Columbia's Voyage Of Discovery
Who is Al Columbia? Evidently not even Al himself knew for the longest time. You might remember his name if not his work. At the tender age of 19, he broke into comics big-time, when he was hired by Bill Sienkiewicz to be his assistant on Alan Moore’s ten-issue real-world, realistically painted morality play Big Numbers. It was an intense, tempestuous year together.
When Bill found the huge demands and disappointments of the project and crises in his private life piled up too high, he had to quit after only two tantalising instalments in 1990. (In fact, Bill had drawn more; as proof, ten assorted, unlettered pages from his third issue finally saw print in the first, and only, issue of Submedia Magazine in 1999 - how much of these was the work of Columbia, I wonder?). Jon Jay Muth was a suggested replacement; Dave McKean was rumoured.
The daunting two-year-minimum sentence to complete the elaborate illustration demands of Big Numbers fell instead onto ex-assistant Al, just 21, without a single comic to his name. Expectations were stratospheric: this was his ‘lucky’ break, touted as a ‘hot’ new artist, stepping into Sienkiewicz’s shoulder pads, working with Moore on his most personal graphic novel statement, his act of Mad Love, post-Watchmen, post-superheroics. Quizzed by Frank Wynne for the British magazine Comics World No. 6, in 1992, Al came across as self-critical, understandably nervous, perfectionist, but confident nonetheless, insisting, "To me, there is no one else who can do this book."
To hype him, Tundra bankrolled his first one-man colour showcase in 1992, Doghead, drawing and writing three dark stylish tales, indebted to Sienkiewicz and McKean but with hints of his emerging identity. His Big Numbers poster followed. And then, the pressures proved too much. Eddie Campbell’s Alec book How To Be An Artist, a sort of ‘Graphic Novel Babylon’, exposes some of the relationship rollercoaster which ‘Little Wee Al’, drawn by Eddie with a nervous ‘Smiley Face’ head, and ‘Billy the Sink’ were riding through all this (pages 110-116). It reached a head when Al destroyed his completed fourth issue. After this, Big Numbers, and Al Columbia, vanished.
It took two years before Columbia resurfaced in 1994, more modestly in black and white, with The Biologic Show funded by Fantagraphics. As the title implies, this was ‘body humour’ of the darkest kind.
Not every reviewer enjoyed being repulsed. Vincent Aliberti in Crash Magazine #2 in 1995 panned the zero issue as "an array of senselessness. Themes are either inane or non-existent and none seem to progress any sense of story." Al was still developing his own brand of sinister cartooniness, personified in his future leading man, the terrified little Seymour Sunshine. Something very interesting was mutating here. Freeing himself from his Sienkiewicz apprenticeship, his solo drawings were now in hard lines, flayed raw, exposing their more caricatural sinews and those rubbery lips, as he paraded his cast of George Grosz-inspired grotesques through a perverse, fractured vaudeville. In one rave review in The Comics Journal #173, Tom Spurgeon, at the time The Comics Journal‘s Managing Editor, perceived Al’s key new influences of "the Chris Ware/Jim Woodring school of poetic effect".
The next issue promised much, but Columbia discontinued the title after just two issues. His unfinished serial Peloria was announced as a full-length graphic novel due in early 1996, but never appeared. It was in his six recent short stories since 1995 for Zero Zero and Blab!, Fantagraphics’ two Raw/Weirdo-style anthologies, that Columbia has practised his distinct and disturbing voice.
The first, I Was Killing When Killing Wasn’t Cool in Zero Zero #4, is a piece of nightmarish knockabout "with apologies to Max and Dave Fleischer", in which scheming little Knishkebibble the Monkey-Boy and his hapless crony Seymour meet the Devil and die. Largely silent and visual, with as many as thirty-two tiny panels on the page, drawn in bold cartoony brushwork, it breezes by like a sinister flipbook, clearly inspired by Chris Ware’s precision.
The Blood-Clot Boy in Zero Zero #16 applies the same meticulous drawing style to a fable about a boy born out of a clot of blood, who avenges his adoptive parents and then sets about killing off all the bad things in the world. Al narrates this in jaunty storybook fashion in densely typeset captions and hand-lettered balloons, like some nasty Struwelpeter-style primer to terrify children into good behaviour.
Amnesia in Zero Zero #20 marks a further refinement. Al works his flat, outlined Seymour and his pal into what look like soft focussed stills from some vintage black and white animated film. His bigfoot characters scurry about amongst period buildings and backgrounds that are richly textured and photorealist, bathed centre stage in glowing light, but shrouded in threatening shadow in the wings. He bans all speech bubbles and sets his perky text in eye-straining type above the image or in framed boxes. He plunges his two leads into another unnerving Kafka-esque romp, chased by hordes of identical clowns similar to Seymour, but with ghastly, gummy smiles. When Seymour recovers his memory, he realises their pursuers are merely ‘a freakish by-product of my imagination’. No longer afraid, he addresses them as their Captain, but they continue to advance and the open ending leaves the reader expecting the worst.
Al uses a similar approach for Alfred The Great in Zero Zero #26, the sad ‘progress’ from riches and fame to madness of a man born with a huge, prehensile tongue.
For Zero Zero #27, the final issue, he provides both a chilling front cover, of a debonair chimp in suit and tie behind a dinner of nauseating meats glistening on silver platters, and the back cover strip, the last Zero Zero page of all, the chirpily cruel post mortem of a fatal experiment on ‘Cheapy the Guinea Pig’.
It is The Trumpets They Play! in Blab! #10, however, that is Columbia’s most alarming output yet, thrusting poor Knishkebibble and Seymour into St. John’s Book of Revelations, a cartoon apocalypse, a black and white Fleischer Brothers animated film as designed by Hieronymus Bosch. After the Biblical passages, televised sermon and final countdown, Al works without words, crafting some of his most detailed and macabre compositions, charged with dread: in the panic, murder and mayhem pour from every window; Knish runs a bath only to have the water turn to blood; terrible locusts break down their door; and in the story’s largest panel the city, rent asunder, is overrun by smiling, sword-wielding creatures. And through all this, there is the slapstick of his cute duo as they try to flee destruction. The story ends with a transcendent Seymour, now in full colour, in an idyllic pastoral afterlife.
Columbia’s extraordinary new output, the precious little there is so far, cries out to be collected in a larger format to do it justice and bring it to more people’s attention. And there should be more, much more. Al has been working for years on an ongoing colour series, Pim and Francie, his other Biologic Show characters, but no sign yet. Editor Eric Reynolds had been hoping for a contribution to his second Dirty Stories from Fantagraphics last year, but it never materialised; Al’s promised him a cover for the third one instead. Eric tells me Al is actually ridiculously prolific as a writer and drawer, but he finds it so difficult to be satisfied enough with something to let it be published.
Let me address you directly, Al Columbia: I respect your own demands on yourself, I would expect nothing less, but I hope you can somehow continue carving out your singular, disquieting, illuminating path through this medium’s welter of ephemeral product. Not everyone can be expected to paint some epic graphic novel or generate page after page on a monthly basis. And not everyone can conjure up such unforgettable short stories as yours. We never needed another ‘Billy the Sink’ clone anyway. But we really do need Al Columbia, because now he is discovering what sort of visionary cartoonist he might really be.
Posted: October 8, 2006
The original version of this article appeared in The Comics Journal Special Edition - Winter 2002 - Volume 1