Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green

Categories:  Reviews

Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
By Justin Green
McSweeney’s

justingreenbinkycover“It’s nice to have accolades,” writes the author, in the afterword to this latest edition, “even if they are not quite true.” Justin Green is being modest, of course. The past 37 years have, perhaps, taught the artist how to accept a compliment—even if he doesn’t entirely buy into its validity. But even with just under four decades’ worth of lauds, there’s no doubt still something downright overwhelming in McSweeney’s lovingly compiled tribute to Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary.

Let’s start, naturally, with the back cover, wherein, of the four names present, Chris Ware is unquestionable the least well known. The indie comics god gladly caps off his blurb with the words “Thank God for Binky Brown. And Thank God for Justin Green.” Robert Crumb similarly gushes, writing, in part, “Justin Green is the first and the best!” The exclamation mark is his. The other two quotes? They’re not verbose—or earnest—but, well, they’re from Kurt Vonnegut and Federico Fellini.

And then there’s the matter of the foreword, penned by Art Spiegelman, a long time Green fan who in many ways helped proved the impetus for this book. The Maus author, it seems, has some difficulty keeping his enthusiasm for the work to a single page.

For those of us who entered the fray long after Binky Brown first went out of print, such unbridled passion from the pens of heroes is perhaps a touch overwhelming—especially on the heels of years of critical fawning for the work that “started it all.”

There’s something comforting in Green’s modesty—I might even go so far as to recommend starting from the back, using it as a preface rather than an epilogue. There’s a good deal of perspective to be gained in his words. It’s not that Justin Green feels that his seminal work isn’t important—over the years he’s clearly come to accept some responsibility in having shaped a revolution. It’s just that Green, more than anyone else, is clearly aware that Binky Brown was not created in a vacuum.

Green cites Joyce and Salinger and Philip Roth as influences. He also states plainly, “Binky’s story was contingent on my having seen the early work of other underground cartoonist.” As his artwork can attest, Green is very much a product of his era. If artists like Crumb cite his as a major influence, he’s more than happy to cite them right back. What Green does manage to do in the pages of Binky Brown, however, is distill the essence of his literary heroes into a medium not always renowned for its storytelling capabilities.

What’s more, Green takes a thinly-veiled version of himself as a hero, distilling all of these elements into a work of unparalleled catharsis that is sometimes sad and often shocking and grotesque—and worst of all, wholly relatable.

Binky Brown is a study in the effects of unfiltered dogma on a young and fragile-mind. It’s the story of unchecked obsessive compulsive order in an era long before that disorder became a buzz word.

The medium afford Green to express his burgeoning psychosis with literal manifestations of his symptoms, culminating in what is arguably the book’s most infamous panel, wherein all of his extremities have been transformed into heads of penises, all shooting out rays of light in different directions. “…And the transformation,” explains the narrator, “is almost complete.”

As he often does over the course of the book, Green breaks away from his linear narrative, diving deeper down into his rabbit hole of psychosis. His serve as a sequential homage to fine art—a blurring of the lines that would later be demolished entirely by Spiegelman and his RAW cohorts. In fact, there’s hardly a sequence in the book’s 44 pages that can’t be regarded as an influence on some latter day indie cartoonist.

But again, for the uninitiated, it’s important to take a step back. Binky Brown is not a perfect work. Green, while an accomplished visual storyteller, even at this early stage, executes his panels with a certain unevenness. The artist clearly did not take the same level of care with every single panel. It’s really in those non-linear asides that the artist shines.

McSweeney’s faithful reproductions of Green’s original pages actually go a ways toward highlighting this fact. These scans are warts-and-all, with pencil lines, Whiteout smudges, and outer margin notes all lovingly reproduced. It’s a bold choice, particularly given the juxtaposition with the book’s beautiful texture hardcover.

In a sense, the package is perhaps the greatest encapsulation of the work. Binky Brown is a work that has been gilded with years of undying praise. Once you’ve managed to breakthrough, however, you’ll find an imperfect, but nonetheless powerful book, one which, stripped of decades of context, is no less powerful—and readable—than it was on the day that it was first published.

–Brian Heater

2 Comments to “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green”

  1. Robert Boyd | December 16th, 2009 at 10:05 am

    One thing that is interesting about Binky Brown is that Greens search for a cause for his problem leads him to an incorrect conclusion. He blames the Church here. But he later concluded that it was a mental issue–OCD, in particular. And obviously, many readers must have realized how wrong his early self-diagnosis was (after all, hundreds of millions of Catholics manage to live life without penis rays). This doesn’t detract from its power, but it does add a level of irony, given that Binky Brown was likely meant to be a self-exploration, if not a catharsis.

  2. Eddie Campbell | December 17th, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I don’t think it’s fair to say ‘wrong self-diagnosis’. The person on the couch doesn’t have the expertise to separate the idea of obsession from the subject of his or her obsession. And having been brought up as a catholic myself, you’re definitely underestimating how widespread those penis rays are.