew so much for so long. I had to step back, or was forced to by something unseen.
Aside from that word “eerie,” that state you’re describing is the sort of thing people invest a lot of time and money into achieving—that meditative mind state.
Right, right. It has its flipsides, I guess. At least for me. I guess I do other forms of meditation. I work in other mediums. I’m always working on something, but I find I complete other things a lot easier. I wrap them up, and I’m done. Comics are such commitment. It’s a little concept that can take you a year. You’re working on the same idea for a really long time.
Comics and writing in generally, you’re sort of like a boy detective. You can go down all of these avenues. Comics you can really start to hallucinate. It’s almost like you’re watching something happen. It’s like watching a movie, and it can be heart-breaking when that gets snatched away and you can’t get back to. You just kind of put it aside. It’s little windows, and I’ve only been lucky enough to sustain that for a few times with regards to publishing. I can’t imagine ever devoting that amount of time to a comic again. Although you never know.
[Continued in Part Two.]