December 2009

Martyn Pedler

comicbookslut

Don't Fall Asleep!: The Horrors of Al Columbia's Pim & Francie

Here's the thing: Pim & Francie shouldn't work.

Not for someone like me, anyway, who knows very little about Al Columbia's past work. I've caught glimpses of it over the years; I remember the rumors that, after taking over art duties on Alan Moore's legendarily unfinished Big Numbers, Columbia destroyed the pages of issue #4 before anyone else could see them -- that’s about it.

This new collection (subtitled The Golden Bear Days) is composed of half-finished stories and sketches – so I thought reading it would be the equivalent of someone introducing me to a supposedly great director by insisting I watch a handful of their deleted scenes. At best, you’re getting a peek at the mechanics at work under the page; at worst, you’re getting a pile of undifferentiated creative junk for hardcore completists only.

But there’s one reason why Pim & Francie pulls off the unlikely feat of being more than the sum of its fragmented, disconnected, half-inked parts: it’s terrifying.

The book stars, obviously, Pim and Francie: two adorable moppets gallivanting together through a fairytale world of weeping trees, zombie grandparents, and a knife-wielding man called The Bloody Bloody Killer. (That’s not a typo -- he’s just that bloody.) Sometimes Pim and Francie are victims, just frightened kids. Sometimes they're mischievous imps, gleefully shouting: "And we'll never get caught because everyone's stupid!" And sometimes, they're just as monstrously violent as anything else that’s trying to eat them. They pluck the eyes from baby birds, and wonder if they should put them back before they get in trouble; they also stab out their own eyes with nails hammered into wooden boards.

Columbia's been drawing these children for years, and I can see why. They're more artistic excuses than actual characters, and the perfect creations to facilitate whatever horrific imagery occurs to him. (He occasionally leaves their thought balloons empty, so we know they're thinking something, but we have no idea what that is.) Half the fun of Pim & Francie is the disjunction between seemingly innocent children and whatever horrors they're witnessing. There are echoes of The Addams Family in how Pim's only reaction to finding the severed, decomposing head of a cat is: “Another one! I wonder who could be leaving these dead cat heads all over the place!”

This is nothing new. Kids and horror have always gone hand in hand. Not only is there a long tradition of creepy children -- perhaps climaxing in the ubiquitous spooky-fringed kids of Japanese horror films -- but childhood is mined for horror, too. (Two words: scary clowns.) Columbia’s stories seem to spring from the frozen corpse of Walt Disney. It's made explicit in one double-page spread showing statues of dozens of familiar Disney characters with their faces smashed in. “There’s something very wrong with Grandpa," says Grandma, looking on, while the kids in the background wear Mickey ears. Not to be outdone, later we see Pim severing one of Bambi's legs.

Comic books are the perfect medium for perverting childhood. They're forever associated with it, no matter how many serious cartoonists wish it weren’t true. Certainly, "concerned parents" prove this a few times a year as they uncover a not-for-kids graphic novel in a public library; hell, I've found Scott McCloud's sequential art textbook Understanding Comics filed away with the childrens’ books more than once. Now we’re all so used to seeing childhood icons -- cartoon animals, classic superheroes, bedtime classics -- corrupted by adult sensibilities that it barely even packs a punch any more. So far, Pim & Francie sounds altogether ooky, sure, but not like anything worth losing a night's sleep over.

It's bizarrely counterintuitive that faster-than-a-speeding-bullet comic book superheroes spring from a medium without movement, and it’s perhaps just as odd that horror comics are so prevalent when they lack so much of cinema's syntax of scare tactics. All it takes is a sudden music sting and a black cat springing out of a kitchen cupboard for a movie to generate a cheap shock. (Not that there isn’t an art to creating a perfect music-and-cupboard-cat sting.) Even something as simple as leaving one side of the frame empty can create a sense of palpable fear, because you know you’re being primed for something to violently fill that empty space.

Let's look at two recent examples of approximating horror cinema-on-paper. First: the recent haunted house graphic novel, Pixu. It’s an artistic jam session between Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá, Becky Cloonan and Vasilis Lolos: each telling individual stories of a house’s odd residents, until these separate storylines begin to overlap in satisfyingly awful ways. It’s beautifully drawn, no doubt, but some scenes don't capture the peculiarities of sequential art. One features a man who is waiting for a telephone to ring. Every day: he showers, shaves, and sits for hours waiting for the telephone to ring. When it finally does? If this was a movie, the sound would eject you clear out of your seat. On paper, though, the words “RIIING RIIING” just sit there, and the moment dies an ineffectual death.

Second: the long-running zombie series The Walking Dead. Its deliberate pacing -- only a year has passed in the comic’s world during the 67 issues published in our own -- gives writer Robert Kirkman the room to better approximate movie techniques on the page. He allows his artists (first Tony Moore, later Charlie Adlard, both underrated) constant use of splash pages. You turn the page, and the latest horrible development smacks you right across the eyes. It's as close as comics can get to a sudden cinematic shock. There’s no denying that it works, but it can also have the unintended side effect of making individual issues seem flimsy, reading a little too quickly.

It’s "slow creep" horror that's a more natural fit for comic books. That's why the quieter moments of Pim & Francie were those that got under my skin. Attacking Bambi with a knife is one thing, but it doesn’t make you feel like you need a shower afterwards. What about a room that’s empty except for what one of those hats with Mickey Mouse ears just lying on the floor? But... who says it's just a hat? In Al Columbia’s world, maybe -- just maybe -- it’s actually poor Mickey's own ears, and all that’s left of him. The book’s full of this kind of imagery, and it hangs in your head long after you close your eyes.

Pim & Francie is brimming with uncertainty. The pages are reproduced with the sticky tape that’s holding them together, and with constant blots and tears obscuring the action. It's like Columbia is pulling apart his own art as you're trying to read it. He flirts with more overt deconstruction, too, in a sequence with word balloons as flat billboards, suspended by ropes above the childrens' heads. Deconstruction is usually seen as distancing you from what you're reading, making you more interested in the twanging puppet strings than the characters or their stories. Here it has the exact opposite effect. It pulls you closer. Even the barely-visible artefacts of erased text only make you lean in to the book to read more closely, just like you might lean forward in a darkened cinema before you see the killer's face.

And this is where the odd, fragmented nature of this collection pays off. Horror can be a game: it wins if it scares you, makes you jump, freaks you the hell out; you win if you predict the next shocking image or twist and remain happily immune. Once you've bought your movie ticket, you're forced to play. You can close your eyes, I guess, or peek through your fingers, but the movie barrels forward nonetheless. (Yes, you can walk out, but you'll be mocked for it, and rightly so.) However, horror comics let you pause at will, or flip quickly past frightening moments. You can see every panel on the page at once, and whatever monsters they might contain are often in perfect focus, too. Comics rig this horror-game in the reader's favour.

Pim & Francie yanks that control away again. Inks fade into pencils and pencils fade into nothing in the same way you can’t see the face of whoever’s chasing you in a recurring nightmare. The whole book feels like a dream. Just like the introduction of Hans Rickheit’s The Squirrel Machine (another recent nightmare of a graphic novel) says: it’s a story that comes from “the underbrain.” Sometimes Columbia offers up a thin thread of narrative for a few pages at a time. The radio tells the children to beware and “...don’t fall asleep!” Their zombie grandparents come to the door. Pim and Francie run upstairs, hide in their bedroom, and then... then nothing. Then we’re adrift again, waiting to grab at the next thread of story between the random snatches of terror.

It makes you realise how the beginning, middle, and end of any story, no matter how traumatic that story might be, can be comforting. Hitchcock knew it, so he killed off his lead character halfway through Psycho and left the audience lost. (Uh, spoiler warning!) Even the supposed shock endings of horror films have become reassuring through repetition. In this post-Carrie world, the urge for One Last Scare isn’t destabilising; it’s the punctuation that lets you know the sentence has come to an end. Applying any traditional narrative logic to Pim & Francie? It’s doomed to failure.

The only certainties are the impish figures of Pim and Francie themselves; even when Columbia wanders away from them to explore other imagery, they inevitably pop up again in the background a few pages later. One murders the other, or together they slash their wrists, but then they always reappear together again. (They’re psychotic, sure, but sweet.) Columbia can’t resist the urge to tear away even that last comforting consistency. The collection ends with “goodbye francie”: with one last wordless speech balloon, she disappears -- and the book ends before she has a chance for resurrection. The one horror story he has left is Pim, left alone.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He's in the middle of a Ph.D. on superhero stories. The only movie he's ever paused because it was too frightening was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Find him at www.martynpedler.com