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Cover Story: Up From the Underground

Largely unknown in his adopted home town, Justin Green's accomplishments in cartooning and sign painting are put on display

By Brian Baker · March 5th, 2008 · Cover Story
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  Justin Green and Carol Tyler
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Justin Green and Carol Tyler



Print cartoons and commercial signage possess a number of interesting parallels. Both impart their information one stylized panel at a time with an economy of words and an almost invisible complexity of design.

The simplest scene or turn of phrase is the result of a well-considered placement of elements, crafted to achieve the greatest and often briefest impact. And both have a visual appeal that reaches beneath the viewer's consciousness until its intent becomes shockingly obvious or subtly absorbed.

Perhaps these similarities account for Justin Green's accomplishment in both realms. He's a master sign painter with intuitive old-school skills bordering on the mystical, and he's an underground cartoonist whose 1970s work was astonishingly groundbreaking and influential.

And yet accomplishment isn't success. Green has been fleetingly credited as one of the cartoon movement's forefathers -- based on his most influential character, Binky Brown -- but that acknowledgment hasn't reaped the fame and financial return that's enriched the likes of Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez.

In the sign painting arena, computers have largely transformed Green's formidable human skills into an antiquated relic of the golden age of information transmission.

Green clearly deserves wider acclaim, and Darren Blase, Shake It Records co-owner, hopes to enlighten Cincinnati to Green's presence and raise his profile within the twin disciplines he's helped shape for 35 years.

To that end, Shake It is hosting Justin Green: From the Underground to the Basement, an exhibition of Green's cartoons, drawings and signs, including archive pieces and exciting recent work. The opening reception is 6 p.m. Saturday, and the exhibit will continue during store hours until April 12.

Green's work is already integral to the Shake It experience. A glance over the door at 4156 Hamilton Ave. or toward the sidewalk sandwich board highlights Green's sign skills; examples of his handiwork are equally apparent inside the store.

The pair met when Blase's wife Dean collaborated with Green on an ArtWorks wall graphic for Cincinnati Children's Medical Center in 2000.

"I knew his name because someone had hipped me to 'Binky Brown' years before," Blase says. "Then we became friends, and I needed a new sign and hired him."

Since then, several books have detailed Green's work, including a retrospective of his "Musical Legends" pages that ran in Tower Records' Pulse! Magazine for a decade. A "Binky Brown" collection and a compilation of "Sign Game" -- his pro-sign-painting-tips strip that's run monthly for 21 years in Signs of the Times, the locally published sign industry journal -- both came out in 1995.

Blase carries all of Green's books at Shake It, and he's taken every opportunity to publicize his work since their first meeting. While he realizes that Green's hesitance at self-promotion has contributed to his relative obscurity, Blase hopes the exhibition will garner Green some well deserved and long overdue recognition.

"Nobody else has done it, and I thought it should be done," Blase says of the exhibition. "It's amazing how many people know who Justin is and don't know that he lives here. Everybody knows Peter Frampton lives here. I don't care. I care that Justin Green lives here. That's cool.

"These are the real reasons I opened Shake It, to do this kind of stuff, not just stand at a counter and sell music. I like doing that, but it's all this related ephemera on culture that goes with it that you can expose people to that's so important and is the most satisfying."


'A raw vulgarity'
Even a condensed version of Justin Green's story is complex and circuitous. The 62-year-old artist's personal life is inextricably woven into his work, and the journey that led he and wife Carol Tyler, also an underground cartoonist (and a University of Cincinnati professor on the subject), to the area has been tumultuous.

(See CityBeat's earlier profile of Tyler, "Drawn to Be an Artist," issue of Aug. 31, 2005.)

"A collision of sensibilities" is his description of the relationship between his upbringing as one of the initial baby boomers and the current generation's hyper sophisticated childhood.

"The fact that your average 10-year-old male knows as much as a gynecologist about a woman's body parts is astounding to me," Green says with a laugh over coffee at Sitwell's. "They have these mysteries offered to them at the click of a mouse, whereas we had to go into the bowels of Chicago to get retouched nudist magazines."

Born in 1945 and raised near Chicago, Green was the son of a Jewish industrial realtor and his devoutly Catholic wife. Since his father didn't practice his religion, Green was reared in a strict '50s Catholic environment that would have a profound effect on his future.

"My mother was Irish Catholic and my father belonged to that generation of Jewish males that wanted to assimilate," Green says. "I didn't find out until after he was dead that his real name was Jacob. It was a very paradoxical life."

Green's father had tried his hand at record production but ultimately was just a fan of musicians, many of whom stayed with the Greens when passing through town. Green's worldview was also shaped by his firsthand exposure to the comedy of Lenny Bruce during his most outrageously contentious period.

Bruce's boldly cavalier taboo destruction would become grist for Green's cartooning mill.

"I'm probably one of the youngest people to see him perform live because I snuck into a nightclub in Chicago," Green says. "He was having his act transcribed by a court stenographer who was sitting two tables over. He wasn't being busted for his obscenity, which was still unknown, but for suggesting that Jackie Kennedy was not trying to shield her husband's body, she was in fact trying to haul her ass out of the limousine. That was such a sacrilegious thought that that was his demise in Chicago.

"Paul Krassner said Lenny Bruce died to make the world safe for Saturday Night Live, and that's a great truth. The early transgressors had a raw vulgarity about them, and I'm sorry but I think I'm in that camp."

An early affinity for art (he easily deciphered a kite assembly graphic at age 4 that confounded his father) and interests in the illustrations of Arthur Szyk, the hallucinogenic paintings of Max Ernst and Salvadore Dali and lurid pulp art led Green to paid lessons and ultimately the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He'd long been enamored with comic art, and he began to explore the form, counter to the abstract expressionism being taught in his painting classes.

"The cartooning that had always been my bent I had to put in the closet, as I had pretensions of being a fine artist," Green says. "Even the thought of being a realistic artist at the time I went to school was looked upon askance by the powers that be, who were all tenured abstract expressionists who had a very skewed aesthetic about what constituted good painting.

"In many ways, I still feel bitter about my experience at RISD. I see it as some kind of glorified pyramid scheme, where all colleges are basically corporate businesses conferring titles on their graduates who have coughed up unbelievable sums of money for the right. And I was not even taught properly how to clean my brushes until I went to a painting master who slapped my wrist for the shoddy way I was treating my tools."

After college, Green married and secured a graduate teaching position at Syracuse University, but he became disenchanted with academia and quit his post.

Having experienced Crumb's work as a foreign exchange student in Italy during college, he saw his future and announced his cartooning intentions.

His soon-to-be ex-wife disdained his bohemian plans. Her wealthy aunt paid for Green's 1970 San Francisco passage.

"To throw away an academic position and embrace this Bohemian life was horrifying to all senior family members," Green recalls. "It was sheer gamble, and it was also burning a bridge. Back then it was understood that these diploma mills were cranking out too many people to vie for too few jobs.

"Even today, people with A averages and stellar portfolios will show up at a convention and there will be 40 jobs available and 4,000 people show up. For me to have had this fast track to a life in academia and throw it down for a hard life in the nitty gritty world of comics, which was considered the bastard child of the arts, even though it's a unique American art form."

Green immediately fell in with the underground crowd and made friends with some of the biggest names in the burgeoning scene, including the outrageous Crumb. Green's early works had been published in comics back east, and he found a ready supply of publishers in San Francisco as well.

"San Francisco was the epicenter of underground cartooning," Green says. "There were two tabloids, one on the East Coast called the Gothic Blimp Works and one on the West Coast called Yellow Dog, and they were the proving grounds for the neophyte cartoonists coming out of the woodwork in the wake of Robert Crumb's astonishing popularity. I was accepted by both -- I was one of the few artists that was -- so I felt this sense of affirmation and responsibility to pursue this gift.

"When I finally saw Robert Crumb�s work as a foreign exchange student in Italy, I knew I had found my lost ergot. Here was a great artist who had the same influences that I did yet was completely self trained and in his own language was able to extract the essence and imbue his work with a power that I had only glimpses before in the works of other artists. And he was a wordsmith, too, as I was, a frustrated, budding writer, but he certainly knew how to turn a phrase. Like many great artists who minor in another art, his gift for writing is often unappreciated."

Green's first character and first full comic book became a notorious underground sensation and the most influential work of the nascent movement. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary was the first autobiographical comic to emerge from the underground, and its effect on Green's contemporaries was huge.

"Many biographical cartoonists have given me the nod, and their work in some ways is more accomplished than mine," Green says. "I was going on sheer intuition, and I let some concerns fall by the wayside. When I look at the craftsmanship of 'Binky Brown,' I'm somewhat appalled that I didn't know how to draw hands."

Crumb has maintained that "Binky Brown" sparked him to write about his own life, while good friend Art Spiegelman has credited Green with the very existence of "Maus," his now classic anthropomorphic examination of Nazism. Bill Griffith, who created '70s icon "Zippy the Pinhead," is effusive in his praise of Green.

"Among the few old school Undergrounders of the early '70s who transmitted an intellectual vibe, Justin Green stood out as one of the most literary and thoughtful," Griffith said in a recent e-mail. "His comics were -- and are -- like tantalizing broadcasts from an outpost on the comics frontier, crackling with wit, insight and pungent satirical barbs. His body of work is sui generis; beautifully crafted, smart and searingly honest. It also makes me grab my belly in spasmodic fits of laughter."

"Binky Brown" was personally important to Green for two crucial reasons. He used the strip to examine what he felt were the failed social, cultural and religious tenets of the Roman Catholic Church and to exorcise his guilt after leaving the church in the late '60s.

"There had been trial episodes on a smaller scale in the two tabloids and they'd always met with accolades from peers and readers, so I thought it was time to do a major work," Green says. "There was this fellow named Ron Turner, and he was a real adventurer. He bankrolled my ephemeral idea that I was going to do a long work about 'Binky Brown' and he was going to look at what was causing his neurosis and look clearly at his Catholic underpinning, his guilt and his assumptions about the world."

Green also detailed his struggles with his petulant inner voice, an almost overwhelming narrator who inspired strange and irrational behaviors. When "Binky Brown" first appeared in the early '70s, there was no terminology to define Green's condition, but it would eventually be known as obsessive compulsive disorder. He became a pioneer simply by talking openly about his condition.

"I've been afflicted with it since men wore hats," Green says of OCD. "A modern example would be to try to look at the image on a television and be aware of the crawl underneath. A neurosis that is constantly interrupting your flow of consciousness is like that annoying crawl, offering these unnecessary suggestions and possibilities when basically you're just trying to order a sandwich."


'Binky Brown' becomes an icon
Although Green impacted his peers fundamentally, his income remained small. After five solid years of work, his last-ditch cartooning efforts were submissions to Arcade, a literary comic magazine edited by Spiegelman and Griffith.

When it folded, Green resorted to the commercial sideline of sign painting. Learning trade tips from grizzled old craftsmen, he soon had a burgeoning business in addition to his waning cartooning activities, easing his financial burden but coming too late to salvage his second marriage, which produced his first daughter, Catilin, in 1976.

Soon, his sign painting work overtook his cartoon activities.

"Within two weeks, I was making as much as the highest paid underground cartoonist," Green says. "I became kind of like a sign painter groupie. I became a journeyman, which is no small thing. If you went through the union, it would take you 10 or 15 years. But by devoting myself to learning sign painting, by 1985 I was a journeyman. I was almost a master, because I was doing gold leaf.

"I tried to burn the candle at both ends. I tried to be a commercial sign painter and also I tried to keep my hand in the cartooning world because, of course, they were still asking me to submit to various anthologies. There weren't enough hours in the day, and I couldn't make my young daughter � who's about to make me a grandfather for the second time � pay for it, although God knows she has. So I really plunged into the sign painting."

Tyler and Green met in San Francisco in 1982 when she visited as a budding artist researching her graduate paper on underground cartooning. Over lunch with Green, they experienced profound deja vu and soon realized that they'd had a chance meeting years previously.

"We traced it back to an afternoon in Chicago when I drove a city bus," Green says. "I took her and her brother to a Cubs game, and she and I spoke for about half an hour. She would have been 16 then and I was 23. Fifteen years later we met and remembered that afternoon."

Both felt a connection, and when Tyler returned to New York she and Green kept up a constant correspondence. He eventually brought her back to San Francisco, where they married in 1984.

"The reality of her leaving New York for California was more challenging than either one of us could have possibly imagined," Green says. "New York was her whole world. And my daughter had just turned 2, and she became an instant mother to my daughter."

In 1985, Green and Tyler celebrated the birth of daughter Julia, just as the rise of computer-generated graphics began to marginalize sign painting.

Green looked at other income vehicles, including murals and architectural graphics. In 1986, he combined his desire to pass along his voluminous sign painting tips with his cartooning expertise and came up with "Sign Game," which was picked up by Signs of the Times.

Even though demand for Green's traditional sign painting talents was tapering off, he still approached the craft with a definite passion. That dedication to the art and science of signage was and is more than just a vocation for Green � it's been a transcendent way of life that's lifted him emotionally and physically through several rising levels of consciousness.

In some ways, the ritual and reverence that was necessary for Green to perform his sign painting communion was the perfect substitute for the Catholic rites that had permeated his youth and that he'd ultimately rejected.

"I had many sudden awakenings to different levels of skill," Green says. "It was a physical, Zen thing. It was a new relationship with the physical world based on something that you do. At different stages in my sign painting career, I would realize that after coming out of a trance, I'd entered a new level of skill, of vision. One was the St. Patrick's Day parade in 1985. It snowed very badly and I had to letter all the major cities of the world outside on a mirrored surface at an inch high each, with thousands of people walking by me and it was under 30 degrees.

"Within the sign painting world, people are always impressed with large letters � but it's the small letter that you cannot bullshit. The slightest deviation, and I mean like 1/32 of an inch, will mark you as a rube. But I had it together because I had to get Carol out of New York. After I lettered these names, I realized, 'I did it! I'm a journeyman.' So the sign painting has definitely been a part of enabling me to travel and seek goals in life."

By the mid-'90s, Tyler had tired of California and wanted to be closer to her family in Indianapolis. They decided Cincinnati would make a suitable home, and Tyler moved here in 1997 to set up camp; Green followed with Julia later.

Green established his sign painting business and continued to knock out his monthly "Musical Legends" and "Sign Game" work (Pulse! ceased publication in 2002) while Tyler pursued her career, which has earned her wide acclaim since her 1987 strip debut in Weirdo and her first full comic, The Job Thing, in 1993.

With his schedule partially cleared -- Green does "Sign Game" and occasional Cincinnati Magazine work -- Green pursues more personal work, such as the oil painting he's long wanted to do. Some of that work will exhibited at Shake It.

Like everyone else in Green's sphere, Tyler believes the show will shine a deserving light on her husband.

"As far as I'm concerned, Justin is the father of the mini-comic and the autobiographical comic," Tyler says. "And it's not just comics, it's the entire genre of autobiographical filmmaking. I will say that 'Binky Brown' was so intense in the time it came out, people read that and thought, 'Holy cow, here's someone who's telling it like it is without flinching.'

"Justin's honesty about his condition and his dilemma is what makes 'Binky Brown' great. That had an effect on writers and filmmakers as well as cartoonists."

Shake It employee/comic enthusiast Joe Kuth concurs. Kuth is a self-schooled authority on underground cartooning with a broad base of knowledge, a keen perception and a clear passion for the subject, enough that Tyler often brings him into her classroom to give presentations to her students.

"A big part (of Justin's impact) is setting a standard for what is appropriate to talk about," Kuth says. "OCD didn't even have a name, and speaking about that honestly and baring his neurosis and sexual problems and these bizarre fantasies that he had, there was no precedent for that. His work still has this metaphorical power -- with the Virgin Mary and the penis rays -- and real content.

"As good as a lot of the underground comics were, a lot of them were short on content. They were good for a laugh or were gross, but his actually have literary and artistic quality. He has such a unique style, and when you lock into his style it opens up this whole world that he's laying out where he's spilling his brain out on the page."


Loving the permanent ink stain
Green and Tyler remain relentlessly busy in their East Clifton home/studio, defying the conventional wisdom that Crumb and his wife Aileen are the genre's only cartooning couple. As Green prepares for the exhibition, Tyler is working on You'll Never Know, slated for early 2009 release through Fantagraphics, the first of four comic books detailing her father's WWII Army experiences and how his war-torn psyche impacted her childhood.

Both Tyler and Green eschew the use of computers for cartooning, relying on old-fashioned tactile pen-and-ink techniques, and they've also avoided the issues involved in many design-by-committee projects.

"The graphic novel process has evolved into this teamwork thing, and tenaciously Justin and I have held onto owner control," Tyler says. "This is our voice and, no, it's not up for discussion. He and I will bounce stuff, and I work with an editor at Fantagraphics who I love, but ultimately it's the idea of who's calling the shots. I teach my kids to dip that pen in that ink and get that permanent ink stain on their fingers."

Toward that end, Green is writing a prose/illustration book titled The Dying Penman, which he claims will be "exasperastingly clear about pen and ink" -- not in the manner of a calligraphy primer but as an exacting manual he hopes will clarify the relationship of pen to ink and the two in tandem to paper.

Green also is hard at work on the final chapter of the "Binky Brown" saga, The Last Will and Testament, which finds Binky confronting the scientific realities of his OCD and the effects of SSRI drugs and behavioral psychology on his condition, not to mention the contemporary state of Catholicism and his own growing sense of mortality. Green has a pretty clear idea of his intention for Last Will, slated for publication next year some time, and his most famous creation.

"I really want to kill the little bastard," he says of Binky Brown with a laugh. "Gunter Grass is known only for The Tin Drum and it was his first novel, and in a way so it is with me. I feel I owe it to my readers and to myself to bring Binky into the modern age."

At the conclusion of our interview, an unexpected package arrives from Griffith at Green and Tyler's home/studio. Green opens the envelope to find a '50s magazine cover, an illustration of a napping sign painter, a work in progress on his easel.

As he appreciates his old friend's gift, Green also dissects the illustration, noting the inaccuracies in the sign painter's depiction or the inexperience and laziness of the workman if the depiction is faithful.

"He's a hack," Green says with a laugh. "No real sign painter would start by outlining the letters. You'd see the outlines after they dried. A good one would do the letterform in single strokes."

When this story is related to Blase, he laughs knowingly.

"That moment is such a great example of the life he lives," he says. "He gets mail from Bill Griffith, who's had massive impact on pop culture, and maybe Bill thought (the cover) was one thing, but by the time it got to Justin's cranium it became something completely different.

"There's Justin Green, the sign painter, taking a scalpel and cutting everything up. That's a perfect example of why he should be acknowledged on all these different levels."


JUSTIN GREEN: FROM THE UNDERGROUND TO THE BASEMENT will be exhibited at Shake It Records in Northside starting Saturday with an opening reception at 6 p.m. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.


 
 
 
 

 

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