Justin Green’s “Strong Iconic Attraction”

in Rise of the Graphic Novel

For my first real post on “Rise of the Graphic Novel,” I’m going to share the abstract I submitted for the forthcoming ASAP/7 conference at Clemson University in Greenville, SC.


Justin Green’s “Strong Iconic Attraction,” or, How U.S. Comics Emerged from the Underground


In the 1970s, underground comix began transforming into what many critics have described as the graphic novel. Though cartoonists often deride the term “graphic novel,” this talk treats the graphic novel as a distinct and coherent comics practice that emerged in the 1970s. I argue that the term should describe, on the one hand, the increased prestige comics began to garner and, on the other hand, a self-conscious repression by cartoonists of the formal experimentation associated with the underground. The history of the graphic novel, I suggest, must be told in both social and formal terms.

In order to make my case, I analyze Justin Green’s fictionalized comics memoir Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. Originally published by Last Gasp in 1972, Binky Brown was an early example of graphic memoir, telling the story of Green’s tortured relationship to Catholicism. Aline Kominsky-Crumb has called Green “the great grandfather” of autobiographical comics, and Art Spiegelman has written that “without [Green’s] work there would have been no MAUS.” In 2009, McSweeney’s Books reissued Binky Brown, recognizing the memoir’s canonical status among American comics.

Binky Brown is worth analyzing carefully not only because it helped pioneer a significant new comics genre but also because it illustrates how cartoonists reengineered comics form. In the late 1960s, cartoonists began figuring themselves as unified artists (on the model of the literary author) and began constructing novel accounts of the revolutionary power that supposedly inhered in comics. These rhetorical shifts are legible (and visible) throughout Binky Brown. Green’s memoir figures comics as both a pictorial cure for Catholic taboos as well as a substitute formal stricture, a self-imposed, endless artistic penance. These figurations helped establish the fraught terms by which comics would win the war for public respect over the next forty years.