Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

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Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
Original comic-book cover.
Last Gasp, 1972
Creator Justin Green
Date 1972
Publisher Last Gasp Eco Funnies

Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary is a comic-book story from 1972 by American cartoonist Justin Green. Green takes the persona of Binky Brown to tell of the intrusive thoughts that gave him psychological torment and which he blamed on his strict Catholic upbringing. Green was later diagnosed as obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD).

In the story, Binky Brown is tormented by sinful thoughts that he cannot control; most alarming to him are the thoughts he has of phallic objects becoming literal penises and projecting what he calls "pecker rays" at religious objects such as churches and statues of the Virgin Mary. He develops an internal set of rules to obey and punishments for breaking them. The torment does not subside, and in the end he defiantly rejects the Catholic Church as the source of it. The work combines a wide variety of visual and narrative techniques in a style that echoes the torment of its protagonist.

Binky Brown had an immediate influence on underground comix contemporaries as such cartoonists as Aline Kominsky, Robert Crumb, and Art Spiegelman soon turned to producing similarly confessional works. Binky Brown has come to bee seen as the first major work of autobiography in English-language comics, and many aspects of its approach have become widespread in underground and alternative comics.

Background[edit]

Justin Green (b. 1945) was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother and raised Catholic.[1] As a child he at first attended a Catholic parochial school, and later transferred to a school where most of the students were Jewish.[2] He rejected the Catholic faith in 1958 as he believed it was at the root of a psychological torment.[3] that decades later was diagnosed as obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD).[4]

Green was studying painting at the Rhode Island School of Design when in 1967 he discovered the work of Robert Crumb. Drawn to Crumb's "harsh drawing stuffed into crookedly-drawn panels"[5] Green turned to cartooning.[5] He experimented with his artwork in an attempt to find what he called an "inherent and automatic style as a conduit for the chimerical forms in [his] own psyche"[6] In 1968 he answered what to him was a "call to arms"[5] and moved to San Francisco, where the nascent underground comix scene was blossoming amid the counterculture there.[5]

Synopsis[edit]

Statue of Virgin Mary mounted on a wall
Binky Brown desperately tries to keep his imagined "pecker rays" from touching religious symbols, such as statues of the Virgin Mary.

Green takes the persona of Binky Brown for the story.[7] It opens with Brown writing a confession of the neurosis that has tortured him since puberty. In his childhood, he knocks over a statue of the Virgin Mary and feels intense guilt over this affront to his mother and to God. Binky is raised a Catholic and undergoes the religious indoctrination of nuns[8] at a strict Catholic parochial school that commonly employs corporal punishment.[9] He forms an image of a vengeful God, which fills him with feelings of fear and guilt.[8]

Binky's intrusive thoughts bring him to believe his body is trying to lead him toward sin and eternal punishment. He develops an internal system of rules with which to cope with these thoughts and punishes himself for violations. He wards off thoughts and fantasies he cannot control that give him guilt he silently repeating the word "noyatin" to himself, a contraction of the repentant "not a sin".[9]

As he approaches adolescence and becomes aware of sexuality he begins to see common objects as phalluses—phalluses that project unholy rays. These objects include his fingers, his toes, and his own penis, and he obsessively tries to deflect their "pecker rays" from reaching holy items, such as churches or statues of Mary. Binky's anguish becomes all-consuming as he imagines the destruction he is unable to avoid, and spends hours praying to God for forgiveness. As an adult, Binky confronts his faith and by smashing a number of statues of the Virgin Mary declares himself free of the Church and its influence on him.[8]

Composition and publication[edit]

Green spent about a year working on the 44-page Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. He spent a few months making cards of what he called "factual incidents or neurotic habits"[10] to be incorporated. During the seven months he drew the work Green received a monthly stipend of $150 from Ron Turner, the founder of underground comix publisher Last Gasp Eco-Funnies.[10] Last Gasp published the story as a one-shot comic book in 1972.[7] It was labeled "Youngsters Prohibited" on the cover[3] and went through two print runs of 55,000 copies each.[4]

In 1990 Green had an essay published entitled "The Binky Brown Matter" in which he describes discusses the OCD with which he was diagnosed years after completing Binky Brown.[4] Last Gasp reprinted the story in 1995 in The Binky Brown Sampler, a softcover anthology of Binky Brown comics with an introduction by Art Spiegelman.[8] Green sold the artwork to the strip in the 1970s; McSweeney's contacted the then-current owner, Christine Valenza, to make fresh scans for a standalone reprinting released in 2009,[8] overseen by McSweeney editor Eli Horowitz. It had a print run of 5,000 copies and reprints the artwork at the full size of the originals; the pages are reproduced to mimic the actual pages, including marks, smudges, and corrections.[11]

Editions[edit]

Editions of Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
Year Title Publisher ISBN Format
1972 Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary Last Gasp Eco Funnies Comic book
1995 The Binky Brown Sampler Last Gasp 0-86719-332-8 Softcover collection
2009 Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary McSweeney's 978-1-934-78155-5 Deluxe hardcover

Style and analysis[edit]

The story takes the form of a guilt-ridden confession.[12] In the opening Binky declares his intention: "to purge myself of the compulsive neurosis which I have served since I officially left Catholicism on Halloween, 1958."[3] Though at its base Binky Brown is autobiographical, not all incidents came from Green's life, such as one in which he is bullied by two third-graders. He stated he included such scenes "because they are meant to suggest or convey a whole generalized idea about some subjective feeling, such as order or fear or guilt".[10] To critic Charles Hatfield Binky Brown is an example of a "radical subjectivity"[13] that calls into question the notion of objectivity in autobiography.[13] The presentation is insistently subjective and non-literal in its visual depictions.[14]

Despite the heavy tone, humor is a prominent element.[15] The work is conscious of its own creation—Green's drawing of it frames the narrative proper and there are constant reminders of it throughout.[3] Green patterned the opening after those featuring the Crypt Keeper in EC Comics' Tales from the Crypt series from the 1950s. Green used the figure as the narrator of the captions and as a way to tie together the past and present aspects of the story,[6] while displaying a disconnect: the narrator refers to his younger self as "he".[14] Other references to comics include a Sinstopper's Guidebook, which alludes to Dick Tracy's Crimestopper's Textbook[13] and a cartoon by Robert Crumb in the background.[3]

A comic book cover
Comics and Catholic images are scattered throughout Binky Brown, such as the parochial Treasure Chest comic book.

The work is replete with Catholic symbols, such as a word balloon adorned with symbols of Christ's martyrdom to represent the depth of Binky's desperation. Catholic works such as a catechism and Treasure Chest parochial comics appear throughout the work.[3]

Despite strict censorship in other media in the US, explicit sexuality was common in underground comix, but Binky Brown was the first work of autobiographical comics to depict explicit sexuality; penises are prominent, and there is a scene in which Binky masturbates.[16] Penises are the central symbol, sometimes subtly as in the recurring images of pencils used to craft the work[3] more often explicit, as every phallic-like object Green sees because a literal "pecker ray"-projecting penis in Green's mind.[10]

The artwork is in a style Art Spiegelman has described as "quirky and ungainly".[17] Though awkward, Green puts considerable effort into elements of his craft such as graphical perspective, and draws attention his craft by depicting himself drawing and by placing the drawing manuals "Perspective" and "Fun With a Pencil" in the backgrounds. Green makes wide use of visual metaphors, in contrast to the mundane tales of Harvey Pekar, another prominent early practitioner of autobiographical comics.[3] In Binky Brown symbols become literal, as when Binky imagines himself becoming a snowball hurling into Hell or as a fish chased by a police office adorned with a crucifix.[2] The work displays a wide array of visual techniques: diagrammatic arrows; mock-scholarly documentation; a great variety in panel size, composition, and layout; and a range of contrasting mechanical and organic rendering techniques, such as screentone alongside dense hand-drawn hatching.[13] The symbolic and technical collide where the Virgin Mary becomes the vanishing point of Binky's converging "pecker rays".[3]

Two panels of a comic strip of a man being buried alive
Precursors in comics to Binky Brown '​s unrestricted psyche include Winsor McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (February 25, 1905).

Critic Joseph Witek sees the shifting between different modes of traditional comics representation—at times presenting a literalist view through "windowlike panels",[14] and at others "representational, symbolic, allegorical, associative, and allusive", an approach analogous to "Binky Brown's massively and chaotically overdetermined subjectivity".[14] Witek finds roots for the fractured psychological landscape of Binky Brown in the comics of earlier eras: the unrestrained psyches in the dreams of Winsor McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, the irrational, shifting landscapes of George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat, and Superman's obsessively contrarian nemesis Bizarro.[18]

In Binky Brown Green blames the Catholic Church for his psychological troubles; years later, he was diagnosed with OCD, and came to see these episodes in that light, rather than the fault of the Church.[8] He nevertheless continued to blame the church for contributing to his anxieties and maintained that religion has a magnifying influence on the condition. He said the abandoning of both religion and recreational drugs made it easier to cope with his condition.[6] Green had a disagreement in 1990 with a Catholic priest who was concerned Binky Brown may be harmful to minors; Green countered that he believed it was the Church that was harming minors.[9]

Literary scholar Hillary Chute sees the work as addressing feminist concerns of "embodiment and representation"[19] as it "delves into and forcefully pictures non-normative sexuality".[19] Chute affirms "the quality of work, its approach, parameters, and sensibility"[5] mark a "serious of purpose"[5] befitting the label "graphic novel" despite the work's brevity.[5]

Reception[edit]

Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary went out of print for two decades after selling its initial print runs, during which time enthusiasts traded copies or photocopies.[17] Rather than through cartooning, Green made his living painting signs, while contributing occasional cartoon strips to various publications.[17]

The strip has appealed mostly to comics fans and cartoonists and has gained little appreciation from either mainstream audiences or arts critics. Art Spiegelman speculated this neglect comes from the nature of the comics medium; in contrast to explicit works such as Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, the penises in Green's work are depicted visually.[17]

Legacy[edit]

Photo of a middle-aged man
Green had read Philip Roth (pictured) and other literary writers who bared their personal lives in their work.

Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary has been credited as the first important work of autobiographical comics in English.[20] According to underground comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz, the work represents a break with past convention by being "the first to openly render his personal demons and emotional conflicts within the confines of a comic".[10] Green denied credit, calling confessional autobiography "a fait accompli, a low fruit ripe for the plucking",[10] examples of which abounded in literary works he had read by James Joyce, James T. Farrell, and Philip Roth. Where he has accepted credit is for "anticipat[ing] the groundswell in literature about obsessive compulsive disorder by almost two decades",[10] for which he was not aware of a precedent.[10] Green used the Binky Brown persona over the years in short strips and prose pieces that appeared in underground periodicals such as Arcade and Weirdo.[21]

Binky Brown has had a wide influence on underground and alternative comics,[7] where its self-mocking[13] and confessional approach has inspired numerous cartoonists to expose intimate and embarrassing details of their lives.[22] In 1972, Aline Kominsky published her first strip, the autobiographical "Goldie: A Neurotic Woman", under the influence of Binky Brown.[23] Other contemporary underground cartoonists were soon to incorporate confessional autobiography into their work.[20] Robert Crumb followed the same year with "The Confessions of R. Crumb" and continued with numerous other such strips.[10] Art Spiegelman went as far as to state that "without Binky Brown there would be no Maus"—Spiegelman's most prominent work.[24] The same year Binky Brown was published, Green asked Spiegelman to contribute a three-page strip to the first issue of Funny Aminals [sic], which Green edited. Spiegelman contributed the three-page "Maus" in which Nazi cats persecute Jewish mice, inspired by his father's experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp; years later he revisited the theme in the graphic novel of the same name.[25]

To Jim Woodring, Green's autobiographical work "has never been surpassed".[26] Woodring's own autobiographical work in Jim draws from his dreams rather than his waking life.[26] British-American cartoonist Gabrielle Bell sympathized with Brown's approach, which she described as "talking about his feelings or his emotional state when he was illustrating it with striking images that were sort of absurd or a weird juxtaposition".[27] Green's influence extended overseas to cartoonists such as the Dutch Peter Pontiac, who drew inspiration from Binky Brown and Maus to produce Kraut (2000), about his father who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.[26] Chute sees major themes of isolation and coping with OCD recurring in autobiographical works such as Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby (1995) and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006).[4] Hatfield sees echoes of Green's unrestrained approach to dealing with a mental condition in Madison Clell's Cuckoo (2002)—about Clell's dissociative identity disorder—and in David B.'s Epileptic (2003).[13]

The story ranked #9 on The Comics Journal '​s list of the best hundred English-language comics of the 20th century.[28] Binky Brown featured as the cover artwork for the autobiographical comics issue of the journal Biography (Vol. 31, No. 1).[20] Artwork to Binky Brown appeared in an exhibition of Green's work at Shake It Records in Cincinnati in 2009.[4]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Green 2010, p. 56.
  2. ^ a b Hatfield 2005, p. 135.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hatfield 2005, p. 134.
  4. ^ a b c d e Green 2010, p. 58.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Chute 2010, p. 17.
  6. ^ a b c Manning 2010.
  7. ^ a b c Booker 2014, p. 480.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Booker 2014, p. 481.
  9. ^ a b c Green 2010, p. 57.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i Rosenkrantz 2011, p. 1.
  11. ^ Reid 2009.
  12. ^ Spiegelman 1995, pp. 4–5.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Hatfield 2005, p. 138.
  14. ^ a b c d Witek 2011, p. 229.
  15. ^ Spiegelman 1995, pp. 4–5; Rosenkrantz 2011, p. 1.
  16. ^ Chute 2010, pp. 18–19.
  17. ^ a b c d Spiegelman 1995, p. 5.
  18. ^ Witek 2011, pp. 229–230.
  19. ^ a b Chute 2010, p. 19.
  20. ^ a b c Witek 2011, p. 227.
  21. ^ Levin 2005, p. 88.
  22. ^ Hatfield 2005, p. 138; Spiegelman 1995, p. 4.
  23. ^ Chute 2010, p. 34.
  24. ^ Spiegelman 1995, p. 4.
  25. ^ Witek 1989, p. 103.
  26. ^ a b c d Rosenkrantz 2011, p. 3.
  27. ^ Rosenkrantz 2011, p. 5.
  28. ^ Spurgeon 1999.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]