Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > CR Reviews

Pim & Francie: “The Golden Bear Days”
posted November 30, 2009


Creator: Al Columbia
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, hardcover, 240 pages, November 2009, $28.99
Ordering Numbers: 1606993046 (ISBN10), 9781606993040 (ISBN13)

There's a picture in the new Pim & Francie book my reaction to which suggests just how Al Columbia has progressed as a cartoonist in the near decade and a half since his short-lived Biologic Show series heralded the emergence of a talent as potentially thrilling as Chris Ware or Joe Sacco. I became upset by a one-page picture of a grandmother transformed into a hideous monster out to do our title characters harm. As personally traumatizing as I find such imagery, it dawned upon me that not everyone having bought and read Columbia's new hardcover will even know the image I'm talking about. Columbia's book is positively festooned with frightening moments and tableaux, as was the case with short stories like "The Trumpets They Play!" and "I Was Killing When Killing Wasn't Cool." The sort-of comics in Pim & Francie even evince the same hopelessness that distinguish Columbia's best comics moments, the notion that these characters aren't facing something frightening or experiencing a time of danger, but are being made to realize they've awoken something that will outright obliterate them, that will grind them to dust. Any single upsetting image is a rosette on a much more ambitious and awesome-to-behold cake. Al Columbia has progressed to the point where he can haunt my nightmares for three days as an aside.

What makes Pim & Francie different than past Columbia works, what makes it rise above the awesomely-crafted previous comics, and something so thoroughly ingrained in the book it has likely been examined in great detail by much more clever formal-minded critics than myself, is that it's made up of broken stories, random art and sequences sometimes not all the way finished. The pages themselves have suffered here. At the very least, this indicts the world in which Pim & Francie live as something so corrosive the dismay it summons simply by existing can't be held on pulp. If Walt Disney's multiple protagonists always return home, Al Columbia's tend to be shunted into the abyss, and this book could be about what that costs the participants. Another way to look at Pim & Francie would be to say that the horrors involved keep the artist from finishing the work, and sometimes even sets him against it. This may find greater resonance with those that believe in the more colorful flourishes of Columbia's early career. An even more terrifying message and the one I prefer right this moment is that this book outright indicts the act of creativity itself. The more I stare it, the more I hear a voice saying that deep down past the spine of a lot of books is this kind of work. I imagine Pim & Francie does all of these things, and four or five more I have yet to be able to draw from it by reading. For now, I suspect that it's great, and I know for certain that it upsets me in far bigger ways than I care to admit.