Interview with artist Al Columbia about his new book ‘Pim & Francie’
Posted by voidmanufacturing on January 3, 2010
Here is an interview with Al Columbia from ‘The Daily Cross Hatch’
So, what really happened to Al Columbia? Simple, really—he created some comics, for Fantagraphics, did illustration work for the likes of The New York Times, collaborated on with folks like Archer Prewitt, recorded some music, and did design work on The Postal Service’s 2003 debut, Give Up. Oh, and he also recently launched a Website, just in case you’re have some trouble keeping track of all that.
Al Columbia has kept fairly busy for the past two decades, though many people seemingly have some difficulty accepting this fact, judging from the enigmatic air that seems to surround his works in the online community. Maybe it’s dark nature of much of his work—evidenced most recently by the strips that comprise his new book, Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days. Perhaps it’s the artist’s self-describe concentration problem, which has hampered his ambitions of creating longer works.
Columbia can’t say for sure how the notion initially arose, though he’s more than happy to discuss the subject—and nearly anything else, for that matter, including his music, meditation, and his thoughts on Top Shelf’s upcoming re-release of Eddie Campbell’s Alec stories.
Are you doing a lot of interviews, these days?
I did one, but not really. But I guess I’ll do them as they come. Not yet, anyway.
Are people not really asking, yet? Or are you choosy?
I think it’s more a case of your being only the second person to e-mail me. I guess it’s the early stages of it.
Do you think people might consider you difficult to approach about some things?
Possibly, yeah, because I don’t really get asked to do a lot of these. I never really have, either. Which I guess could either be a good or bad thing. I don’t really know. I’ve noticed that. I don’t really understand why, but I think people might have a difficulty approaching me, sure.
There was that whole long running thread on The Comics Journal message board—you seem to almost have this air of mystery about you, at least on Internet.
[Laughs] Yeah, sure. I’ve heard people say that. I’m not sure why. It’s a big mystery to me.
Do you think it might stem from the fact that you don’t put out a book every year?
Possibly. I guess so. I guess for most people, their primary goal as a cartoonist is to publish their work. And certainly that’s the case for me, but in all honesty, it’s kind of been a matter sticking to one thing. I have enormous difficulty sticking to one thing, but all of those vignettes in [Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days] were all attempts make a full-fledged comic and do things right—to put out comics regularly. But it just never really happened that way for me. After a while, I just stopped caring about publishing at all. I just figured I would, eventually. I guess when I loved something enough.
Short of making a film, there are few art forms that require as much concentration for as long as a comic book.
I’m always amazed, and hats off to anyone who can do it regularly and do amazing stuff. I’m really always impressed by that. I just don’t have the concentration. I’m hopelessly distracted all the time. It’s weird, there’s such a silence that occurs when you cartoon. It’s almost like a meditation. Sometimes that can be a strange place to be, so I tend to like to have as many distractions as possible when I’m doing it. just a sort of light fuzz of radio and television. Just to get rid of that strange feeling that occurs. Anyone who can just draw all of the time, I’m amazed by, and I know some people who do, and can’t understand it.
I used to do it all of the time, too, but now I can’t remember doing it [laughs]. Now I don’t really draw, so I don’t know what it’s like to do it all of the time.
Do you just not enjoy the process the way you used to?
No, I just really have to like it a lot. And it’s got to eat at me first, and then I’ll sit down and work on it. But I used to just work every day for hours and hours and hours, and that’s all I really did. Now I don’t so much. I don’t have the focus like in used to. So I have to be more focused about when I’m going to sit down and draw a comic, because it produces such strange feelings. At least in me. I know some people really like that quiet and meditation. But to me it gets eerie, and I just want to get out of there.
Do feel yourself entering that space most of the times that you draw?
Yeah. These days, sure. It’s a full process of just doing a little bit here and a little bit there. It gets to be, at some point, after about four hours or so, I’m in an eerie place. I have to get back to normal. I go spend time with people. I think it could be because I drew so much for so long. I had to step back, or was forced to by something unseen.
Aside from that word “eerie,” that state you’re describing is the sort of thing people invest a lot of time and money into achieving—that meditative mind state.
Right, right. It has its flipsides, I guess. At least for me. I guess I do other forms of meditation. I work in other mediums. I’m always working on something, but I find I complete other things a lot easier. I wrap them up, and I’m done. Comics are such commitment. It’s a little concept that can take you a year. You’re working on the same idea for a really long time.
Comics and writing in generally, you’re sort of like a boy detective. You can go down all of these avenues. Comics you can really start to hallucinate. It’s almost like you’re watching something happen. It’s like watching a movie, and it can be heart-breaking when that gets snatched away and you can’t get back to. You just kind of put it aside. It’s little windows, and I’ve only been lucky enough to sustain that for a few times with regards to publishing. I can’t imagine ever devoting that amount of time to a comic again. Although you never know.
Are there too many places to go, when you sit down to write a story?
Yeah. You just end up with so many ideas you just don’t know what to pick from. Or you’ve got to find some way to put them all in. it’s a weird thing—you just never know where to start, I suppose. You can keep backing up. You’re just constantly rearranging chapters, and it can end up this bizarre mess.
Now that the book is out in the world, do you feel happy with the final product?
Yeah, I am, actually. It all came together quite unexpectedly. It was an easy, fun experience, putting it together—well, not easy. Sequencing the pages took like five or six months. And the heavy lifting, the editing, that was the hard work. But in the end, it went off in a cool way. It felt right. And then I saw the book and I was happy with it—or as happy as I could be, I suppose.
Given how incomplete much of the material is in the book, do you feel like it reads like a cohesive work?
Um, I wouldn’t say—certainly there’s no narrative to the book. I think it’s one of those things that’s more stream of consciousness. There’s no structural narrative. And if there is—if people are getting that out of it, that was entirely unintentional. If there’s some primal or subconscious narrative to it—or a historical vibe—that was produced, I would say, almost accidentally. I just really wanted to find some interesting way to glue these pieces together. So I just started with page one and then just moved on to what seemed like the next one—it’s almost like recording layers or a mixtape. That’s all I did.
It just presents glimpses into the lives of these characters. I guess if it forms a bigger picture, then great.
How much do you know about the lives of these two characters?
Well, you know, funny enough—I suppose when first started drawing Pim & Francie, I just drew it as a goof, to draw my girlfriend and I at the time. I was just trying to draw us at characters. A lot of it was the spirit at the time. It was a girl I was with for a very long time. we have a child together. Francie, I suppose, has always been based on her, and the boy character would have, in some ways, been based on me. But they became their own characters at some point, I guess. They’re just kind of automatically there. So it just started as this fun kind of goofing on my girlfriend and I and our relationship. And then it just kind of grew from there. But some of it’s kind of autobiographical, I guess.
Given the ambiguity of the characters, do you think they might not have translated into a graphic novel, had you sat down and set out to write one?
Possibly, yeah. I wouldn’t know now. You never know. A friend of mine basically convinced me that these pieces would look really neat appearing the way that they did. He’s a really good friend and he’s a really great artist and he convinced me that the pieces would look good like that. he said, “I know you want to finish that, but you should just go this way with it.” I got into it, and I really loved it.
I don’t know if that answers your question. I guess I should say that I don’t really know. I have yet to finish a Pim & Francie story, really.
So, when you working on the pieces that were included in the book, you already knew that they wouldn’t be completed?
No, no. at the time, all of those pieces were meant to be completed. I really wanted to make a comic book out of each and every one of those. I just didn’t have the patience to stick to one thing. I suppose I’d get really excited about another idea. I was just rapidly going through a lot of ideas, instead of just sticking to one. It bugged me out, too. I really wanted to put out a comic. But after a while, I just really stopped caring. I stopped caring about publishing any of it. it didn’t matter. But most of the efforts were intended to be comics.
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.
Now that you’ve had the proper distance from Pim & Francie, are you discovering things in the book that you didn’t initially intend to be in there?
No. I’ve had these pages so long and I’ve seen them so many times that I just look at the book and see printing errors. It’s definitely going to take a long time before I can pick it up and enjoy it on any level. I’m just looking at all of the technical aspects of the production at this point. I haven’t really been able to ingest it at all, at this point. It’s impossible.
Do you think the things that others have read into it will ultimately affect your own feelings about the characters?
Um, no. probably not. I don’t know, actually. It’s hard to say. Maybe. Maybe on reflecting on a certain theme or adding to it, they’ll give me a really good idea or something. You never know. That’s what’s interesting. They could help sharpen an idea that was already there that I didn’t see that clearly. It’s possible. It depends on how much attention I pay to all that. There is a big story I’ve written for the characters, over the years, and I supposed there are details—or subtleties that can be sharpened up. I don’t know.
Has the girfriend—or maybe ex-girlfriend—who inspired the Francie character seen the book?
Oh yeah. Yeah. We’re no longer a couple, but we’re still really good friends—we have a child together. She loves it. She thinks it’s great. And she was, in a lot of ways, a big part of it. Her spirit really does run through it really strongly. The one thing I did notice, looking through it, is that the Pim character is always following her. She’s always the one marching forward. That was the one thing I noticed that I never noticed actually doing the book.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on all kinds of stuff. I’m doing short films and building sound for those right now. I am working on a Pim and Francie, but I just get a panel done every few days. It’s a short process of drawing, but it seems to be getting done, slowly but surely, which is a novel idea. Just keeping the pace with that. We’ll see what happens. It’ll be a good winter, I know that. it seems like we’re heading into a good winter, in terms of working and drawing and stuff.
Are you past the point where you feel able to collaborate with people on work?
No. I collaborate all the time with people. I’m constantly working on something with somebody in different ways.
Are there certain projects that you just can’t hand over to other people?
In terms of publishing?
In terms of, say, an unfinished Pim and Francie strip.
Oh, probably not with the Pim and Francie stuff. I couldn’t imagine somebody else drawing them. I guess there is a lot I couldn’t let out of my sight, yeah. Right now, anyway. I’m working on a few stories. I find these stories that I’ve written that might fit a certain cartoonist’s style. It’s not something I would ever draw, but it’s something I want to see done, so I’m working with a few cartoonists on what’s almost a picture book. Strange little children’s stuff. But I guess the Pim and Francie stuff is nearer and dearer to my heart. I can’t imagine letting someone else do that. it would feel too weird.
Who are you working with on those picture books?
Jeremy Smith, he’s a cartoonist who lives in Texas. And I’m working with Jonathan Adams of City Cyclops. I believe he and I will finish a project at some point.
He posted a really interesting interaction on his blog.
Oh yeah, that was fun. It was like three years ago, we mentioned that we were doing this thing.
Was that a play on this idea that you have trouble finishing works?
Sure, yeah. And he knows me pretty well. Yeah, I guess it’s truer than I’d like it to be, maybe [laughs].
People no doubt piece information together about you based on what they find online. Do you think anyone took that seriously?
That’s the funniest thing, that anyone would think it wasn’t a joke. It’s all a mystery. People are funny, I guess.
Do you enjoy having something of an enigmatic presence?
Well, you know, from day to day, I don’t feel very enigmatic. Everyone who know me knows pretty well. I don’t really walk around being Mr. Mysterious. Just the opposite, actually. I’d prefer a little more mystery in my life. I guess I can’t get deep enough underground, at some points. I want to dig a hole under my house. Just get a real basement going, and chill out under there. I don’t know if I enjoy it or not—it doesn’t really manifest itself for me. I hear about it, and just get kind of annoyed about it.
So you don’t follow the message board stuff?
Not religiously, but it is something that you dip your head into, every now and again. You just kind of see where it goes. Sometimes it can be kind of weirdly infuriating. It can be weird and strange. “How dare they?” But in other cases you just learn to laugh about it. But if it’s there and it’s about you, it can be hard not to look. But actually there’s a lot of stuff good and bad that I just don’t pay attention to.
What are your thoughts on the rerelease of Eddie Campbell’s [Alec]?
Oh, I don’t really care. It’s Eddie Campbell, you know? It’s his book. It’s his thing. I don’t really think about it much.
Did it affect you when it first came out?
No, not really. I don’t really care. I mean, it doesn’t really affect my every day life. It’s not like, “oh my god, Eddie Campbell put me in his book.” I don’t care—it’s Eddie Campbell. What do I care? It might affect me if I actually knew the guy. I might be offended. But it’s kind of hilarious.
Did you read it? Did you like it as a book?
Yeah, it’s good. I don’t know. I mean, in some ways it was funny. I liked it about as much as I like anything. I’m really terrible at watching movies and reading books—I don’t pay too much attention to anything. I just don’t have the attention span.
Is music still a big part of your life?
Yeah, in a very unpredictable way. You never know when you’re going to record something. You just do it, and if it seems cool, you play it for people. But it’s this part of my life that I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing it forever. I kind of can’t not do it.