Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days (Artifacts and Bone Fragments) Al Columbia. Fantagraphics. $28.99, 240pp.
Al Columbia’s reputation in the comics world is immense, despite his relatively tiny amount of published work: three comic books and a few contributions to comics anthologies—probably no more than 200 pages total (not including the excellent comic The Pogostick, which Columbia wrote but did not illustrate). His has been a sparse output, with long periods between publication, a writer sought after by fans trying to track down every page of his work. With Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days, Fantagraphics has brought out 240 pages of the creepiest, most unsettling comics since . . . the last time Al Columbia published something.
Columbia’s characters Pim and Francie (first seen in his two-issue comic series The Biologic Show, published in the mid-’90s) are two lively, Disney-esque siblings who find themselves caught up in the most bleak, violent, and horrific adventures, amidst backdrops ranging from highly detailed realist interiors to extremely cartoonish landscapes of smiling trees.
Every page of Pim & Francie is dark and disturbing: anxiety-inducing. The two survive a haunted forest, popping their own eyes out, drowning, numerous encounters with murderous, evil creatures, as well as, on a page that bears the notation “Funny Incest Stories #06,” Francie giving birth to a freakish, slimy monster that extends out from under her little dress, still attached by the umbilical cord, while Pim points a gun at her and accuses her of cheating on him, since the baby doesn’t look like him (the baby doesn’t even appear to be from the same planet). But this description falsely gives the impression that this is some sort of “shock” work—far from it. The most disturbing material in the book (which is 90% of it) are images such as a shadowy creature at the end of a hallway, an old-timey radio exhorting Pim not to fall asleep, Francie covered in bugs, the two kids running from hooded black pursuers, and a skeleton woman doing dishes.
Pim & Francie has almost no actual narrative (or a narrative in any sort of conventional sense, at least), since most pages seem to be half-finished and partially discarded—perhaps just taken from Columbia’s sketchbook—but read together there’s a certain sequentiality to the creepiness and terror, occasionally interrupted by an actual three- or four-page story where one or both of them inevitably get killed or maimed in some horrible fashion. Columbia’s art seems strongly influenced by Disney, making everything that much more unsettling. Most of the work here is like warm-ups for a book we don’t actually get: two or three unfinished attempts at a scene until you find a mostly-finished page of Pim standing in front of a bloody cat’s head, surrounded by flies, saying “Another one! I wonder who could be leaving these dead cat heads all over the place!” a mystery of which we never see the beginning or end, but a hundred pages later we come upon a page disembodied from anything around it that features a drawing of a bed with several tiny black kittens on it and around it—and then you remember the “dead cat heads” from earlier.
Adding to the confusion are sequences that seem like they’re from something longer but are taken out of that context and stuck in the middle of the book. For instance, Pim and Francie, having dismembered some sort of animal (i.e., taken off his arms, legs, and penis), tease him that they’ll let him go on one condition, but we never see any event preceding this two-page sequence, nor anything after it. Additionally, these pages are zoomed in on so that some of the art and word balloons are cut off at the margins, denying us even more understanding. The entire book is fractured in this way, so that pages that seem from a sketchbook are next to pages that appear to have been ripped up and thrown away, only to be taken out of the trash and taped back together, though never finished. Many pages appear to be stained with coffee or tea.
The semi-finished nature of the book is another confounding aspect—one gets the feeling that if we were to wait for Columbia to finish 240 pages of work we’d never see it. However, it’s clear that the look of the book is as Columbia wanted it (meaning Columbia had no intention of doing an actual, finished, “narrative” book) and that its look makes the book seem almost like some dusty old book of memories lost in an attic (horrible memories, but still). I would argue that Pim & Francie: Golden Bear Days is the book of the year in the comics world, the fractured and unfinished and sketchbooky aspects make it so effective in its relentless, grim, churning sense of uneasiness. This is an exceptional work.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead I. Right about now, irony and sarcasm are pretty hot stocks. They were the magic at the center of the 1990′s most popular, and most clever, sit-com, they’re used in commercials every day to sell products, and, really, they’re a big part of everyday humor. If you’re like most people,...
- Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore I. Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel, Golden Country, is a richly woven tapestry of immigrant life in the first half of the 20th century. Its disappointments and rewards lie in the breadth of its goal: to entwine the stories of three different immigrant families over the course of fifty years, and...
- The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar Consider Emine Sevgi Özdamar's The Bridge of the Golden Horn a kind of bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young migrant worker as it were. The plot threads are familiar: discontented young woman leaves home to seek her fortune; she encounters resistance; she overcomes obstacles; she is transformed....
- Confronting the Murmur in Brian Evenson’s Last Days Brian Evenson once stated that he writes with an "ethical blankness." Matt Bell considers how this blankness drags the reader into Evenson's most recent novel, the dark, noirish Last Days....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Scott Bryan Wilson
Read more articles about books from Fantagraphics Books