The following interview deals with frank depictions of adolescent sexuality and is intended for mature readers.
Discoveries in the field of psychology in the past 100 years – and even the last 50 or 25 years – have vastly changed the ways we interpret human behavior, and the formerly specialized language of science has become commonplace to such a degree that it is often used as slang. In 1972, when Justin Green first published “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” with underground publisher Last-Gasp Eco-Funnies, obsessive-compulsive disorder had yet to be discovered and defined. The book, which recounts Green’s struggle to protect the icons of his Catholic faith from his adolescent sexual thoughts given form, is considered the first autobiographical comic book. The story was reprinted in 1995’s “Justin Green’s Binky Brown Sampler” from Last Gasp. A new edition from McSweeney’s Books was released last month in an oversized hardcover format, with a new introduction by Art Spiegelman and afterword by Green. CBR News spoke with Green about the book, its creation, and managing OCD.
“Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” follows Green’s avatar Binky through the artist’s boyhood and youth as he becomes increasingly preoccupied with religious symbols, particularly a statue of the madonna, while simultaneously becoming fearful of his own sinful thoughts. Binky begins to imagine that his penis is constantly emitting a “ray,” which extends for a great distant and could thus desecrate church or holy object he happens to be facing. His life becomes a constant struggle to avoid offending the Holy Virgin. Things get worse when Binky starts to see these rays emanating from his fingers, feet, the arms of a chair – essentially, any roughly cylindrical object.
Green’s story opens with an image of the artist/narrator addressing the reader while bound and hanging from the ceiling with a rather menacing weapon positioned below. “The figure is a very conscious emulation of the old EC Crypt Keeper. This grisly character began many a tale with a long-winded tirade. As adolescents, we could barely understand the depth of her verbal twists and turns; nor could we plumb the depths of her mean-spiritedness,” Green said. “But this was also a custom Tarot card, just as the cover and back cover were. This narrator guy is The Hanging Man.
“It was also a convenient device that I could reference throughout the tome. Sometimes the use of narrative text boxes can become extremely uninviting to read – and distinctly uncomiclike. So by referencing that tormented guy I spiced up the text heavy areas and brought the flashback story back into the present tense.”
During the creation of “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” Green blamed Catholicism for the manifestation of his “rays,” a position he relented from once obsessive-compulsive disorder had been discovered. Still, he said, the practice of faith can sometimes feed into the disorder. “There are many aspects of organized religion which run parallel to compulsive neurosis, yet only those children ‘hard-wired’ with a propensity for being overly scrupulous seem to become enmeshed – even possessed – by the rigors of compulsive prayer and ritual. If I had been raised in any other culture, I would still be consciously dealing with the trauma of submitting wholeheartedly to a belief system,” Green said. “I guess I’m lucky I wasn’t raised in India. The panorama of Hindu deities would have supplanted a neurosis so spectacular that the mere ‘rays’ might seem simple by comparison.”
Green has described the creation of “Binky Brown” as something of an attempted exorcism, trying to get rid of what the artist called his neurosis. While the effort was not entirely successful, Green can nevertheless now manage his disorder. “I still have residual reflexes to an experience endured more than half a century ago, but I face them squarely whenever possible. I have found that sobriety helps in this regard,” Green told CBR. “After decades of pot smoking and liberal use of alcohol, I find the everyday mind is more impervious to irrational thought. Of course, there are fewer scintillating moments. These highs now come at unexpected times, from my art and music and personal interactions. To truly get down with one’s actual thoughts is somewhat akin to being on the acid of yore (disclaimer: I am not promoting use of psychedelics or chemicals, with the exception of coffee).
“The creation of ‘Binky Brown’ was only one phase in my spiritual development, which I erroneously felt to necessitate an ‘exorcism,'” Green continued. “I mentioned [in the afterword] that my cousin had directed that famous film [‘The Exorcist’]. Perhaps the thought of a sudden release from suffering weighed too heavily on me. It’s a slow process. Buddhist meditation definitely helps, too.”
In Green’s afterword to the McSweeney’s edition, the artist recalls seeing a cartoon by Robert Crumb that instantly revitalized his dormant passion for comics. With Crumb as inspiration, Green experimented with his illustration work in search of his own “inherent and automatic style as a conduit for the chimerical forms in my own psyche.” He soon found himself in the San Francisco underground publishing scene of the early 1970s, where Ron Turner, himself new to independent publishing, financed Green’s longform project.
“What allowed me to see print with my fledgling efforts was the accessible and gritty offset press – just a notch away from Xeroxing,” Green told CBR. “The ‘Counter Culture’ needed constant cheap content. By today’s standards, I was working for no more than $2 per hour. There was also precious little editing. I learned in public.
“I still get a kick out of typing and seeing the words appear in an actual font (or typeface, as we used to say). Before the computer, it was really a challenge and kind of expensive, too, to get your words set in type. The blocks of copy would come back, often with typos. Inevitably this meant rubber cement work or returning to the typesetter. They were largely unionized, and did not take kindly to the freewheeling use of profanity and obscenity so rampant in the new Underground. It wasn’t uncommon, outside of the Underground ghetto, to have your typewritten draft refused for production! Sometimes I wonder if I gravitated to the cartoon form just to avoid letting a middleman have input into my writing.”
The McSweeney’s edition of “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” is a deluxe hardcover book, a far cry from the comic’s original presentation. “I was surprised at how the context changed the original intention of the project. What was originally conceived and produced as ephemera (the humble comic) now has the permanence of literature,” Green said. “Even by the standards of modern printing technology, the production values of the McSweeney’s version are extremely high. I worry (or ‘perseverate,’ the neurotic version of fretting) that the message may be changed by the lofty showcase. The tale is ultimately about re-integration with the social world; it’s not about the self aggrandizement of one individual, who for all his faults and shortcomings is at least making an attempt to comprehend the basis of his suffering.
“It was a challenge to others, too. I was leading by bad example. What are you hiding?”