Gavin Lees on Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

Posted by on January 14th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Justin Green; McSweeney’s Books; $29, 64 pp.; B&W; ISBN: 978-1-934781-55-5

It would be hard to overstate this book’s importance. First published in 1972, it’s largely considered to be the first autobiographical comic (in the English language, at least). It opened the floodgates for Harvey Pekar, Eddie Campbell, Chester Brown, most of Crumb’s ’80s work and… well, you know the rest.  As if this wasn’t enough, Justin Green was also the first to make a comic that would “sell for seven cents…have eight pages in black and white. It’s one single piece of 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper and it’s folded and stapled” making him the father of the Newave movement, too.

Using his stand-in, Binky Brown, Green details here his early childhood experiences with Catholic guilt and how they shaped his adolescence.  It starts innocently enough with Binky/Green’s remorse at breaking a statue of the Virgin Mary, using that to lead-in to how his religious upbringing led to him desperately craving piety, feeling shame at every pubescent sexual impulse.  But, before we know it, his hysteria explodes and he begins picturing his extremities (fingers, feet, nose) as penises that project beams of impurity. This grows into an obsession that debilitates Binky’s ability to function and lead to a turbulent adulthood of therapy, drug use and self-harm.

It’s not only the first instance of autobio comics, then, but also the first example of comics as therapy.  Green uses the opening image of himself as the artist — strung up like hanged man of the tarot, a sickle at his crotch and “Ave Maria” playing on record — setting us up for the self-flagellation to come.  From a modern perspective, it’s painful to bear witness to Binky’s experiences, which are obviously a result of obsessive compulsion, but are dismissed as “neurosis” which only serves to further his anguish and alienate him from the pious identity he had established.

The penises on nearly every page invite an overly-simplified Freudian interpretation of his condition.  It’s no wonder that his psychiatry sessions did little to ease his afflictions.  When Binky does achieve remission — through a totemic shattering of Madonna figurines — the victory is bittersweet.  Although he has conquered the boogey man of the religious idol, his underlying condition remains and it would not be until many years later that Green understood his true disorder.

The new edition of Binky Brown… is a curious beast.  It comes as a lavish oversized hardback, with copious endnotes from Green and a fawning introduction from Art Spiegelman — one of the author’s peers and arguably the one who benefited most from Binky’s influence. “Without [this] work there could have been no Maus,” he prostratedly confesses, while Vonnegut and Fellini pop up to give equally gushing praise.  It’s a context that feels somewhat odd for a single underground pamphlet, but given the importance of the work, it’s forgivable.  The comic itself, however, is a different case.  Having tracked down the original artwork, McSweeney’s opted for facsimile reproduction — yellowed pages, blue pencil, Wite-Out, warts and all. Not at all the pristine, digitally enhanced reprinting we’ve grown used to with the current wave of fetishized volumes of classic comics.

The original art, as an artifact, is quite revelatory.  The large scale is much more impressive than the original 8″x10″, if not intimidating.  It allows us to scrutinize Green’s draftsmanship more closely and the resulting impression is impeccable.  He has beautiful clarity of line and a sense for figures that, while cartoonish and at times exaggerated, borders on the obsessive when capturing their poise and expression.  His rendering, too, stretches the limits of black and white with a combination of cross-hatching, pointillism, Zipatone and chiaroscuro that prefigures the work of just about every ’80s cartoonist. Even with these considerable chops behind him, it’s clear that these were faltering experiments for Green and the early pages are heavy with the taint of abortive sketch lines, paste-up corrections and Wite-Out.  As a meta-technique, it also reveals the aspects of his OCD that served him well. Like the best of Oliver Sacks’ cases, his weakness is also his strength.

Over the 42 pages, the corrections become less of an intrusion as Green comes to grips with his métier.  His storytelling doesn’t quite develop as strongly, however.  Due to the fact that every page works as a self-contained piece (no doubt a result of the comic’s fitful creation) it never really gains momentum and often employs disorientating shifts in time and place from page to page.  As a result, the story — short as it is — feels more like a series of vignettes, rather than a coherent whole.  It’s the one aspect of the book that really doesn’t stand the test of time, still feeling rough and immature.

No matter what faults we can find with it, this book is pretty much impervious to criticism.  That we can follow a line from this to Maus to the recent mainstream acceptance of comics as art is enough to justify its existence.  That it successfully introduced a whole other realm of psychology to comics as well as producing a gorgeous example of comics illustration only serves to cement its importance.

Images [©2009 Justin Green]

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