The style wasn't trippy like acid-driven psychedelic funnies of the day. It was dense: darkly humorous, sometimes harrowing, often surprisingly, surpassingly, strange. I had assumed the comic was an extremely detailed account of a fictitious world-class Catholic neurotic; a brilliant Swiftian indictment of the cruel after effects of growing up in a very strict Catholic environment.
Silly me. Every word was literally true. Green, along with five million other Americans, has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There are people obsessed with hand-washing, furniture straightening, endless checking of ovens being off. Not stepping on side walk cracks is the merest tip of the O.C.D iceberg.
What emerged from his mind-boggling, self-imposed incarceration was his catharsis "Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary" now reprinted along with related works afor the first time in twenty-one years. Green has included a new preface, which explains with wit and perfect lucidity just what was going on in his mind at the time.
This inventor of the now widespread "Autobiographical Comic" genre is held in the highest respect by all his peers. Finally ... you have a chance to find out why. It is now available at LAST GASP at 777 Florida St., San Francisco, Ca. 94110, phone (415) 824-6636 and various underground comic books stores.
GM: Do you think that surrealism, with you and artists in general, comes more from imagination or from drugs?
JG: There is no orthodox "Surrealism," although there were attempts made to formulate doctrines by some of the movers and shakers. After a youthful adulation of Dali, I came to see Ernst as a much more vital practitioner of that genre. His work is much closer to the actual moment of hallucination than Dali's. Using automatic techniques like the frottage (rubbing drawings on wood and other textured surfaces), he managed to capture images without the kind of detached rendering that Dali relied on. Ernst was a highly skilled artist who wasn't afraid to suspend control. Though Dali has created some marvelous atmospheric effects and images (like the melting watches and burning giraffes) that have become icons, I think of him as a trickster or showman.
If I had a tendency towards Surrealism, drugs pushed me over the cliff. On my many acid trips (the Owsley stuff, not the lemonade you kids today call "Ecstasy") I saw astounding images that took on a life of their own. When I would attempt to paint them, the best I could come up with were sad Parchesi boards, at best. I saw hilarious and frightening images, which I can recall decades later. But no matter how vivid the visions became, they were just a brief respite from the condition that I chronicled in my "Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary." I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This is a spatial and temporal relationship with Roman Catholic icons, architecture and doctrine that has been resounding in my life for almost 40 years. No form of Surrealism, whether film or painting, could compete with the specific details of my psycho-sexual fixations.
But drugs did have a way of undermining anything pretentious. What I was hoping to discover in the work of French artists who had peaked before I was born ('45), was actually alive in my own culture in the work of Bob Clampett, Spike Jones, The Marx Bros., Harvey Kurtzman, Lenny Bruce, and others who aren't popping into my head at this late moment. This natural wellspring of Surrealism was a common fount that many underground cartoonists shared.
GM: Did you start out like Bill Griffith as a serious painter?
JG: Bill Griffith, with whom I shared a stylistic affinity, was one of the few cartoonists with a solid fine arts background (from Pratt Institue). As a "fine artist" I felt like an outsider, though I soon pumped as much youthful blood into the enterprise as anyone else did back then. I was on a mystical quest to get a "crow quill hand," like the "Mojo hand" that Muddy Waters sang about. If I ever got one, I'd be able to produce calligraphic marks which would effortlessly register the intention of my mind's eye, in a style that would be like my own handwriting.
Out of the safety net of academia, I was getting dogged by the draft. By late '68, everyone personally knew of somebody who had been killed or maimed in the insane war. I moved several times, but they were always just six weeks behind me. When the draft lottery went into effect, I drew a number in the high 200s. Shortly afterwards, I took a one-way flight to San Francisco, the Mecca of underground comics. Rents were still cheap and a lid of decent weed went for $25, the going page rate. Anthologies were born daily, and in those pre-glut days, there was a ready audience for each title. It was possible to live on seven ten-hour days a week. In exchange for the slave labor, we who comprised the "United Cartoon Workers of America" got total artistic freedom to unleash our graven fantasies on the Counter Culture.
In retrospect, I had "survivor guilt." To cope with this psychic imbalance, I waged my personal Viet Nam: I decided to confront the repressive roots of this neurosis that had grown in the hotbed of a Roman Catholic upbringing. In so doing, I stumbled into a new genre: autobiographical narrative comics. I got some good press and affirmation from scores of readers. My unorthodox cartooning style was seen as a plus. I began to think of comics more as illustrated writing-simply telling stories with pictures.
GM: Would you have become a cartoonist if you didn't have a compulsive obsessive disorder? Do you feel you've recovered or are you still struggling with it?
GM: Oh, that tiny little word, "if!" Probably not. Maybe I'd be a successful industrial realtor like my Jewish father. Certainly not a dentist, though. Yes, I'm still struggling with the basic problem that I tried to graphically convey in my book. It must be difficult for readers to understand what the hell I'm talking about. Let's just say I am compelled to perform little rituals to alleviate anxiety or divine retribution. Yet there is a parallel voice or awareness that knows the unwanted psychic commands are spurious. One theory is that the disorder is from a chemical imbalance in the brain. One out of one hundred supposedly have full blown cases; which means that a handful of others out of that hypothetical hundred are members of the club. I suspect that things could be worse for me; more severe cases are unable to leave their homes.
I think the split vision, being both the slave to the compulsion and the detached observer, has given me a certain sardonic overview of life that finds humor in strange places. Also the hyper-awareness of movement and gesture has contributed to my technical growth as an artist. Both of these phenomena, though, could be seen as limiting. It is empathy with the human condition and artistic freedom that ultimately produce the highest work.
GM: How do you compare with R. Crumb torment-wise? Do you think it is necessary for good artists to come from a tormented background?
JG: You know, I think I'm the only one I know who hasn't seen the Zwigoff film. I'm not avoiding it, it's just that I get overwhelmed for weeks at a time with deadlines. The Crumb I know is a sage and happy man; a loving father and good musician. He is always busy with doing great work that will outlive us all. He is prosperous. You call that "torment?!" Now Francis Bacon, there was a nasty little man...
No, I don't think that suffering is necessary for great art. Males are more prone to that palaver than the gals. There is a personal transformation that occurs, and that's bound to drive the ego to emotional extremes, but it's not the kind of suffering that disenfranchised peoples touched by misery and political repression know on a daily basis. If you choose the artistic path, suffering is part and parcel of the experience. There are so many pitfalls: ambition that twists relationships, professional jealousy, inevitable failures, solitude, poverty, false friends and unreliable business connections, humiliation by critics, your children pay, etc. I think the impetus to be an artist comes from an internal necessity that overrides common sense. I used to think that itŐs like becoming a bullfighter; it's a lifelong quest that begins in childhood. I've revised that theory. A committed conscious adult can make great strides.
I'm also an oil painter. I still get out there and do landscapes that give me tremendous pleasure. These are not revolutionary gestures-they are wistful attempts to morph Edward Hopper with Cezanne. I think that painting, though it will ultimately be wall decoration, is a legitimate path. If I could live off my paintings, I would do that exclusively. I'm not burning to be a cartoonist the way that I once was. Strange how I started out as a back-of-the-classroom wiseguy, and now it's one of my jobs. Still, I feel very lucky to be doing even that. I wouldn't call myself "tormented."
GM: In your book, "The Sign Game," you mention the danger of lead based enamels. Do you still work with them?
JG: I try to avoid using them whenever possible. When I look back at my published work, I am astounded at the glaring deficiencies in the stuff I did in the early '80s-when I was most heavily into painting with enamel on a daily basis. If the OCD was clobbering my right brain, the One-Shot brand enamel was taking out my left brain. The paint and solvent (turpentine is a carcinogen, by the way) gets directly into the bloodstream when it's absorbed by the skin. It accumulates in the liver and causes permanent nerve damage. There is now a little warning sticker that comes on every can of lead-based sign paint; but this is a fairly recent development.
In case there are any taggers out there reading this, spray paint is even worse. Those little white masks that you guys sometimes use are meant only for sawdust, not the deadly fumes that come from toulene based paint. The overspray effects every plant and animal within 25 feet. The only correct mask to use is equipped with removable fiberglass cups that must be changed every couple days. It's a mystery to me why spray paints are allowed on the market.
GM: What is your current relationship to the church?
JG: As I wrote in the disclaimer to "The Binky Brown Sampler," I no longer consider myself to be a warrior against the church. Here in Sacramento we have a very liberal church. They offered a weekly program for lapsed, embittered Catholics. I attended out of curiousity. I needed to thoroughly understand the dogma that I had rejected; I wanted my latest material to have a ring of authenticity. From the lively discussions, I progressed to an experiential look at the mass. The church is in transition. Like Surrealism, there is no ultimate version (though the far right of the church claims utter and inviolable orthodoxy, as always). There is too much baggage in the organization for me to return, though somewhere along the way I lost my righteous anger. I came to see how the church provides a need that is very real and good for a lot of peoples' lives. Jesus is not the sexual bogeyman. Many repressived doctrines have been grafted onto his teachings.
It has been hard for me to disentangle which are uniquely my own misconceptions and which are inherent in the institution. According to the latest findings of behavioral psychology, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder would exist even if I were never exposed to Christianity. OCD gave me aunique vantage point, though; if I was able to address symbolic content that is hidden to most people, then the behavioral disorder was a gift. I am fulfilling our cultural expectation of suffering for my art. Some reward! There sure as hell has not been a lot of money from the deal.
GM: Have you seen Toy Story? Do you think there are interesting possibilities for computer art and CD-ROMS?
JG: Believe me, I'm no fan of the Disney empire. Don't get me started on the way he exploited other artists, going all the way back to Heinrich Kley (his widow got not dime one for the dancing elephants scene in Fantasia). I was prepared to dislike the extravaganza, but was sucker bait within the first ten minutes. It was a wonderful, funny and touching film. But now that this new generation has seen Paree, how do you keep 'em down on the farm with basic pen and ink crosshatching; the plain jane look of the graphics that I ply? Lucky Randy Newman, he got to sing the credits. He'll be their Burl Ives and his golden sunset is insured. Me, I'll probably be painting signs until I drop. My cartooning style will appear clumsy as old woodblocks from the 19th century to this next generation. But I digress. I would like to use Adobe Photoshop as a layout tool, but the idea of finishing art with the computer does not appeal to me. I like the tactile experience of drawing. I like the sound of the pen scraping into the paper. I even like to see the wet ink reflecting the light. Do you think they'll ever make a program to accommodate reflecting the light? Do you think they'll ever make a program to accommodate these arcane needs?
GM: Why did you choose to become a sign painter instead of a commercial graphic artist or something less arduous?
GM: I think I'll take the advice of Jackson Browne: "Gotta do what you can to keep your love alive. Try not to confuse it with what you do to survive." Next time they're at the public library, the readers can check out my monthly comic strip, "Justin Green's SIGN GAME," which appears in Signs of the Times Magazine. Also, free at your local Tower Records is PULSE Magazine, which usually has my "Musical Legends" comic, unless I miss a deadline.
GM: Have you gotten many angry letters?
JG: There was an anonymous postcard that said, "Is exhibitionism necessary?" There was an angry letter to a publisher written by the chief warden of a state penitentiary: "Binky Brown is without a doubt the filthiest comic book I have ever seen. It depicts Jesus Christ in sex action!" I got a terrible review for a story I contributed to Raw in the late '80s. The critic wrote that my drawing hasn't improved in twenty years. There has been lots of loving supportive mail, too. It has carried me through times of great uncertainty. Oh yeah, one priest wrote that he was saying a mass for me.