"Most people—even in the comics scene—today still don't know that much about Justin."
-Robert Crumb in Married to Comics
"She's done something with the cartooning language that nobody's ever done before. It's her own language really. There's nobody else doing anything like her."
-Chris Ware discussing Carol Tyler in Married to Comics
"I think the best way of putting it, is that I don't know anyone who would put up with either of them... they're perfect for each other in that way."
-Julia Green, talking about her parents Justin Green and Carol Tyler, in Married to Comics
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Married to Comics, John Kinhart's latest documentary, is an exceptional, meditative dip into the lives of cartoonists Justin Green and Carol Tyler, and their intense four decades as a couple. It is a wonderful warts-and-all film portrayal of a marriage between two people - both of whom happen to be extraordinary artists, and who are, perhaps, not the easiest people to live with. This film is about love, turmoil, perseverance, betrayal, devotion, mental illness and the sometimes painful process of finding one's identity through the creation of deeply personal art, whatever the cost.
Why am I struggling with this "thing"? Let me do a comic strip about it and more will be revealed.
Or agree to let someone make a film about it.
As Green, who wrestled with crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) throughout his life, tells Tyler time and time again, "Just do your work."
Following the screening of Married to Comics, and a rousing standing ovation from the audience, Fantagraphics Publisher Gary Groth spoke with director John Kinhart and Carol Tyler about the experience of making the film. In this clip, they discuss some of the challenges in making the film. All videos on this page by John Kelly, except where otherwise noted.
Married to Comics premiered before a crowd of several hundred moviegoers, comics fans and industry people on September 8, 2023, at the AFI (American Film Institute) Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD, to kick off the 2023 Small Press Expo in nearby Bethesda. Both the Washington Post and the Washington City Paper gave the film rave reviews. Plans are in the works for Married to Comics to be shown at additional venues and festivals around the U.S. and, eventually, (fingers crossed) on one of the streaming platforms.
The first part of the two-hour film is a somewhat traditional cartoonist bioflick, with people like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Phoebe Gloeckner, Denis Kitchen, Chris Ware, Ron Turner, Glenn Bray, Trina Robbins and the underground comics historian Patrick Rosenkranz weighing in on Green's genius, his eccentricities and the lasting impact of his earliest and most influential work, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (Last Gasp, 1972). Created when Green was only in his mid 20s, Binky Brown was one of the very first autobiographical comic books and laid out Green's "neurosis" (undiagnosed OCD, a condition that wasn't officially named at the time) and other phobias with unflinching honesty and candor. As seen in the film, Binky Brown was a huge influence on Crumb's work, Spiegelman's Maus and generations of autobiographical comic artists.
Yet, as the film makes clear, the weight of Binky Brown haunted Green.
"I've always made a point of bringing Justin up whenever I lecture about comics in general, whenever I talk about my own work," Spiegelman says in the film. "Justin, on the one hand, always seemed relatively OK with it, and even grateful. But at some point he said, 'Could you just stop talking about Binky Brown?' I said, 'I don't know that I can, Justin.' It's... seminal."
"Sometimes I try to hide the fact that I'm a cartoonist," Green says at one point. "I've never tried to push the Binky Brown identity."
"I'm embarrassed by the technical blunders," he says. "At the time, I was kind of feeling in the dark, so anything goes. When you're inexperienced, you can be a primitive and that's considered a virtue. But when you work for many decades at your craft, you're expected to have a much higher level of draftsmanship... it's such a kick in the ass that my mature work, which shows such flair and finesse, doesn't get a fraction of the price of my crude, beginning work. [Green laughs] It ain't fair."
In another scene, when looking at an image of Binky, Green says, "To this day, I'm not very proud of it. You know, I did it. It got a lot of attention. It was right for the times. But I had no idea that it would be a shadow that would dog me through my career."
In this clip from the talk after the September 8th premiere of the film, Kinhart discusses how the process unfolded.
But then the film turns into something else entirely.
A third of the way into Married to Comics, the narrative shifts to Tyler's point of view as she recalls the couple's early days of courtship and romance. In the summer of 1982, fangirl Carol Tyler, visiting from New York, met sign painter Justin Green in San Francisco, and was immediately smitten.
"He was coming down the street, and I said, 'Oh my God, he's walking just like Binky Brown,'" Tyler says of her first sighting of Green on Church Street in San Francisco. Things went on from there.
"The main thing I wanted to know was how real was all that stuff," she says about the anguish depicted in Binky Brown.
At the time, Tyler was painting, drawing and leaning toward comics.
"I was doing self-referential paintings and making them sequential. They were meant to be read," she told me recently. "In fact, you could read the text cards below the paintings and it would tell a story... I didn't have anything officially published yet. But I made the leap in that my paintings and drawings had words and representational imagery which was a big big step away from abstraction during those days. Thinking back, my first foray into 'words on an art surface’ happened in 1977."
She moved from New York to San Francisco to be with Green in 1984, and the couple's daughter, Julia, was born in 1985.
"Then the troubles started," Tyler says in the film.
Tyler talks about ways she and Green helped each other in their comics work.
Green had stopped cartooning and was sign painting full time as a means to support his growing family, which included a daughter, Katie, from a previous relationship. And with the new baby, Tyler put her art career on hold. The isolation, frustration and loneliness of new motherhood took its toll as she witnessed the artistic success former colleagues were having.
"I felt like my train had gone by, that life had left me," she says in the film.
And then things shifted again, darkening, as new levels of risk and despair came to their lives.
He left. She left. Eventually, somehow, the California dream couple managed to piece their relationship back together in the Rust Belt; unconventional as their marriage was, it worked for them. Her career took off. And their lives rolled on.
The majority of the original footage in Married to Comics was shot in Cincinnati, where the couple lived for 25 years. More footage was then shot at the Ink Farm, a farmhouse they bought in nearby Kentucky in 2016.
"I... don't know what to make of them as a couple," Spiegelman says in the film. "I mean, the one time were talking about his house, [Justin] said he lived on a separate floor from Carol... and it's impressive that they're together for so long..."
"As a couple, they're kind of similar to me and Aline," says Crumb. "But more extreme. Justin was so extremely obsessive-compulsive and paranoid, and I have some of that, but to a lesser degree than he did. And Carol's more normal and social, like Aline."
"They're both such unique individuals, that it was extremely complicated, because I think they really needed each other," says Tyler's longtime friend, Judy Wood. "But they also couldn't be completely together."
Director John Kinhart talks about the process of gaining Justin Green's trust in making the film.
In making Married to Comics, Kinhart was continually challenged with the daunting prospect of convincing Green—a textbook example of OCD in its most severe form—to open up and let a stranger learn his most guarded secrets, with a camera rolling at all times. The trepidation in Green's face and his exceedingly precise delivery of each word in the film is palpable. Clearly this was no easy task for either filmmaker or subject. At times it's almost darkly comical, especially in scenes where Green attempts (sometimes successfully) to wrest the role of "director" from Kinhart and take over the production of the film. So intense is his need to control things, it is a wonder to behold.
Filmed over a 10-year period, the film also documents Green's slow decline due to age and illness, and how it challenged his friends and loved ones. In the final years of his life, Green's obsessions turned toward conspiracies: 9/11, COVID, others. The film shows the burden those beliefs played on Green's psyche and his marriage. He died of colon cancer in April 2022. At that time, Kinhart was into the editing phase, and Tyler was deep into her forthcoming graphic novel about grief and loss, entitled The Ephemerata: Shaping the Exquisite Nature of My Grief (Fantagraphics, 2025).
"You're going to have to change the book," I said to Tyler shortly after Green's death. "And the movie."
The film closes with scenes from the massive exhibition of Green's career the family put together at his daughter Julia's gallery, (DSGN)CLLCTV in Cincinnati, in October 2022. In true Green form, he chose the name of the show—"Binky Brown's Funeral Pyre"—while on his deathbed. The final frames show Tyler making new pages about Green for her book.
Julia Green explains the naming of the "Binky Brown's Funeral Pyre" exhibit.
Real life isn't always easy. Viewing Married to Comics can be a transformative, yet draining experience. This is not simply a movie about a pair of eccentric artists, nor is it a documentary cobbled together from poorly shot archival material. Kinhart puts Justin Green's and Carol Tyler's humanity into focus. His artful direction intensifies the couple's story with superb camera and editing work. The grief and pain in their faces are ever-present through Kinhart's unflinching lens, from Tyler's brokenness while recounting Green's infidelity to through Green's extreme uneasiness in talking about himself. And while at times these scenes can be extremely painful to watch, almost voyeuristic, they are always imbedded with grace and beauty.
The power of a great film—and I believe Married to Comics is a great film, ranking right up there with Terry Zwigoff's Crumb—is that it can open a new world to you, even if it's a world that you previously thought you had a pretty good handle on. I've know Tyler for years and have had many long conversations with her about her life, her struggle, her dreams, and what it was like living with Justin Green. I mostly knew Justin Green through his body of work and from the stories about him told to me by others; our interactions were brief, and mostly done via email or social media. I wish I could have known him better, but I doubt that many really knew him all that well. It's one thing for someone to explain OCD to you, or to read a book about people believing in conspiracy theories. To view it in a film, or at least this film, in its full context, is completely different. It becomes real. Seeing Green on the screen, hearing his deep voice, watching him do yard and carpentry work... it's as close as one can get to the real thing. And sadly, this film will have to do. It's as fine a job that anyone could hope for.
"We really endured a lot," Tyler says in the film.
"Just do your work," Green tells her.
And I’m telling you: Just see this film.
View the trailer for Married to Comics.
Married to Comics will be shown at the DocuWest Documentary Film Festival in Denver, Colorado as the Closing Film on October 21st; and at The Beacon in Seattle on November 5th as part of Short Run Comix & Arts Festival. A screening at the Harris Theater in Pittsburgh, followed by remarks from Kinhart and Tyler, is scheduled for December 2nd. Go to the Married to Comics Facebook page for updates.
As for the long out-of-print Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, Tyler says that she is in talks with Last Gasp’s founder, Ron Turner, and his son Colin, about a reprint at its original size on newsprint paper. Speaking as the official representative of the Justin Green estate, she said, “Bringing back this life-altering comic book in its original form will make it accessible to a new generation of readers. Yes, I said life-altering. Because look how it re-shaped Justin’s life… and mine.”