Interview: Al Columbia Pt. 3 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews


In the world of autiobiographical comics, there’s surely a feeling that, from time to time, things can get a little “too real,” requiring a step back from the work—a chance to reassess how much one is willing to reveal for the sake of art.

While a reasonable person surely wouldn’t mistake the stories contained in Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days for autobiography, Al Columbia insists that there’s more than a little of his own life contained in its cartoony pages—enough for him to take pause when things get a little too real.

[Part One] [Part Two]

Do you like the raw look of the uncompleted pencils in the book?

Yeah, I do now. It took me a while to come around to liking that. It took a few years, and gradually I came to prefer it almost. It just seemed a bit cooler. I liked it. it just seemed like it stopped at the right point. And whenever I tried to finish one, it just seemed like I was ruining it. They aged well, I guess.

Do you feel like your new found appreciation for that aesthetic is going to affect your art, moving forward?

No, no. Well, I don’t know. I never know what’s going to happen. it might encourage me to finish something now, expand upon the idea. It could encourage me to go the other way, though. The book just kind of happened. It was a weird thing that just kind of came together. I never expected it to end up the way it did. So I don’t know if I could ever repeat the process or even try. It’s just kind of its own thing.

Do you feel like you’ve effectively closed the book on Pim and Francie?

No, I’ll probably still work on them. Like I said, you never know—I may finish something, someday. It’s kind of a slow process. But effectively I suppose so, yeah. For all intents and purposes. For a while, anyway.

In the materials that accompany the book, Fantagraphics made a big point of not referring to Pim & Francie as a sketchbook. Was that at your insistence?

I don’t believe so. I think we all just sort of realized that it was a unique thing, because a lot of them aren’t sketches, really. We didn’t know what the hell it was, really. I didn’t know if anyone would get it or like it. but I knew it wasn’t a sketchbook. It doesn’t seem to be one to me. They seem more like—while unfinished, they still seem fairly finished to me.

I think it would be an insult to people who don’t really sketch too well. Because I don’t really sketch. If I put a sketchbook together, it sure wouldn’t look like that. I don’t remember if that was a conscious decision on our part or just kind of like, “oh, this is neat, how the hell do we talk about this?” I think it was more that we just didn’t know how to describe it ourselves.

People are calling a lot of things “sketchbooks” these days. They put out all of those Crumb sketchbooks and the two books by Chris Ware. It’s a pretty tenuous line at this point.

I suppose so. Those are amazing sketchbooks. That’s what I mean. The Chris Ware sketchbooks are amazing. I couldn’t produce a sketchbook like that in a million years. I just can’t understand how he does those amazing drawings. And the purity of it is really cool. Again, I guess I just don’t have that kind of patience. That’s a lot of drawing.

Pim & Francie is a bit of a disturbing book. Are you ever surprised at what comes out when you sit down to draw?

Well, general thoughts will disturb me, sure. And sometimes drawing them will disturb me even more. I’ll tell myself I don’t need to do it, because it gives me strange feelings or makes me feel bad about my life. I get kind of superstitious. “if I draw this, maybe something bad will happen.” there’s a lot of that with Pim & Francie. I remember yanking out a lot because I felt like I might go too far or make something weird happen. I will say that. That was a real big thing with me while doing a lot of those pieces—just getting freaked out that I might make something bad happen. Not every single case, though.

Do you have any specific examples of something that caused you to pull the reigns back in?

I suppose anything involving the Francie character. Pim can get chopped up all day long—but even there it got a little weird, because it felt too close to something personal. But it was also this protective feeling over the Francie character. But again, they kind of take on their own lives, and at a certain point, there’s a vibe where it’s okay to chop them up and you know nothing bad’s going to happen. but certain narrative moments seem too creepily real. So I guess I stopped working on them and backed off a little.

So it was always this back and forth—a push and pull with that spooky vibe all the time. not so much these days, but I guess I was a little more superstitious about that stuff.

Is it the fact that they’re based on real people?

Yeah. I don’t know the exact chemical percentage. They’re kind of their own thing, but at the same time based on real events and real moments.

So there’s a fear that, if it closely mimics someone’s life, then reality might imitate art?

Yeah, definitely. There is a point where, for me it starts to feel a bit strange. I really do admire people who do autobiographical comics. It’s really tough to and stick to, without your life becoming completely surreal. And I think that’s the allure of it. your actual life does become a lot like what you’re drawing. You can’t tell the difference sometimes, I suppose. It’s very strange. Everything becomes material.

But I can definitely understand the need to do autobiographical work—or at least the want to, for a short period of time. You don’t have to do it forever. But at some point it is fun to do.

Does the fact that you’re starting with surreal material, does it add to or take away surreality from the experience, when connected with your real life?

I does reflect everything more surreally, I suppose, in some way. but there are ways to soften the edges of reality through the cartoon. It’s obvious far more surreal as cartoon characters. But doing the cartooning and getting into those worlds for me over a period of time, now and again confusing or world. It’s not like every time you draw it’s a weird experience, but it can get like that. I suppose everyone’s experienced that.

The strips draw heavily from classic Max Fleischer-era cartoons, but there are a lot of non-cartoony side effects in there. The one I keep coming back to is the one where they’re jitterbugging. He throws her up in the air and she snaps her neck and lands in a pool of her own blood. He has to dispose of the body. It’s not very “cartoony.”

That’s very much based on a real fear I had of somehow causing the death of someone I love. I guess there is a certain consequence to some of it. I guess in some ways, if I really wanted to be weird, I could say they were biblical. Little biblical moments. Little timeless tales or something.

I’ve always liked books like The Martian Chronicles, where it’s all of these stories all in the same weird little world. non-linear stories. I guess in some ways I’m glad that I didn’t finish all of these pieces. In some ways I’m glad about the way it came out in the end.

So you do feel that there’s a cohesive world at play here?

Sure, yeah. I guess these are little dreams or glimpses into the world. there’s something going on with the sequencing. But if anything, i guess it’s just a glimpse into the world. that world can be expanded upon, but I guess it’s up to me to actually finish a piece. I would love to do a full Pim & Francie comic, and maybe some day I will, because there’s a much bigger world than what’s in those pages. I would love to still work on it, but not as frenzied and crazy as I used to.

When you’re putting a book out there arranged in a certain way, you’re really opening it up for people to read into it.

Absolutely, yeah. I suppose so. But that wasn’t a major intent. I was kind of surprised that so much of that occurred. When people read it, I looked at it differently. I looked at it differently based on certain reactions from friends. Things I never thought were in there. People seem to be getting something personal—at least I’ve noticed that with friends. There’s some sort of an emotional core that’s struck through the book. I wouldn’t have been able to plan that, though. I’m not that smart. I just tried to put the pages in order. Whatever resonated, resonated.

But yeah, I’ve heard a few people say that it makes your imagination take things off in different directions. I guess that’s neat. That’s cool.

[Concluded in Part Four]

–Brian Heater