Al Columbia Interview
Saturday, June 5, 2010
Last fall, not long after Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days was published, I interviewed Al Columbia. I thought he might be a tough subject, reticent to talk about his work and himself, but he was quite the opposite: thoughtful, friendly, and easy to talk to. I liked him quite a bit, in fact. If you haven’t already bought the book, do it now.
NICOLE RUDICK: How often do you work during the day?
AL COLUMBIA: Pretty much from when I get up till I go to bed.
You draw all day?
That, and other things. These days, I don’t draw as much as I did a couple years ago. A couple years ago, I would work from when I got up to when I went to sleep, but that would either be a very long day or two days in a row. I spent a lot of time pushing that, going into two days and getting very little sleep and waking up and doing it again. I became very obsessed with what I was doing at the time. For many years, I wasn’t getting very much sleep. I was just working, working, working, working—until it just seemed to turn in on itself, and it became a weird experience to draw, a little less pleasurable. Not that it’s always pleasurable—it’s hard work—but it seemed to scrape at something inside—deep inside, actually—that made me uncomfortable. So I don’t draw as much as I used to.
When did you start?
Really young, very, very young, two or three. I remember seeing Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz, on the television and falling in love with her. I tried drawing her face, and I remember it didn’t look right. So I drew it again, and it didn’t look right, and I drew it again. I got really upset: I kept drawing her face over and over until I got it as best I could, so I could remember her until next year, when she was on TV again. Back then, they would only show The Wizard of Oz once a year, so that was the only time I would get to see Dorothy. I was kind of heartbroken.
After that, did you take it seriously as something to do?
That was when I took it seriously. I wanted to get better as an artist very young. I wanted to be able to draw well and to tell stories. I’m amazed I ever graduated high school or got through any school because I never did my homework. I think they passed me because they didn’t want to deal with me again. I showed up for class, and they let me draw.
What sorts of things did you draw?
For some reason, even at a very early age, very violent comics. They were always dark, I suppose—for a kid, especially. I think my parents were a little worried. They were very graphic horror images. If I looked at them now, I’d think they were funny, but they’ve always been of a dark nature.
Why do you think you were drawing dark, violent comics at a young age? Were you influenced by something you were reading or watching?
Partly that, and partly, I suppose, for me, it was dark time. . . . My dad, for some reason, didn’t have the sense that a child shouldn’t see horror movies. He took me to see a lot of horror movies when I was a kid, or I’d get to see them on TV or HBO. He didn’t seem to have that filter: “Oh yeah, maybe he shouldn’t watch that. It could be disturbing.” So I was exposed to a lot of very disturbing images at a young age, which later in life came back in a strange way to haunt me, which I would never have expected.
In what way did they haunt you?
Intrusive thoughts of a violent nature haunted me, made me pretty sick, actually, for a few years. I couldn’t get them out of my head.
Images from those films?
I believe they had to have been, or the movies had to have influenced something. They were unwanted images. They weren’t fantasies but constant terrifyingly violent images or ideas piercing into my everyday life. I’d be watching TV and the next thing you know the newscaster . . . I would imagine, without warning, something bad happening to the people on TV or to somebody I knew. I couldn’t really look at someone without them immediately becoming dismembered or in some way murdered in my head.
Does that still happen?
No, not anymore. But it happened for a good three-year period, about three or four years ago, where I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t work on anything. I almost couldn’t function properly in everyday life. I never knew when it would happen. Not only were they scary images, but there was a spiritual quality to it that made me feel like something was in jeopardy, something wasn’t right with me.
And they seemed real?
Yeah, it was very scary.
Did it just stop one day, or gradually?
Gradually, with lots of visits to psych wards and hospitals and the like. I began to hallucinate, too, which is a weird thing because you always imagine it’s going to be something you’ll recognize as not being real. But for me, these things looked real and seemed normal. It made sense that they would be there. And other people would tell me they weren’t there. It’s the strangest thing: They look real, they sound real, but they’re not there. Over the last three or four years, I’ve been going in and out of hospitals trying to figure it out.
Have you come to some kind of understanding of what’s there and what isn’t?
I never know. I wouldn’t know. It’s not as intense now. It really was like living in a different world, a different place for a little while. It seems like it’s back to normal. I haven’t seen anything that alarms me, but for all I know I’ve seen some things that aren’t there. I don’t know.
Did drawing help in getting through those periods, in making sense of what was going on?
No, I think it actually induced those periods. I think that, at this point, drawing will make me sick. I don’t draw much anymore, because I start to get those feelings again. I’m envious of anyone who can sit and draw all day. I have cartoonist friends who say, “Oh yeah, I got lots of drawing done last week.” And I think, “How do you do that? How do you sit down and concentrate?” I don’t remember how to do that. So I really don’t draw much. A very little bit at a time. Once I get into it, this noise starts to build up in my head, like a bunch of angry bees. It’s a painful experience. I don’t find any solace or meditation or peace in it. It seems to open up too much.
Do you derive any pleasure from drawing?
There is some, but not for me lately. Maybe that’ll change with time. Maybe I’m still too close to what happened. It always was a pleasurable thing, an intense thing, a fun thing, and that seemed to taper off and be replaced by something a little more unpleasant, uncomfortable.
After Big Numbers, you returned in 1994 with The Biologic Show. What prompted you to do those two issues?
I felt very obsessed with doing it. It felt like I was discovering something with it, and it was interesting to me to keep exploring. I did it without any idea that someone would publish it. It came from spending a winter here at the house by myself, which I’ve done many times. But this was a particularly excruciatingly lonely winter, and I didn’t have anything else to do really. It’s strange how you look back on something like that with a certain fondness. I remember at the time it was a pretty terrible winter; I wouldn’t want to go through it again. But I sent it to Kim Thompson [at Fantagraphics], and he said he’d publish it. I wish I’d done a better job . . .
By the next year, with “I Was Killing When Killing Wasn’t Cool,” you had adopted a cleaner, more precise style, one that resembled the Fleischer Brothers’ animated cartoons from the 1920s. How did this style develop?
The weird thing was, the second chapter to a story I was working on, called “Peloria,” with Pim and Francie, just started to change. It just started to get a lot cleaner. Plus, someone introduced me to the Koko the Clown cartoons, because they said one of my characters reminded them of this other character. So I became interested in the cartoons and watched them over a couple nights, and I guess that did it for me. I was kind of obsessed. They were just so dark and weird, so primal. Something about them really inspired me.
But it the second issue looked so different that it just didn’t look right, it didn’t look consistent, and it didn’t feel right to keep putting out that same comic book, to try to tell a story where the style is mutating. I was still very much developing, I was still young. I don’t know, maybe the third issue would have looked even more different. I really wasn’t ready to do a comic book all the time and publish it four times a year, or however many times a year, and stick to that. I guess I realized then that that’s not for me. I can’t do anything like that.
I imagine it’s tough to stick to a high-frequency publishing schedule.
It is tough, and hats off to anyone who can do it. But I think it can also help to make strange decisions or motivations, to have to stick to a deadline, especially with something like comics. They’re so much work, and for me, I never know when I’m going to finish it. I work the opposite when pressure’s on me. I freeze up almost. I’m more likely to get bent out of shape about the small things, not the big things. With something really major or life threatening or catastrophic—I handle that a lot better than “Oh my God, I’m going to miss my deadline!” They can’t execute you. You miss a deadline, you miss a deadline. It’s important, but it started to warp my motivations. “I gotta get this done” more than “What am I doing?”
Many writers, novelists for instance, largely write according to their own ability to produce books. Marilynne Robinson, who published her first and second novels thirty years apart, is a great example. To put a strict time frame on that kind of creative work and to demand it regularly seems unreasonable. The same seems true for comics. Certainly, some people can put out monthly comics, just as some novelists can put out a book a year, but to demand work according to a specific schedule seems a bit irrational. And yet you, more so than perhaps anyone, have been held accountable for long absences in your career.
I think that’s just a lot of people who have nothing better to do. I can’t imagine caring that much whether someone releases work, but some people really get upset about it and expect things of you. I guess also they don’t take into account that maybe there are other factors involved and that maybe for them, putting a comic out every month is really important and is what they want to do. It’s a lot of projection. I don’t know what to make of it, but it’s a strange thing. I didn’t know I was expected to put a book out again ever, for the rest of my life. I didn’t know that was part of what I was supposed to do. It’s not that I didn’t want to put stuff out, it’s that I couldn’t. I was too messed up to be a professional cartoonist, whatever that means.
Do you have a hard time finishing work, saying it’s done and letting it go?
Only with comic books, because they take so much time. For so many months, you’re stuck on one idea or one concept, and it seems like too much time to be dwelling on one thing. For me, it starts to eat in on itself. I lose all power of discrimination; I don’t know if it’s any good anymore. So it’s a lot easier to say, “Eh” and toss it aside. At the beginning, I’m really into it, but then you come to a point where you realize the whole day you’re going to be drawing doorknobs. And I start to think, “I don’t care how cool this thing I’m working on is, I don’t want my whole day to be about this doorknob.” It’s like sitting still and looking at the trees for fourteen hours. Do you want to do that? Or “Wow, I’m drawing bricks all day. This is fun.” I could see doing that for a single piece, but I started to get into painting the backgrounds more and more and doing one or two of them a day, when now, it would take me a week to do one of those. I was very ambitious, and I couldn’t realize each and every idea I had, and I couldn’t pick which one was worthy of my time. I had so many ideas, so many stories, and I didn’t know which one to work on. These aren’t the feelings I want to be experiencing, so it’s easier to jump around and work on the cool things I really want to work on, and hopefully one of them will get done someday.
How did the characters Pim and Francie come about?
Pim and Francie are based on, I suppose, myself and my longtime girlfriend—which is kind of a weird thing to do, to base a character on someone when you don’t know how long you’re going to be together. They were inspired, I suppose, by the adventures we used to have when we were young. A lot of her spirit runs through it all. She’s the muse of the whole thing, or the inspiration for it.
Are you still together?
No. We were together a long time, like fifteen years. We have a child together and we’re friends and all that. But we’re no longer a couple.
But you still draw Pim and Francie?
They have a life of their own now. At this point, they’re not really the two of us anymore; they’re their own thing. So, yeah, I can still draw Pim and Francie. They’re a lot of fun to draw. Almost too much fun. You start to get intoxicated working on them. It’s like, “This is too much fun. This shouldn’t be allowed. This shouldn’t be legal.” I always put it aside because it just gets me too . . . they’re very intense and fun and maybe fun upsets me. I don’t know. But after a while I feel I have to work on something more serious, something different just to balance out all that fun. Sometimes, when you’re having too much fun, you feel like you’re in that Pinocchio movie, where all the kids are going crazy and they turn into donkeys.
When you say that they’re based on the experiences you two had, one assumes you’re speaking metaphorically. So where does the darker line come from?
I suppose in many ways our relationship was a little dark. I don’t know how to explain it. I guess it seems that there is a certain amount of violence within relationships. Not literal violence, but psychological. You can be tormented by another person; you can torment them. You can hate someone for loving you. You can hate someone because they know you better than anyone. Someone very close to you who you love dies, and eventually you could come to a point where you hate them for existing at all because they make you hurt. I don’t know where all the violence comes from. You know someone for fifteen years, you fall into certain patterns with one another that can be destructive or fun. In our case, it was both: a lot of fun and joyful, but it had its dark side too, like any relationship.
Did you consciously decide to expand that idea of violence into something literal? Or do you think that when you started creating the stories, that’s how it came to the surface?
I think it probably came to the surface. I can never think that far ahead about what I’m going to do. For me, it’s all a matter of a certain feeling I have, a certain image in my head, a certain resonance. I’m not obsessed with violence or even looking at violence. I can’t even see anything violent on TV or read disturbing materials. I’m not into that kind of stuff. I can handle what I draw, I guess, because I’m the one drawing it. I guess the fun of the Pim and Francie stuff is that it makes those violent images fun. There’s something about them that doesn’t quite disturb me. It produces a kind of high or intense feeling that, to me, is kind of cool. But I don’t find those images, at least in the Pim and Francie book, to be all that particularly disturbing. I guess that’s because I’m desensitized to my own images.
I really haven’t even looked at the book yet. I flipped through it, but they’re like invisible pages to me. I’ve done the work over so many years that I’m so used to seeing them, and now it’s almost like a book of blank pages. I can’t absorb it the same way someone else can.
Did you select the drawings that went into it?
Yes, I put it altogether myself. It took me about five months to sequence the pages, initially just so they’d have some kind of cool flow. I wasn’t trying to make any narrative. I just tried to have the bits flow into one another—the fragments and vignettes—so that if you to read it from page 1 to the end, it would have some kind of neat flow. It was a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of editing and arranging. A lot of material didn’t end up in it, but this seemed to make the best book without being ridiculously over long or too short. I just wanted to make something that seemed pretty cool to me and hopefully other people would like it, too. For the longest time, I never would have thought I’d publish that stuff. I thought I’d either have to redraw it or finish it, and eventually it would be a proper, spanking new thing.
So it’s not arranged chronologically or according to a narrative?
There might be some kind of narrative, or at least you’re getting a history of the characters, little glimpses of their adventures. Even if it’s just one image, it might speak of something larger, and I guess that’s what I was really into about it: not necessarily explaining everything or giving too much away—just enough so that maybe you could imagine what else might come of a scene, even though I don’t show it. I like things that speak of something larger but that you can’t really access unless you use your imagination. A single image can say a lot more sometimes than a whole comic can. I didn’t want to direct people’s thoughts too much.
Paul Karasik has made one of the most interesting comments about the book so far. He described reading it as a gestalt exercise, in which the reader’s mind fills in the gaps. In reading it the first time, that’s exactly what I did—perhaps it’s simply the impulse to make sense of what’s there. Still, that process isn’t unlike reading your other stories, in that there’s some level of narrative, but oftentimes it doesn’t entirely explain characters’ motivations and it doesn’t work toward a definite conclusion (getting chopped to bits doesn’t mean the end of a character, for instance), so the reader is left to imagine what the larger logic may be. Narrative is a remnant; it isn’t the point.
I suppose not. I’ve written stories where that is the case, where characters develop, but I could never devote that much time to making them into comic books. That doesn’t seem important to me. Life isn’t like that really. As long as I’ve known people, they’re still a mystery to me. I don’t know why they do what they do. I’ve never really thought of myself as a writer. I write, but I wouldn’t know how to put together a novel or develop characters. Dan Clowes is really great at that. His characters always seem to have arcs, and there’s a humanity to his work that’s really great. At the same time, his characters are so weird, because they’re like living psychological models or neuroses come to life. They’re like something from a dream—that’s what I like, too, that they’re more from a dream than real life.
People, to me, are funnier when they’re bent on one thing or obsessed with one thing. Most of my friends are that way; most people I know are like that. They are who they are, and if they’re going through something incredible in their lives and they’re developing, I wouldn’t know about it, because they’re just doing the same shit all the time. They either upset me in the same way all the time, or they make me happy in the same way all the time. You can see progression, but I never see anyone change that much.
Odd things appeal to me but not overly odd. I like things that look very normal on the surface but aren’t. It could be anything: a gleam in the eye, your corner grocer could be a witch. Like in Rosemary’s Baby, all the Satanists just look like normal people; there’s just something a little off about them—which makes things a lot scarier, when you can’t identify the threat. And it could be anything: Inanimate objects can be frightening to me, just the way they’re sitting on the table, the way the light hits them. That’s what I try to get across, the things I like to draw but don’t always have the patience to explore in a comics narrative. You can get so obsessed with doing comics, and people think you’re crazy because all you want to do is draw. The main thing is, I can’t be alone anymore—the solitary confinement of it, sitting alone and working on comics all the time, which I did for years and years. Now, I need things going on around me to work on comics, almost as many distractions as possible. I start thinking about too much stuff.
This kind of nuance reminds me of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, trapped in an ideological dilemma and his slow psychological turn. You get the feeling that it could happen to anyone.
What I learned from having spent so many years in and out of the local psych ward, the seventh floor of the hospital in the town I live in, is that anyone can end up there. A lot of my life, the more I think about it, has been moments of “I can’t believe this is happening. Did I make this happen to me? This seems like I went off the rails, into another dimension, and I wish I were back over there.” Being in the hospital in one of these places is nightmarish, frightening, and weird; people aren’t supposed to be in places like that. And you’re in a lockup, so you can’t leave. I became one of these people you see in movies in the background, those extras just pacing back and forth. It’s not a healthy place to be, and they don’t help you very much. And many times I was there against my will. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like something was happening to me that wasn’t right and didn’t feel normal. At the same time, so many people there, you hear their stories, and it seems like it could happen to anyone.
There’s a consistent sense in your work, and perhaps it’s made more so by the fragmentary nature of Pim and Francie, that there’s always something going on that the reader isn’t seeing, isn’t aware of. That’s partly what makes the scenes in the book so terrifying. It’s a hallmark of horror movies, but given your very psychological approach, I wonder if it’s also scary because it’s an issue in real life—the extent to which we’re in control of our own actions, our own thoughts, where we end up.
That’s something that scares me all the time. It’s been a consistent feature of my life: the uncertainty, never having a feeling of home, even though I’ve been in this house since I was about seventeen. But it always feels like it could be taken away. There’s always this sense of things going awry, turning down a dark road for a while, and then things seem to get better. But I won’t buy into that extreme optimism anymore about the future, because things always take a screwy turn for me—always, with everything. There’s never anything I can look forward to and believe that it will actually happen. I’m always surprised if it does. I guess I’m just waiting for a normal life.
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