22 November 2009

Daily Breakdowns 039 - Pim & Francie

Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days
By Al Columbia
Published by Fantagraphics Books. $28.99 USD

"And Dopey and Mickey, Br'er and Pluto
Secretly prayed
And there was no doubt at all
No two ways about it
Was the day Disney's dream debased"

--The Fall, "Disney's Dream Debased"

With this book, Al Columbia has created not only one of the more unsettling works of horror in the medium of comics, but it also happens to be one of the greatest myth-making objects, every page turning the reader's thoughts back to the author's mental state.

It's a masterful manipulation that begins with a list of around 75 "Stories," in which in almost no cases any of the pieces here would be considered complete stories. It may be a way to play with the existing view of Columbia--an extremely talented cartoonist with a small body of published work and one famous, unconfirmed story of a destroyed Alan Moore collaboration--as someone who's either such a perfectionist or so unhinged he can rarely finish anything. Whether Columbia planned more complete stories for any of the efforts collected here is an interesting question, but for my money he has instead come up with dozens of nightmarish scenarios that have a greater cumulative effect by skipping set-ups or endings. The ending, one suspects, is always going to be a variation of horrific death and dismemberment.

Our guides through these hells are Pim & Francie, a boy and girl who look very much alike. Their bodies are clearly based on old animation--Francie's pumps are much like Minnie Mouse's, and they also have Disneyesque, gloved, four-fingered hands. Where they deviate is in having more detailed hair than cartoons allowed, and their faces are not only identical but distancing--their heavy-lidded eyes resist reader identification.

The theme of the book, from the first page to the last, is corruption, the loss of innocence. Wizards, sinister Asians, multi-limbed monsters, hungry trees, and decayed or mutated versions of Disney characters routinely hunt down Pim & Francie and other children, to feed on them or just leave them to bleed out. The production really enhances the effect of looking like old, black-and-white Disney cartoons, gray and scratchy and handmade. There's an undeniable vitality here, it's just that it's in service of a bleak, disturbing worldview of hunter and hunted, where only villains and monsters grin.

Not only are most of the stories unfinished, much of the art is unfinished as well, though what's finished is always the most important element, the characters. So when, say, a madman pursues Pim & Francie, and they're all lovingly inked with a gorgeous, fat line, while the setting is left in pencil, it has the effect that these two kids are essentially magnets for trouble, that their energy is calling these variations of evil into being and that these worlds exist only for as long as they are in the space.

As I said before, the book is a phenomenal example of myth-making. With the unfinished, and at times torn-and-put-back-together pages, and the sheer volume of stories about children in jeopardy, one cannot go more than a page or two without one's thoughts turning away from the book and towards its author. How troubled is he? Does the obvious care he puts into the art (the soda shop, butterfly and the wallpapered room are good examples) serve as a catharsis for feelings of hopelessness, or worse? It's not really a critic's job (or their business) to psychoanalyze an artist, but Columbia makes it impossible not to speculate a bit, especially with his reclusive nature and the lack of any explanatory material in the front or back of the book.

Taken together, there is a kind of throughline where Pim & Francie lose their innocence by the end, but it's not consistent. It's only about one-fourth of the way into the book where they've dropped their Mickey Mouse Club hats and entered a world of shattered Disney zombies. Surrounded by death and depravity so long, they deal with grief inappropriately, and soon enough their corruption is more or less complete. They only seem innocent when something more horrible is chasing them. When they are safe, they are likely to engage in cruelty on other creatures and even each other. No one is saved in Columbia's world.

It may be that some readers will be put off by the apparent lack of structure, or the unsettling imagery may prevent their appreciation of how skillful Columbia has mastered not just the styles of old animation but also some really lovely wash effects. For myself, whatever Columbia's own feelings about the book may be, I'm happy he found the will to get it out. It's certainly had the greatest effect on me of anything this year, including, literally, hours of nightmares.

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