Paper, Pencil, Life: Ivan Brunetti’s “Aesthetics: A Memoir”

By David M. BallOctober 23, 2013

    Aesthetics: A Memoir by Ivan Brunetti. Yale University Press. 120 pages.

    IVAN BRUNETTI is the most talented cartoonist whose name you’ve never heard. Or, perhaps, he’s the most important graphic novelist never to complete a graphic novel. Or the most prolific comics artist who no longer claims to be a practicing cartoonist. Or the most depraved mind in comics, period. Or among the most visible ambassadors and theorists of the medium. Or, according to him, he’s not worth your attention at all, “like one of those microbes that symbiotically lives inside a crab’s anus.” 

    Brunetti is author and editor of four titles with Yale University Press (the latest of which, Aesthetics: A Memoir, was released in May of this year), four issues of Schizo, an irregularly published comic first released in 1995 and now reprinted by venerable alt-comics publisher Fantagraphics, and three small volumes of demented, one-panel gags. Through these projects, he has carved out one of the most heterogeneous, idiosyncratic, and difficult-to-define careers in contemporary comics. The first page of the first issue of Schizo, after a long manifesto of sorts that extols the unfettered expression of the artist’s id, shows Ivan gouging out the eyes of an elderly man, licking his thumbs, and then urinating on the corpse. (I’ll use “Brunetti” to speak of the artist and “Ivan” for the many self-representations Brunetti draws in his autobiographical comics.) One of the more memorable images in Schizo depicts Jesus masturbating into his stigmata, a gag that is discovered, in a later autobiographical episode, by Ivan’s co-workers in the copy machine where he held a day job as a copyeditor. Other representative strips in the pages of Schizo are titled: “Yessir, I’m Just Another Completely Screwed-Up Catholic Boy,” “Life is Shit,” “Please Hurt My Oversized Testicles,” and “Face It: You Suck!” 

    Aesthetics, by contrast, is a square, glossy, exquisitely designed, self-narrated exhibition-catalogue-cum-studio-tour. Subtitled A Memoir, Aesthetics feels much more like a book-length extension of the final chapter of Todd Hignite’s brilliantly edited In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists (2006). This volume, also released by Yale, positions Brunetti in its table of contents as the terminus of a venerated comics genealogy that includes Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Jaime Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Seth, and Chris Ware. Brunetti’s unremitting narrative self-laceration in the margins of Aesthetics is apparently the only feature of the Schizo years to have survived, the child rape jokes and apocalyptic visions of the earlier work having given way to quietly beautiful, geometric compositions for the cover of the New Yorker, reverent photographs of doodles and ephemera, and collections of everything from Brunetti’s vintage film memorabilia to his miniature sculptures. (Full disclosure: Brunetti’s frontispiece to my co-edited volume of essays, The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, is among the works reproduced here.) The reader whose introduction to Brunetti is through Aesthetics might be forgiven for thinking his sense of humor charming, if somewhat off-color, rather than the scorched-earth vitriol so apparent in his work throughout the 1990s.

    It is tempting then to read Aesthetics as a renunciation of the earlier, more visceral and expressionistic work, Yale University Press’s superego to Fantagraphics’s id. Brunetti clearly has an ambivalent relationship to this earlier work, forged as it was out of severe depression, a crumbling marriage, and a fictionalized, but nonetheless pervasive, misanthropy. Indeed, in a remarkable act of re-self-fashioning amidst a creative block in 2001, Brunetti cut up and repurposed the vast majority of his original art — though some clearly survives, as attested to by the juvenilia reprinted in Aesthetics­ — and reassembled it in a boxed edition of collages titled Fragments. Yet, almost all of this early work has at the same time been carefully preserved in clothbound reprints by Fantagraphics: Misery Loves Comedy (2007), which collects the first three issues of Schizo, and Ho! (2009), which contains the vast majority of Brunetti’s previously published one-panel gags. Like the scenes of decapitations, amputations, and castrations that figure on almost every page of Misery Loves Comedy and Ho!, Brunetti’s severance from his earlier selves is an act that needs to be repeated again and again.

    Despite his many avowals that most of his notes and sketches have unceremoniously been tossed away, Brunetti’s modus operandi is nonetheless that of the collector. Pictured early on in Aesthetics is a lovingly photographed composition of many of these preserved textual remains: bound volumes and boxed collections titled Scribbles, Doodles, Scraps, Scrawls, Chips, and the aforementioned Fragments. Aesthetics itself reads like just such a box of fragments; images are often torn from their original contexts and given new life here. The overall impression is of a meticulously designed scrapbook, but it’s hard not to wish for the more substantial memoir that the subtitle gestures toward. Brunetti, with characteristic self-abnegation, writes: “Although I am assembling this book partially as a retrospective, there is, regretfully, very little retro to spect.” What the reader instead comes away from Aesthetics regretting is not the paucity of Brunetti’s corpus — which is variegated and surprising from one page to the next — but the relative reticence of his narrative voice throughout the volume.

    Brunetti was born in rural Mondavio, Italy, moving with his family when in elementary school to Chicago, where he now teaches. He writes in his introduction that he “learned not only how to read from comic books, but also how to see,” and a fuller account of comics as both a language lesson and a visual schoolhouse for a practitioner as talented as Brunetti would have added immeasurably to the growing library of comics literature and theory. Suffering more than his share of the indignities of grade school — something of a calling card among contemporary alt-comics creators, one that becomes the explicit topic of revenge fantasies in Schizo — Brunetti eventually graduated from the University of Chicago, where his comics appeared in the school newspaper. Working in a series of unremunerative jobs, intellectually and otherwise, after graduation, Brunetti began self-publishing his autobiographical comics and one-panel gags in his off hours, coming of age with Ware and Clowes in what has to be considered a Left-Bank moment for contemporary graphic literature: Hyde Park in the 1990s. The letters section in Schizo #2 responding to the first issue is a who’s who of contemporary comics: Crumb, Clowes, Ware, Spiegelman, Seth, Kaz, Peter Bagge, Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Bill Griffith, James Kochalka, and David Mazzucchelli appear, among others. To read recollections of these years would have been fascinating, but this formative period has been largely evacuated from the pages of Aesthetics. The elided opportunity to revisit these formative years with the distance and focus of Brunetti’s current vantage point leaves the reader wishing for a volume as yet unwritten.

    But for all of the wishful thinking about what’s not included in Aesthetics, what is there remains a fascinating tour of Brunetti’s mind. The collection leads with several covers for The New Yorker, where Brunetti has been a regular under the art direction of Françoise Mouly. He pulls back the cover on one composition in particular — an insouciant ice skater on what’s left of a frozen pond amidst a thawing world — showing his evolution from original and preliminary sketches through the submitted cover art and its editorial transformations. (An even more fully rendered trajectory of this process is offered in Brunetti’s In the Studio profile.) Perhaps the most stunning of these is a collaboration with Ware, Clowes, and Tomine on serial covers for the February 15 and 22, 2010 issue on the subject of Eustace Tilley, the magazine’s foppish mascot. Narrating fictionalized accounts of his iconic encounter with a butterfly, the four magazines when placed next to one another themselves comprise a larger portrait of Tilley, an indication both of the dialogic, collaborative impulse and metatextual canniness of this generation of comics creators.

    For Brunetti fans, Aesthetics also helpfully collates a number of one-off projects and occasional pieces that would otherwise be difficult to locate, including a good deal of three-dimensional work and some of the most formally virtuosic page compositions in Brunetti’s entire oeuvre. A found art sculpture consisting of a napkin holder and a bag of nearly identical doll heads becomes an arresting meditation on comics’ constitutive repetition, and the power of the smallest mark to etch emotional content into the reader-viewer’s experience of the work. An untitled miniature accordion booklet published in Switzerland offers a silent, thumbnail account of artistic inspiration as erotic attachment (for all of the early dismemberments and late anhedonia in Brunetti’s comics, these two themes — artistic inspiration and erotic attachment — are perhaps the most central across all of his work), folding in on itself rebus-like in an extreme economy of composition and line. Comics here are elevated to a pictographic language whose intense artfulness becomes almost invisible to the reader, the joke’s visual puns of an artist either fashioning his muse or being carried along in her current lifting effortlessly off the page. This is Brunetti’s art distilled in its clearest form, and having access to it in Aesthetics will be a joy to collectors, students, and scholars of the medium.


    This spare, geometric style also dominates Brunetti’s most substantive contribution to comics scholarship, the 2011 volume Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice. Described as a “classroom in a book,” Cartooning marks Brunetti’s move from the IT department of Columbia College to its faculty, where he now regards himself as a fulltime teacher and no longer a fully practicing cartoonist. Cartooning belies this claim. Brunetti’s pedagogy, his theories, and his practice fuse in compelling ways throughout the book, which is an extension of Brunetti’s carefully constructed 15-week syllabus for his course in cartooning, with detailed assignments for the reader to complete each week. “You will get all the benefits of the cartooning course I teach,” he characteristically promises, “minus the distractions of the instructor’s monotonous, droning voice, chronic absent-mindedness, soporific sideshows, and soul-crushing critiques. The seemingly endless tangential exegeses, however, have been retained.”

    Comics scholarship and practice alike have been enriched by having so many working cartoonists tackle questions of the form itself — Brunetti lists Ware, Spiegelman’s Comix 101 lecture, Clowes’s Modern Cartooning pamphlet, Daniel Raeburn’s magazine The Imp, and Richard Taylor’s Introduction to Cartooning as formative influences — and Cartooning is a valuable contribution to this proud tradition. Together with his In the Studio chapter and the long-form interview conducted by Gary Groth in The Comics Journal #264, Cartooning offers the fullest account we have of Brunetti’s approach to his craft. He insists upon the resolutely hand-drawn, self-fashioned, and singly authored, in line not only with the dominant aesthetic of his generation of alternative cartoonists but also with his belief that comics’ narrative engine and expressive power derive from their proximity to the doodle. In doing so, Brunetti swerves from Will Eisner’s and Scott McCloud’s widely cited definitions of comics as sequential art, a move that undoes the division frequently seen between graphic narrative and one-panel cartoons, aligning comics more resolutely with their genealogy in caricature and physiognomy (as Spiegelman has argued in his illuminating essay “Drawing Blood”). Brunetti’s approach to comics creation might be termed both structuralist and humanist: he is adamant that form and content are “inseparable expressions of the same truth,” that themes emerge from the work of composition and cannot be imposed upon them, and that the basics of composition and narrative construction follow from these premises. His list of useful tools for the completion of the course:


    Here Brunetti echoes Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, who, with the possible exception of Ware, is the greatest single influence on his work. Schulz’s advice to aspiring cartoonists, reprinted in the first volume of Brunetti’s arresting Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, is of a piece with Brunetti’s:

    As your ideas develop personalities and your personalities develop more ideas, the overall theme of your feature will begin to take form […]. If you go about it in the reverse manner, you are going to end up with weak ideas. […] Be perfectly content to work on the single strip that is now in place on your drawing board.

    Schulz and Brunetti, echoing in a different register William Faulkner’s famous work of “sublimating the actual into the apocryphal,” both remind us that the comics panel is a form of an eternal present, one that is hard won over a number of years of often invisible craft masked by the deceptive simplicity of comics. That a 15-week syllabus could hope to stand in for such experience — Brunetti remarks that almost invariably all of the work he collected in the Graphic Fiction volumes was done by artists many years into their careers — is perhaps beyond any reasonable expectation for Cartooning. But like any compelling how-to manual or introductory text, Cartooning gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what might well be within our powers to do. A moving world materializes with just a few lines before our eyes, perhaps one of the best ways to summarize Brunetti’s characterization of an easily recognizable, but notoriously difficult-to-define medium. 

    Lacking the vision to create, the patience to learn, or even the facility to draw a convincing circle, I can’t speak to the book’s ability to instill the basics of cartooning in its reader. Brunetti’s former students report a structured and idea-filled environment in his classroom, where the lessons in the book led to eye-opening discoveries of craft. An exercise asking students to draw an object first in three to four minutes, then 30 seconds, then five seconds, decouples the notion of quality from artistic labor and allows the cartoonist to more clearly understand the ways in which images communicate to the viewer as much as they mimetically represent the lived world. The results, judging from what I’ve seen of student work published in the class anthology Linework are exciting in their startling variety. The same could be said for Brunetti’s two-volume anthology for Yale, which offers a mix of the expected cohort of Brunetti’s peers, historical reprints of earlier 20th-century comics, and some singularly iconoclastic choices. Its chorus of startling and often unexpected voices remains an essential measure of the ferment of intellectual and aesthetic work in the medium, rewarding in its teeming plurality. Such heterogeneity is a reminder that comics are a medium and not merely a genre; that they need not limit themselves to pre-defined stories and subjects, but instead have the representational possibilities inherent in any creative enterprise. Judging by the work evidenced in Brunetti’s anthologies and emerging from his classrooms, the future of that medium is rich with possibility.


    Of the 800 pages Brunetti assembles in his anthologies, he allows himself only two, both taken from the bravura Schizo #4 (2006), which is Brunetti’s finest work to date and where I would encourage new readers to begin. It was here that what we might term his “late style” emerged: geometric, precise, comprised of a largely unvarying line, and more given to mere despond rather than searing self-excoriation. Critics and commentators agree that this turn in 2006, after an eight-year hiatus from Schizo, marked a new level in Brunetti’s craft. A testament to the generative willingness of Fantagraphics to allow its most creative and experimental artists the economic and aesthetic freedom to eschew conventions of the medium, Schizo #4 is printed in full color as an 11”x15” volume almost entirely devoted to one-page compositions. While autobiography continues to hold sway, it appears here in different guises. Of particular interest are Brunetti’s one-page distillations of the lives of artists and thinkers: Piet Mondrian, Søren Kierkegaard, Eric Satie, and Louise Brooks among them. Comics are an art of condensation, and these compositions’ ability to concentrate a life into a page, seeming both to range freely and exercise extraordinary visual economy in the process, speak to comics’ as-yet-fully-unrealized powers of communication and narration. They reveal Brunetti as a master of the medium.


    For all of these later comics’ precision and mastery, it is the first issues of Schizo and the one-panel gags that continue to haunt, or stick in the throat, of this reader. Though I admire their execution, I confess to not being able to enjoy much in the NAMBLA jokes and the like throughout the first three volumes of Schizo; perhaps a failing of my own, akin to my inability to appreciate horror films. In a strip titled “Hrrlfk! 1,784 Things that Make Me Vomit,” Ivan loses his lunch not three or 10 times, but 50, the sheer intensity of the effort itself nauseating. Perhaps the most affecting piece of the first three issues, “Work Equals Degradation,” elicits the claustrophobia of a soul-destroying cube farm through a punishing 16-panel grid that Ivan’s rape fantasies and daring formal decisions alike refuse to unlock. It is, by design, a painful reading experience. Yet, the formal poise of Brunetti’s late style threatens to occlude the willful experimentation, energy, and risk-taking of this earlier work. Given the grinding labor of singly authored comics, the sheer amount of time needed to produce the novel-length works that have come to characterize contemporary graphic narrative, the ability of creators to range as widely as Brunetti remains foreshortened in ways not true for conventional prose writers. As hard as it can be to look at the indignities to which Ivan subjects himself and his other characters on the page, they sear the eyeballs with a violent force reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch or Francisco Goya. Brunetti’s target in this cavalcade of atrocities is the uncaring reader above all else, the smiling onlooker who either delights or yawns in the face of the abyss. Brunetti would have us read and see more closely, and care. Whether with words of fire or in softer tones, his is an essential voice. We would be fortunate to have him continue to instruct us.


    David M. Ball is currently at work on a book exploring the intersections of comics and literary and artistic modernism.

    LARB Contributor

    David M. Ball is currently at work on a book exploring the intersections of comics and literary and artistic modernism.


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