From: The Explicator
ISSN: 0014-4940 (Print) 1939-926X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/vexp20
Royal Road to Wisdom: Tarot Cards and Justin Green’s BINKY BROWN MEETS THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY
by Sathyaraj Venkatesan & Sweetha Saji
To cite this article: Sathyaraj Venkatesan & Sweetha Saji (2016) Royal Road to Wisdom: Tarot Cards and Justin Green’s BINKY BROWN MEETS THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY, The Explicator, 74:3, 170-172, DOI: 10.1080/00144940.2016.1203753
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00144940.2016.1203753
Published online: 11 Aug 2016.
KEYWORDS Tarot cards; OCD; underground commix; graphic memoir
Published in the underground in 1972, Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary is an autobiographical graphic memoir concerned with Binky Brown’s (Green’s comic alter ego) Catholic guilt, sexual awakening, and struggles with OCD. Although Binky Brown is often read as a meditation on sexuality and as the first extended confessional autobiographical comics, no study thus far has investigated Green’s refigured and repeated use of tarot cards. In fact, the author himself attests to the influence of tarot cards in the afterword to McSweeney’s absolute edition (2009) and in various interviews.
Tarot cards are an organic set of signs that are used for divination and guided meditation and assume a complex typological framework. Categorized into Major and Minor Arcana, tarot cards, which etymologically means “royal road to wisdom,” have been prominent since the fifteenth century in Europe. Given the allusive and allegorical heft of the tarot cards, it is not surprising that many authors have used them to convey a sense of either apocalypse or redemption. Green’s adept use of tarot cards is not only his way of rendering indebtedness to the Jungian idea of the unconscious and a convenient vehicle to relay his OCD experiences but also a visual argument about the issues of autobiographical comics and the tasks of an autographer.
Green deploys tarot card–inspired panels in three critical junctures of the text—the front cover, the frontispiece, and the last page. The front cover invokes the eighth card of the Major Arcana, “Strength.” The original Rider-Waite tarot card depicts a woman with a leminscate clasping the lion’s jaw, signifying courage and civilization. Green creatively rewrites the card by replacing the female figure in the original card with the Virgin Mary and the lion with Binky in order to align with the typicality of his experience. Set against a scene of primal origins (serpent, garden, etc.) and contrasted with the icons of modernity (concrete buildings, sensual woman), Virgin Mary in the front cover urges Binky to muster courage, fortitude, and resolve to speak the unspeakable and outlawed personal truths. Psychoanalytically, it alludes to the persuasion of the ego over id, mind over matter, and is visually represented by the woman taming the brute lion. Further,Virgin Mary’s words “speak my son” persuade Green to uncloset his trauma even as the same words become a clarion call for other comic artists to express forbidden taboos and truths. What is interesting is not Green’s complex approach in which he foregrounds Virgin Mary and Binky, the protagonists of the narrative, but the way he visually frames the whole scene against an Edenic setting as if Green could anticipate the originary and the “evolutionary leap forward in the development of the [comics] medium” (Gardner 14). While at the rhetorical level it is plainly Virgin Mary’s persuasion of Binky to speak out the truths, at the narrative level it is a strategic exhortation for all comic artists to garner strength and communicate suppressed “psyches and personal histories” (qtd. in Smith 10).
In a different way, the frontispiece of Binky Brown corresponds to the twelfth card of the Major Arcana, “the Hanged Man,” which represents paradoxes and irreducible conflicts of life. In an interview with the Comic Book Resources, Green identifies the figure in the frontispiece as “the Hanging Man.” Inspired by the original “the Hanged Man” tarot card, Green’s frontispiece is a stunning visual intricacy depicting himself hogtied and hanging upside down with a dip pen in his mouth trying to create comics. The speech balloon, which also functions as a confession box, unrolls a series of paradoxes through mixing obscene and sacrosanct words such as “crotch,” “asshole,” “Amen,” and “food-tubes.” While the broadsheet-sized panel unveils the paradoxical demands of the divine and obscene, sublime and corporeal, determinism and unpredictability, rule and freedom signifying Green’s irreducible realities exacerbated by OCD, at another level, it also functions to describe “the contradictory pulls unique to the autographer’s task” (Gardner 10). Green’s “the Hanging Man” is an artist in pain who forages for a release from the contradictory experience of trauma and scripting. “The Hanged Man”-inspired panel, while it insists on the need for any autographer to traverse the “split between the [traumatized self] and the subject etched on every page” (Gardner 11), also underscores the required kind of consciousness of self for the creation of a personal narrative.
The third tarot card, “the Tower,” appears in the last page of the graphic narrative. The sixteenth card of the Major Arcana, “the Tower” symbolizes disruptive change and transformative freedom. While “the Tower”-inspired panel alludes to Binky’s release from the bondage and a realization of his autobiographical strength, it also visually expresses the hypocrisy in the church, as Green acknowledges in the Afterword. Breaking away from the web of illusions and traumatic experiences caused by OCD, Green presses toward meaningful newer ontologies of the self. As such, the meek lion in the first panel reappears here with more strength to speak and attack Binky’s factitious older self. This act of Jungian unmasking that reveals the true nature of the individual also goads the present and future comic artists to disrupt the conventional mainstream comics and to free themselves from the commercial and mainstream servitude.
To conclude, exploiting the allegorical dimensions of tarot cards, Green reconfigures extant tarot cards such as “Strength,” “the Hanged Man,” and “the Tower” in order to enunciate and concretize the paradoxes and psychodrama of an OCD patient. Green also uses the uniqueness of these cards to visually present the birth of autobiographical comics and the demands of an autographer. While the use of tarot cards is in line with the countercultural traditions of the 1960s underground commix, they, nevertheless, aid Green to visually delineate the religious and psychological trauma of Binky, his alter ego, as well as to document the zeitgeist of the autobiographical comics. In short, Green uses tarot cards as a springboard not only to bring to the fore his trussed psyche but also as a way of communicating the paradigmatic shift occasioned by the autobiographical comics.
Gardner, Jared. “Autography’s Biography, 1972–2007.” Biography 31.1 (2008): 1–26. Print.
Green, Justin. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2009. Print.
———.“Justin Green on ‘Binky Brown.’” Interview by Shaun Manning. Comic Book Resources.
22 Jan. 2010. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.
Smith, Philip. Reading Art Spiegleman. New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.