The myth of the tortured artist is a persistent one. So is the old saw about the creator whose genius forgives his (always “his”) bad behavior, whether it’s neglect of his (always “his”) spouse and family or something more predatory and criminal. The story of the artist who sublimates her (usually “her”) own career and ambitions to those of a husband who takes her emotional and financial support for granted is almost as abiding.
The most unqualified and genuine endorsement I can give to John Kinhart’s absorbing documentary Married to Comics is to tell you that it presents each of these scenarios with patience and nuance. It’s rich enough in both virtues to remind us that what we might dismissively call cliches in fiction are, in real life, obstinate human problems. Though the film runs just under two hours, neither of its two subjects are drained of their complexity. Kinhart does not flatter them or flatten them.
Married to Comics is a joint profile of Justin Green, a largely unsung pioneer in the world of autobiographical underground comix [sic], and of Carol Tyler, the cartoonist who didn’t begin to explore her own artistic gifts in earnest until deep into her fractious 40-year marriage to Green. (A 2005 collection of Tyler’s strips was published under the title Late Bloomer.) A local filmmaker, Kinhart shot much of the film at the Cincinnati house the couple shared, albeit with the understanding that the upstairs belonged to Tyler and the downstairs to Green. They even had separate entry doors.
Green died of colon cancer in April 2022, half a century after publishing the 44-page comic book that made him a legend in certain (small) circles. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary was a bawdy and absurd expression of how Green’s Catholic upbringing collided with his sexual obsession—and with the obsessive-compulsive disorder with which he would eventually be diagnosed. Among the book’s other alarming episodes, Green’s alter ego, Binky Brown, begins to perceive almost every object that’s longer than it is wide—including his own fingers and toes—as phalli emanating “pecker rays.” (Is there a DSM-5 code for that?)
Published when Green was 26, Binky Brown was the work that would define his career for decades, which is partially why he grew to regard the book with ambivalence. While struggling to complete new comics that lived up to his exacting standards (Tyler made a practice of rescuing fully drawn pages Green had thrown in the trash), he earned money as a sign painter. That technological advances eventually made sign painting an obsolete profession—as Green laments—is a separate matter from Green’s deepening mental illness, a subject Kinhart neither exploits nor shies away from. But it certainly couldn’t have helped a man who frequently felt himself unmoored from the world, and behaved that way.
Predictably—because, again, cliches are abiding human problems—Green was at his most unmoored when he and Tyler became the parents of a daughter. He screwed around, and even moved in with another woman for a while, leaving the child-rearing responsibilities to Tyler. The pain of these betrayals was something Tyler would eventually process in her celebrated three-volume graphic novel, You’ll Never Know. The book was primarily about her relationship with her father, a World War II veteran, but her relationships with Green and their daughter, Julia, are a substantial part of it.
Kinahart’s film seems, at least in part, to have been inspired by the fact that several cartoonists on whom Green had a profound influence became much more famous than he ever did. Art Spiegelman, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his landmark graphic novel Maus, an account of his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust, says it was Green who convinced him that comics could be a powerful medium for autobiography. (Spiegelman and Green were briefly roommates in 1970s San Francisco, where the underground comix movement was in full flower.)
Spiegelman is one of the famous creators who appears as a talking head here, along with Robert Crumb, Trina Robbins, and Chris Ware, among others. I enjoyed seeing and hearing from them, partially for their insight but mostly because, as a lifelong comics reader, I knew their names and their work but had only seldom seen or heard them speak. Carol Tyler and Justin Green were two names I knew only a little and not at all, respectively. Married to Comics is a fascinating look at a complicated but durable union, and about the high price of making truly individual art.
Married to Comics premieres at 7:15 p.m. tonight, Sept. 8, at AFI Silver. Following the screening, The Comics Journal editor Gary Groth will moderate a Q&A session with director John Kinahart and cartoonist Carol Tyler. silver.afi.com. $15.