Cited as one of THE COMICS JOURNAL’s top 100 English-language comics, Justin Green’s “Binky Brown” story—originally published as a stand-alone comic of 44 pages—remains one of the representative works of the “underground comix” movement. I never read the work in its original form, but only in Last Gasp’s 1995 reprint, which also included sundry other related short works and a fulsome foreword by Art Spiegelman. In said foreword, Spiegelman credits Green with launching the subgenre of “confessional autobiographical comix.” This may well be true—I’m far from an expert on the underground movement—but I don’t know how much I’d trust the acumen of someone who credits the Bronte sisters with inventing “Gothic romance” and Tolkien with inventing “sword and sorcery.”
Over-ambitious compliments aside, Spiegelnan makes clear that he considers Green a genius from whom he Spiegelman took no small inspiration in his own confessional work. He also scorns the many inferior autobio comics that implicitly don’t do credit to the subgenre. I, however, find that Green’s BINKY BROWN is guilty of many of the sins of the underground movement as a whole: both a lack of free-flowing imagination and a lack of ordered intellectual discourse.
The story of Binky Brown—an alter ego for Green himself— follows Binky from grade-school to adulthood with emphasis upon one aspect of his life: the conflict between the Catholic faith in which he is reared and his natural, budding sexuality. There’s a minor reference to Binky’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but on the whole it’s all about Binky’s problems with the strictures of the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary isn’t so much a character in Binky’s dreams and fantasies as a leitmotif. She pops in and out of Binky’s fevered consciousness, sometimes tasking him with his sins, sometimes becoming the subject of his tormented sexual imaginings.
Given that I subscribe to Bataille’s idea that all transgressions are capable of completing-- rather than simply contravening-- the taboos that they violate, I don’t have any moral qualms against Green’s blasphemous fantasies. My qualms are aesthetic, for on the whole I find most of Green;s fantasies superficial and dull. Through grade school and high school, Binky seems a pretty ordinary kid. Once or twice he questions his religious preceptors, the nuns who teach the classes and the priests who take confession, but his questions are routine ones: “What happens to people outside the Church who live moral lives,” and so on. The religious authorities don’t come off well in these encounters, but Binky doesn’t seem like sharpest tack in the drawer either.
I don’t deny that BINKY BROWN is a lot livelier than most autobio comics; certainly I’d rather reread his work than the pretentious “just the facts, ma’am” works of Harvey Pekar. His fantasies about nuns and the Virgin Mary may be par for the course among tormented adolescents, but how many confessional comics show a young boy achieving his first orgasm by accidentally “scalping” a toy rubber pig? Later, Binky starts seeing penises in everything around him, and finally he’s shooting “penis-rays” out of various areas of his body. Finally, as a young man he leaves the Catholic Church, trying a variety of distractions to drive away his early religious influences, including drugs, the novels of Herman Hesse, and “gambolling.” But nothing works until he walks by the status of a Spanish Madonna and manages to avoid his syndromic feelings of guilt by singing “Lady of Spain.” This fires him up enough to exorcise the Virgin from his soul by buying a dozen cheap replicas of Mary and smashing almost all of them. One of the statues accidentally survives, but because the icon no longer holds power over Binky, he places it in his window and remarks, “Guess I’ll build up some new associations around you now.”
As with most if not all of the works that I’ve judged to be inconsummate, BINKY BROWN has a lot of potential, but it’s underdeveloped and sometimes incoherent. Prior to his icon-smashing ritual, he castigates Mary for making the birth process a big mystery (“It doesn’t matter—it’s only matter!”) He also reels forth a knee-jerk Freudian interpretation of Mary’s appeal: “What I did was to transfer a healthy dread of incest onto you—until every step I take is a perverse act.” But there’s not a lot of evidence of incestuous urges in the chronicle of Binky’s life. As a reader I don’t care whether or not the real-life Green experienced such urges, but incest here is the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun: if you bring it on stage, you should be ready to use it. Perhaps Green’s reticence on the subject indicates a weakness in the confessional form, in that actual fiction may allow the author more freedom than the inevitable self-editing of the confessional.
There’s also a distinct limitation in Green’c conception of the “well-meaning institution” of the Catholic Church. Binky never tries to sort out what’s good and what’s bad about his religion, or about religion generally: all he knows is that its strictures make him crazy about sex. Still, since nearly every adolescent gets hormone-crazy at some point, it’s difficult to imagine Binky’s life being all that different had he been raised without religion. At least when Robert Crumb wrote his confessional essays, he was unflinching in admitting that his quirks came from his own messed-up psychology. Binky’s religious journey verges on solipsism—which in a sense made it perfect for the underground comix movement. Religion, like government, was The Great Satan to iconoclasts, and readers of underground comix certainly would not have faulted BINKY BROWN for talking more about his own neuroses than about any Big Picture. But this is the sort of purblind oppositional thinking that has kept the majority of so-called "art-comics" from rating alongside the best "thematic realism" art, and relegates the imagination to nothing more than a hormone-addled consciousness.