The death of Justin Green, on Apr.23, leaves poorer the living memory of a revolution in comic book art and narrative. His self-revelation, in the 1972 comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, seems to have literally changed a field of perception of what comics could be or do. He drew frequently for the now nearly-forgotten genre of “underground comix” appearing during the 1970s-80s, most of the “comix’ actually anthologies with fellow artists including Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, and Sharon Rudahl among others. Comics artist and publisher Denis Kitchen recalls that even comics giant Will Eisner was impressed to the point of being influenced by the story line of Binky Brown, and by the uniqueness of the artistic expression.
Green grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, in a prosperous family, with a Jewish businessman father and a Catholic mother. In sending the boy to Catholic school, she inadvertantly opened the impressionable Justin to a series of intense, confused glimpses of faith, including sexual repression and the accompanying guilt. The lonely teenager and aspiring artist thus acquired the strangest possible inspiration. A few years later, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving after a Zen Moment of standing on his head in class, according to a story told to his friend and fellow artist Bill Griffith. Relocating to New York, Green joined a handful of other near-future underground greats through strips in the pages of the East Village Other. The “undergrounds,” avidly rebellious and virtually untrammeled by censorship, had been born.
In 1969, Green became part of the diaspora from New York and other points to the Bay Area, gathering spot of the emerging comic art scene. Griffith recalls, “I like to think we were all a ‘band of brothers’ in those heady San Francisco Underground days, tilting at the windmills of the established comics we both loved and rebelled against.” Which is to say, Justin Green was soon prominent among the community of young and wildly prolific artists, his work appearing in a handful of the anthologies being produced more or less collectively and sold largely via “head shops” through the 1970s. In shunning the commercial comic book industry, they gave up a lot and lived cheaply, but gained complete, uncensored autonomy and the copyright on their own work. The most successful comix sold 100,000 or more….until the mini-industry collapsed along with the Counter-Culture.
In a 1977 interview conducted by this writer, Green tried to explain the logic of the unique genre of artists. “One must consider,” he suggested, “the peculiarly American phenomenon that financed the creative endeavors of a couple dozen individuals whose visions took (and still take) the material form of pictures with words. That phenomenon is mass readership…the artist is under obligation to make his product coherent [and] visually striking—to opt for specific literal ideas instead of obscure personal motives (though granted. I am one of the worst offenders). Comics is simply not the format for making great art. Essentially it is entertainment. There are elements of morbidity, aberration and personal indulgence (again, myself included) in the work of many underground cartoonists which will have the longterm effect of sealing the work off from the cultural mainstream.” A fair prediction, as it turned out.
He went on to comment about his satires of literary classics in ARCADE, the brilliant but doomed (seven issues before collapse) anthological effort during the second half of the 1970s, edited by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman. “All of my ‘classics crucified’ pieces are intended to have a dialectical relationship with history from the shifting focus of the unworthy present. Now that the making of art is within the grasp of thousands of individuals, the false veneer of critical acclaim…must be removed. Unequivocal respect for the ‘classics’ prevents the reader from assimilating material on his own terms. I am trying to do with plot structure what [Harvey] Kurtzman and [Bill] Elder did in the early MADs [Mad Comics 1952-55] for the warbabies bombarded by media—to unmask the subliminal influences of television and especially advertising. In the same way, I try to pick up on those salient details within a great work of literature which will bring matters into a comical perspetive. It is my chosen responsibility to call into question—to see if perhaps there isn’t a little something worth laughing at.”
In an aside, he admitted, “Make no mistake about it, you have to be a bit of an egomaniac to showcase your fantasies to tens of thousands of people.” Hillary Chute’s acclaimed study, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016), more than suggested that Green, in Binky Brown, did much to inaugurate the “serious documentary mode for comics globally.”
This is no small matter. Green may be said to have crystalized the semi-autobiographical impulses already expressed famously in Robert Crumb’s stories, Crumb’s persona “Flakey Foont,” like other hapless males seeking meaning (and definitely eros) amidst the sexual revolution, cheap marijuana and cultural upheaval. Crumb’s own work of the 1970s-80s, in turn, connected personally with Harvey Pekar telling more straightforward stories from Pekar’s blue collar, Cleveland daily life. And thus to Joe Sacco, a collaborator of Pekar’s before his own rise to fame drawing the stories of his travels to troubled sections of the world. The syndicated strips of Lynda Barry’s troubled childhood, later Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home helped bring into being a large, still expanding genre of comic lives recounting youthful hopes and follies. Indeed, these may arguably be the chief mode for women’s large role in comics today, a sustained Bildingsroman in a new popular art form. Way back in 1972, Green collaborated with Spiegelman and others in the pages of Funny Aminals [sic], a genre-bending little anthology of animal stories anything but funny, including the very first published slice of Spiegelman’s Maus.
In her analysis of comic art, Hillary Chute makes another key point about Justin Green’s hugely productive decade. All the work of the u.g. comix artists reflected an engagement with the US invasion of Vietnam, directly or indirectly. She quotes Green as explaining that he, like so many (I could have said the rest of us), knew people who knew people—or actually had relatives—fighting and suffering, too often dying amidst the brutal US invasion of Vietnam. “I needed to wage my own war. And so I looked within…I didn’t want to present myself as a hero but rather as a specimen. So the comic form gives you a multifaceted way of doing that.”
This weighty point may, by itself, threaten to obscure the multiplicity of Green’s output, the radicalism but also the sheer joy of moments in his humor, amidst the intense personal confusion and angst of his work. The very, very funny stuff, deeply thought and reflexive, is as full of social satire as Bill Griffith’s own caste of characters later realized in his daily strips.
To take a Justin Green case or two in point, “Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Featuring Sol Snake-Eyes, Jack Monterey and Gretel Hansel” (in ARCADE #5, 1975) reinvents the novel with a Jewish stand-up comic as the famed investigator of the maddened young egotist and a bimbo who snags Sol while the criminal goes off to the rock-pile. Meanwhile, “The Gates of Purgatory” (in ARCADE #7, 1976), revisits Dante, with the “Music of the Sack Cloth Five” against a scene of comic horror, with free ginger beer and waterskiing on the Chicago River.
The 1977 interview contains another theme crucial to the story of the underground artists’ saga: Green had a new baby in the house and had to find another way to make a living. A small handful of artists, including Griffith, Spiegelman, Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins and others, managed to get along while doing their work, sometimes, especially in later years, by teaching comics classes. Most uniquely, Green turned to sign painting, and some of the stories that he later drew about the quirks of the job are hilarious as well as revealing. Raised in prosperity, he found himself reduced to working class standards, confessing that “I am continually broke, exhausted, under pressure.” He continued to draw the occasional story but his moment had passed. One is tempted to add that the comic artists lacked the way forward successfully found, for instance, by the equally rebellious and radical painter Philip Guston, whose sometimes comics-like retrospective now exhibits in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
It is more than a footnote to relate that Green’s widow and fellow artist, Carol Tyler, eventually found a comics niche for herself with a realistic, semi-autobiographical series about her father, the veteran of the Second World War who could not relate, let alone deal psychologically, with the effects of the trauma in his own experiences. Thus, in a way, you could say that the circle, or a circle, has been completed after all, and with as much meaning for the twenty-first century as for the one left behind. The artist sees the world, looks inside himself or herself, and through creative expression, makes the best of an obviously bad and likely worsening situation. This is what an artist in any genre can do, but what no one expected the creators of “funny pages,” “funny animals” and “funny books” to seek, let alone accomplish.
Paul Buhle published Radical America Komiks (1969) and was described in a 1970 issue of Playboy magazine as the “first serious critic of underground comix.” He has edited more than a dozen nonfiction graphic novels.