August 21, 2019
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite comic books, comic strips, and graphic novels.
The 1972 underground classic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary may be the most influential comic book you’ve never heard of. It’s the first autobiographical comic book produced in America, a genre that now floods the upper shelves of your local bookseller’s “Graphic Novel” section, a whole corner of that cool comix store, and just about the entire backlist of Fantagraphics Books. Also: It belongs with the great works of religious skepticism, right up there with the writings of David Hume and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Also: It cratered my 15-year-old mind while ruining me for anything resembling conventional comics.
The book tells the barely pseudonymous saga of artist Justin Green’s upbringing in 1950s suburban Chicago — specifically, the obsessive-compulsive disorder that arose from the collision between his devout childhood Catholicism and his raging adolescent hormones. In 40 pages and dozens of queasy pen-and-ink drawings, Green’s tormented stations of the cross are explored, from the erotic thrill of seeing a strand of hair escape his favorite nun’s wimple to the terrified certainty that his hands, feet, and crotch were sending out invisible “penis rays” that might intersect with a church or Madonna statue and thereby doom him to Hell.
It turns out there’s a name for this compulsion — Scrupulosity. Who knew? Probably every Catholic kid, even if not all of them take it to the lengths of Binky Brown, whom Green shows constructing elaborate private rituals and nonsense code-words like “Noyatin” to ward off taboo thoughts. As someone raised in the somnolent fields of New England Congregationalism, where my religious training mostly consisted of gluing dried pasta to cardboard and spray-painting it gold, the psychosexual catechismic shit-show of Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary was supposedly terra incognita. Yet the sense of a serious young lad swallowed alive by some sudden beast within, a development equally ludicrous and fearsome, was not unknown and not just by me. Federico Fellini was rumored to be a fan of the comic. Which made sense.
Without the, um, seminal Binky Brown, would Harvey Pekar have kept his brilliant banalities to himself instead of bringing them to life in the groundbreaking ’80s alt-comic American Splendor? Would Marjane Satrapi have committed Persepolis to page instead of panel? Would Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home have remained undrawn, unstaged, unknown?
Would Aline Kominsky have drawn Goldie, A Neurotic Woman within months of Binky Brown in 1972 and would her soon-to-be husband (and underground comix godhead) R. Crumb have started delving more deeply and personally into his own Id? Would Green’s friend and fellow ink-stained rebel Art Spiegelman have worked up the nerve in 1973 to draw Prisoner on the Hell Planet, the first stirrings of what would become Maus?
For those of us who wandered into Green’s mindscape of sin and remission primed by Crumb’s Zap Comix, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary was the final proof that American graphic narratives — OK, cartoons — were capable of mining layers of human experience far beyond the muscle-bound power fantasies of the mainstream.
Today, of course, the Marvel mainstream is everywhere. Yet Green’s creation is still out there, for sale on eBay or on a counter at a comics convention or in a box behind the register at that cool comix store. And Binky Brown still burrows away, termite-like, under the skin of a repressed pop culture. You say “Excelsior.” I say Noyatin!
SERIOCOMIC: Mimi Lipson on LITTLE LULU | Sara Ryan on AMPHIGOREY | Gary Panter on THE NUT BROS./THE SQUIRREL CAGE | Gordon Dahlquist on POGO | Robert Wringham on VIZ | Matthew De Abaitua on CAPTAIN BRITAIN | Jessamyn West on FUN HOME | Bradley Peterson on HELLBOY | Stephanie Burt on KITTY PRYDE RETURNS | Jenny Davidson on OOR WULLIE | Luc Sante on MARSUPILAMI | Susan Roe on BLOOM COUNTY | Marilyn Berlin Snell on CHARLES ADDAMS | Deb Chachra on ARKHAM ASYLUM | Judith Zissman on ERNIE POOK’S COMEEK | Alexandra Lange on BETTY (ARCHIE) | Catherine Newman on VERONICA (ARCHIE) | Josh Glenn on SPIRE CHRISTIAN COMICS | Adam McGovern on THE CREW | William Nericcio on ERRATA STIGMATA | Chelsey Johnson on DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR | Sherri Wasserman on TANK GIRL | Tom Nealon on MEGATON MAN | Erin M. Routson on THE WEDDING OF SCOTT SUMMERS & JEAN GREY | Douglas Wolk on FRANK IN THE RIVER | Annie Nocenti on DICK TRACY | James Parker on 2000 AD | Adrienne Crew on NUTS | Vanessa Berry on MEAT CAKE | John Holbo on WITZEND | Michael Campochiaro on SPIDER-WOMAN | Miranda Mellis on RED SONJA & BÊLIT | Michael Grasso on THE NEW MUTANTS | Ty Burr on BINKY BROWN | Bishakh Som on AMAR CHITRA KATHA | Mark Kingwell on CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED | Brian Berger on JIMBO | Kenya (Robinson) on AGENT 355 | Seth on THE ETERNALS ANNUAL | Susannah Breslin on SLASHER | Lisa Kahlden on JACK CHICK TRACTS | Mandy Keifetz on KRAZY KAT | Tom Devlin on DUM-DUM POSSE READER | Eric Reynolds on ACTION COMICS #460 | Rick Pinchera on EIGHTBALL #16 | Juan Recondo on DAYTRIPPER | Elizabeth Foy Larsen on ROZ CHAST | J.E. Anckorn on HALO JONES | Deborah Wassertzug on GREAT POP THINGS | Peggy Nelson on MAD MOVIE SATIRES | Holly Interlandi on ANGEL SANCTUARY | Karen Green on THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS.
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