Memoirs of a Catholic Boyhood
The birth of the comic book autobiography
By Richard von Busack
“I wanted to undertake,” said the late Justin Green (1945–2022), “the responsibility for using this mutant art form for an evolutionary motive.” It’s a typically big idea by the father of autobiographical comics. Green was the first of a small but persistent cadre of cartoonists who use the comic book to tell stories of everyday life.
Don’t take my word for it. Robert Crumb (Green’s only peer as an artist), in the introduction to a new collection of Green’s work, writes that “[Green] was the FIRST, absolutely the FIRST EVER cartoonist to draw highly personal autobiographical comics.”
Almost 25 years after Green exposed his neuroses in Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, the common complaint of some fans is that the small-press autobiographical comic has gone too far — that the quotidian activities of some dweeb cartoonists are so pale, so full of faithfully recorded masturbation and nose picking, that it’s no surprise readers are staying away in droves. The criticism is true, to some extent, and nothing could be drearier than those comics featuring young guys talking about their hopeless crushes or young girls complaining about their weight for page after page.
A rereading of Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, reprinted at long last in Justin Green’s Binky Brown Sampler (Last Gasp, $16.95) shows that this kind of emotional nudity is nothing new. Green (or Brown, his alter-ego) tore the lid off his own pre-Vatican II youth in suburban Illinois during the 1950s.
Even without explicit sex and drug use, his underground comic still became a bestseller in the market of the early 1970s, selling, it is claimed, 40,000 copies. Binky was as much a hero of his era as the Freak Brothers and Mr. Natural. He spoke to something less broad and more deep than the usual concerns of the youth movement, which is part of the reason for the popularity; not everyone, as it turned out, could be a hippie like Phineas, Freewheelin’ Franklin and Fat Freddy, but almost everyone could have deeply conflicted feelings about religion.
The Binky Brown Sampler reprints Green’s true adventures with the True Church, and explains some of the problems he wrote about in the original 1972 edition. His obsessive-compulsive disorder was unheard of 25 years ago, but now, he writes, “even Oprah knows about it.”
This condition lead him to the notion that the extremities of his body — his fingers, his feet and, of course, his penis — gave off rays. He committed unwilling blasphemy every time a ray crossed the path of a church, and he had to take extreme care to make sure the rays never intersected with anything sacred.
Inanimate objects developed a loaded significance. In one story, he tells how a big nail sticking in the side of a rafter in his studio became invested with malign power. It was a nail big enough, he felt, to be used in a gory medieval painting of a crucifixion, and once that image suggested itself, he was doomed. Green may be unusually obsessed, but any Catholic will recognize the condition: deep-down rebellion expressing itself as blasphemous thoughts that must be fought back. (“Homo thoughts about Christ!! I better do some penance,” Binky chokes.) The spiraling sense of shame and fear keeps the reluctant Christian miserable, then as now.
Green’s personal troubles shouldn’t be emphasized at the expense of his art. Everyone who calls Green (or Crumb, for that matter) crazy, even affectionately, is dismissing what both are telling us.
Green’s panels are lush with invention, private jokes and references to half-remembered advertisements and pop culture. At best and at strangest, his comics are a sort of graphic poetry. And even in his most horribly obsessed moments, he demonstrates a sense of distance and perspective, an endearing adolescent silliness to complement the deep adolescent despair. He’s a sarcastic gag writer, which keeps the detailed scoping of his neuroses from turning too self-indulgent.
As an older artist, Green has to some extent made peace with the Church, which is not now, he feels, the same monolith it was in the 1950s. His most famous comic has been unavailable for so long that I suspect he was reluctant to authorize a reprint. Although voicing his concern that Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary is “a sin of youth” — and his concern as a parent that some child might get hold of it — he nevertheless writes, “I hope to retain the quality of the voice, because it was done out of internal necessity.” That necessity may be what’s missing from many of the autobiographical cartoonists.
Originally published in Metro Newspapers, 1995