Al Columbia’s high-octane nightmare fuel

Last night I had a dream in which a shadowy figure appeared at the end of my bed. As it approached me, I aimed my bedside lamp at it and tried to turn it on. My desperation woke my wife, who in turn woke me up and spared me the sight of whatever it was that was tormenting me.

I have no doubt my rare nightmare of shadows was fueled by “Pim & Francie,” Al Columbia’s collection of horrors published by Fantagraphic Books. (If you want to know just who Al Columbia is, Chris Mauntner provides a good overview of his early works.)

Pim and Francie are children trapped in a nightmare world, threatened by knife-juggling multi-armed circus freaks, menaced by murderous (or worse) relatives, walking stiffly past gamboling disemboweled infants and innocent kittens stalking through grass, unaware of their gruesome fates. Then, like The Simpson’s “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons, the lil tykes reappear whole to be threatened and frightened all over again.

Columbia renders these retro figures, if not lovingly then at least accurately. He leaves the backgrounds unfinished or penciled in, as if the artist went made for awhile and committed horrible crimes before returning, panting and bloodied, to his work table.

In his overview of “Creepy ‘alt-horror’ cartoonists” at Robot 6, Sean T. Collins writes that what he likes about Columbia’s work

is how they look like the product of some doomed and demented animation studio. It’s as though a team of expert craftsmen became trapped in their office sometime during the Depression and were forgotten about for decades, reduced to inbreeding, feeding on their own dead, and making human sacrifices to the mimeograph machine, and when the authorities finally stumbled across their charnel-house lair, this stuff is what they were working on in the darkness.

But “Pim & Francie” are not stories. They’re flashes of nightmares, a slide show of one man’s hell, revealing an insane mind and a very creative and doomed soul. Each story carries with it an implied promise that there was order, meaning and purpose underneath it. “Pim & Francie” shatters those promises, and in addition to the unsettling memories implanted by these terrifying images, you can’t help but be concerned about the mental health of the man who created them.