Two of my favorite underground comics are Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972) and Sacred and Profane (1976), and I’ll sing hallelujah praises for both, but only as a means to celebrate Green’s lesser-known, humbler, but still uproarious Show + Tell (1973).
Binky Brown is a chronicle of Green’s own childhood struggles with both the doctrines of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church and an acute case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In a chain of vignettes that are alternatingly poignant, hilarious, and wince-inducing, we see Binky–clearly a stand-in for Green–grow into adolescence and adulthood while developing neuroses on top of neuroses. As a teenager, for instance, Binky assumes he’s damned to Hell because he’s come to believe that his fingers are surrogate phalluses (!) aiming rays of blasphemous erotic desire at nearby Catholic churches (!!):
The first time I read Binky Brown, I had two responses: I was excited to see an artist grapple with a weird Catholic past eerily similar to mine, and I wondered what non-Catholics would think of the comic. Actually, though, Binky‘s become a classic among believers and non-believers alike. In a Comics Journal critics poll (in issue #210, February 1999) to determine “The Best 100 Comics of the Century,” Binky came in ninth, placing Green higher than all other undergrounders, including Robert Crumb. I suspect Binky‘s universal appeal lies in Green’s nimble, rubbery cartooning–his style mixes absurdity and naturalism in ways that are funny in almost every panel. When I’m in a situation where I feel dumb, I always imagine wearing the dunce cap that magically appears on Bink’s head when he’s transferred to a “90% Jewish public school” with high academic standards:
So yes, please read Binky Brown. The multiple printing of the original Binky comic aren’t worth back-issue prices; I own a couple of those printings, and the images are blurry on some of the newsprint pages. The Binky Brown Sampler (Last Gasp, 1995) collects Binky alongside other shorter tales from Arcade and Weirdo, but the design of this book is just OK. Personally, I’d opt for the 2009 oversized hardcover from McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ literary imprint, which reproduces Green’s art in its original dimensions and with corrections visible on the pages. It’s like an IDW Artist Edition of Binky, available at a very affordable price, and if pencil lines and blotches of Wite-Out won’t disrupt your reading experience (see the above image), this is the edition for you.
Another massive extravaganza of Green’s comics is Sacred and Profane, a 10″ by 14″ floppy collecting “We Fellow Travelers,” a serial that first appeared in all five issues of Comix Book (1974-76). (Comix Book began as Marvel’s attempt to produce an underground comics anthology, but fizzled out after three issues; the last two Comix Books were published by Kitchen Sink Press.) Frankly, “Travelers” is a tough read, a hermetic, surreal descent into religious symbolism that riffs on stigmata, the history of the Cross, and Carl Anderson’s Henry. For me, the best parts of Sacred are the panels and splash pages jammed with pop culture icons and Dantesque metaphysics, as in Sacred‘s centerfold, “The Gates of Purgatory,” an inspiration for such contemporary experimental comics as Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory (2004) and Jimbo’s Inferno (2006). Below is only a fraction of Sacred‘s “Gates,” since my scanner isn’t big enough to grab the entire two pages:
For all of “Traveler”‘s ambition, I like the other stuff in Sacred better, especially a sequel to Binky Brown titled “Sweet Void of Youth,” which takes Green’s thinly-veiled autobiography up to the point where he begins a career in sign-painting. There’s also some playful one-page strips featuring Rowdy Noody, Green’s vicious juvenile delinquent character, and an affable 5-pager featuring a character named Sol wandering through the Afterlife (“That our load could be much heavier is a just cause to rejoice”). A comic only Green could create.
Given my enduring infatuation with Green’s work, I was thrilled this summer to find a copy of his Show + Tell, a 32-page, standard floppy of short stories released in 1973. The conceit of Show + Tell is that Mr. Green, the Arteest himself, pinch-hits as a substitute teacher for a rambunctious elementary school class (led by Rowdy Noody, no less) and keeps the little bastards in line by taking them on a field trip and telling them wildly inappropriate stories. Show + Tell is less tortured and feverish than Binky Brown or Sacred–are any comics more tortured than Binky Brown or Sacred?–but it’s still a subversive blast, an ideal showcase for Green’s irreverent slapstick humor.
The four tales in Show + Tell play to Green’s various strengths as a raconteur. The first is an adaptation of the parable of Legion from the New Testament (Matthew 8: 28-34, Mark 5: 1-20, Luke 8: 26-39) where Jesus banishes an army of demons out of a troubled beggar. Green, though, adds a puckish punch line (spoiler alert!) to the Biblical version: the beggar was bad enough when he was demon-possessed, but now he’s absolutely insufferable as he proselytizes 24/7 for Christ:
The second, “A Sad Tale,” tracks the attempts of a hen-pecked middle-aged man to get rid of a box full of kittens. It’s short, sweet, cynical, mordant.
Story #3 is “Theater of Cruelty: ‘Tut,'” described by Green as “a semi-literal retelling of an embarrassing event from my young manhood.” A teenage Green and two of his buddies (including an alpha male named Munzo, also in Binky Brown) get “fruity” jobs as valets at a fancy restaurant, but chafe at wearing the ridiculous French soldier costumes these jobs require. So Green/Brown undermines the restaurant owner by inviting a bum nicknamed Tut to sample the hors d’oeuvre tray and spread his stink among the dining elites. (In one memorable panel, Green’s describes Tut’s smell as “hard to pinpoint,” but akin to the stale odors of a phone mouthpiece, the holes in a bowling ball, and the stagnant water in one of those plastic islands used to keep turtles as pets.) Karmically-just hijinks ensue.
The last major story in Show + Tell is “Meditations on a Rose, with Herr Schtupenpoof and his Pooch, Fido.” Der Herr of the title is a ridiculous German stereotype who tries to spend an hour of quiet contemplation in his den, dreaming of beefy frauleins, Martin Luther nailing his 95 Thesis to the door of All Saints’ Church, and associations with the word “Rose” (such as the “War of der Roses,” “Rose hip tea [mit Vitamin C]” and “Mein first luff, Rose Gottfried”). Unfortunately, Schtupenpoof’s quiet time is continually interrupted by Fido, who bites the mailman’s finger, barks at a passing oom-pah-pah band, and flies through the air (!) to land in his master’s lap. “Meditations on a Rose” is lightweight, daffy, inconsequential, and one of my favorite Green comics. I love it the same way I love all those short, tossed-off strips (“I Hate You Deeply,” “The Happy Fisherman”) in another great single-author grabbag comic, Dan Clowes’ Eightball.
Show + Tell ends with Mr. Green and his class visiting “the Conservatory of Fine Arts,” where Green the artist concludes with a 3-quarter-page blast against religious creationism (and for the theory of evolution):
During the first half of the ’70s, Green was on fire. Binky Brown, Show + Tell and Sacred and Profane are in my personal comics pantheon, and later Green work–books on sign-painting and music history (the latter from Pulse!, the magazine of the now-defunct Tower records chain)–is well worth your time. (Green currently has a sporadically updated blog, here.) I recommend them all, especially Show + Tell, the smallest, least ambitious but perhaps most ingratiating work of Green’s finest period.