Ivan Brunetti Gets Happy 

With a little help from Buddha and Chris Ware, a classic sad-sack comics artist succeeds in spite of himself.

A couple years ago Ivan Brunetti published a comic in the Reader in which a weepy, scruff-jawed character recounts his attempt to off himself with 300 aspirin dissolved in whiskey and Coke. "That's a true story," he says. "I put it to my mouth many times, but I couldn't do it in the end." He finds it a little disconcerting to look at that strip now that "everything's just hunky-dory." Without a trace of the sarcasm you might expect from a guy who's notorious for his bile-soaked outlook on life--and for cartoons about baby killing, raunchy sex, and homicidal pranks--he adds, "I've got nothing to complain about anymore."

Lately Brunetti, who's paid the bills working as a Web designer and freelance illustrator over the years, has been busy curating an exhibit called "The Cartoonist's Eye: Artists Use the Comics Medium to Tell Real Stories," opening at Columbia College's A + D Gallery this week. He says he thinks of the show, which features more than 50 cartoonists from Charles Schulz to R. Crumb to Daniel Clowes, as a "metaphor" for the book he's almost finished editing, An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, due in a year from Yale University Press. He also has a gig teaching graphic novel writing at the University of Chicago and a similar class at Columbia. And he's getting married in November.

"I'm in the middle now," Brunetti says. "Most of my life has been this process of trying to find that gray area where you're not going from one extreme to the other." Though he knows better, Brunetti often sees things in dichotomous terms: "Good Ivan is curating the show," he says, "trying to do a dignified exhibit." And then there's bad Ivan. "I have a very Victorian sense of morality, so sometimes I surprise myself with what goes through my head," he says, referring to the brutal gag panels collected in two books, Haw! Horrible, Horrible Cartoons and Hee! "Every time I do it I say, well, that's the last time, but then I get ideas."

Brunetti's more personal work hasn't been much more sanguine. The first three issues of his comic book Schizo were preoccupied with suicide and self-loathing; the last appeared in 1998, around the time Brunetti's first marriage ended, and he slogged through a particularly rough period. It's taken almost eight years for him to produce Schizo 4, due out in December, but growth is evident here: Brunetti looks beyond himself in a clever series of biographies, and his sensitive, sentimental side surfaces for the first time. In one elegantly drawn and oddly touching wordless strip about a rainy day he feeds his adoring cat, laughs at a Peanuts book, and meditates. His new work is "not just about being depressed and sad," he says. "I'm laughing at myself, almost chiding myself at times, showing the worst part of my personality. I'm encouraging people to laugh at me. I know I can be ridiculous."

Brunetti practiced Buddhism for several years. He credits it with helping him more than any of the meds he's tried--and he says he's tried them all. But his friend Chris Ware gets the credit for keeping his cartooning career alive. Brunetti had admired Ware's work but only felt comfortable calling him up to ask a technical question after signing on with Ware's publisher, Fantagraphics, in the late 90s. Soon they were hanging out regularly. These days they gab on the phone a lot. "We're like a couple of old ladies," he says, "calling each other to commiserate about this thing we've devoted our lives to."

Without Ware's input "I probably would have quit," Brunetti says. "He's been very encouraging and supportive. My friendship with Chris turned me into more of a human being, and I think because of that my cartooning got better. I don't think it was a coincidence."

Last year Ware got a call from Yale University Press asking him to edit an anthology of comic art. He declined, as he'd just finished a similar project, the all-comics issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. Instead he suggested Brunetti, who'd assisted him with the book and whom he'd also recommended for the U. of C. teaching job. Brunetti had shown his syllabus and handouts to Ware, who liked what he saw. "He knew that I worked really hard on it," Brunetti says.

Serendipitously, the very day that Ware mentioned Brunetti to Yale, the Sun-Times published an article about "Comics on the Verge," a show that included some of his "good Ivan" work. The article was the first thing the Yale editor came across when he googled Brunetti. Brunetti submitted a proposal and landed the job.

"Five years ago I'd debate whether it was worth it to get out of bed or pick a scab; it was a metaphysical issue," he muses. "Now it's like, How do I get the things I want to get done done? Not, Are they worth doing? I realized it's pointless to debate that." Then the old pessimism rears its head. "Probably the answer is no, they're not worth doing," he says. "The pointlessness of it all, that's just always there anyway. You can't change that; that's like the rules of the universe."

The Cartoonist's Eye

When: Tue-Sat through 10/22, 11 AM-5 PM. Opening reception Thu 9/8, 5-8 PM

Where: Columbia College A + D Gallery, 619 S. Wabash

Price: Free

Info: 312-663-1600

More: Chris Ware and Canadian cartoonist Seth will present their work at 6 PM.

Panel with Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, and Seth

When: Fri 9/9, 1:30 PM

Where: Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts, 1104 S. Wabash, room EC302

Price: Free

Info: 312-663-1600

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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