Al Columbia is one of those cartoonist’s cartoonists whose body of work is as unforgettable as it is slim. His history includes a troubled stint as the artist on Alan Moore’s Big Numbers – a stint which ended with Columbia reportedly destroying a bunch of his art for the book. The incident was just part of the unbelievable history of Tundra Comics, a history still not entirely set down in its final form.
His own comic, The Biologic Show, was a cult classic among comics cognoscenti, known for its disturbing imagery. He spent much of the 90s and 00s behind the scenes, a well liked friend to those who knew him, but kind of a mysterious figure to those who only knew the lurid legends.
But in 2009 he came back with Pim and Francie, another stunningly bizarre and haunting comic that garnered two Ignatz Award nominations and put him back on the map. Mixing the vintage animation-style antics of two tots with mind-numbing dread, it’s a classic in its own right.
And now – he’s back! With AMNESIA: The Lost Films of Francis D. Longfellow, published by Floating World Comics. And it sounds…unusual.
Mention the name of Golden Age animator, Francis D. Longfellow, to even the most die-hard connoisseur of cinema and you’re likely to get a blank stare in reply. How is it that such scant details exist about the Podsnap Studios founder and patented inventor of the Colorvision motion picture process? Rumors of occultism and drug addiction once surrounded the acclaimed filmmaker, yet these notorious scandals have since faded into obscurity.
Al Columbia has endeavored to unearth the mysteries of this reclusive auteur who wrote, animated, directed, and provided voice work for more than 50 animated films over the course of his career.
Columbia’s research began at the Merryville Examiner Microfilm Library. He made contact with surviving Podsnap Studios employee, Freddy Marciano, who granted access to a well kept archive of film negatives.
Needless to say, there is almost certainly no actual animated named Francis D. Longfellow, and so this comic belongs on the shelf next to Seth’s It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken and Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye as an elaborately invented body of work for an imagined creator.
The book has already been praised by Matt Seneca at the Comics Journal.
The kind of blackened, pseudohistorical Americana that Amnesia traffics in has a sizable family tree, stretching across pop culture from Tom Waits and Nick Cave through David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro to James Ellroy and Mark Danielewski. Within comics, Rick Geary and Robert Crumb have laid out their own claims to it. Columbia’s work has a slightly different aura, though; a singlemindedness of purpose and a disinterest in functioning as mere entertainment. Reading Amnesia, I was most forcibly reminded of Chris Ware, whom I’ve always seen Columbia as a dark mirror of. It’s not just that the two share certain inflections of style. Ware too engages in highly self-aware explorations of the dark side of American cartooning’s history, using the tools of a particular trade to disassemble the box he found them in. But where Ware is apt to unearth the strange and ugly before tossing it aside with a nihilistic laugh, Columbia conveys a feeling of utter entrancement to his readers, holding up things long buried to glitter malevolently in the sun.
If that’s to high falutin’ for you, just check out these art excerpts. It’s very odd and very disturbing and all Columbia.
Amnesia: The Lost Films of Francis D. Longfellow
Supplementary Newsletter No. 1
by Al Columbia
24 pages, 11″ x 13″
Full color, $10
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Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.