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Poisoned Pen 

A sense of humor black as ink

By Jack Helbig

"I always figured I would kill myself," says cartoonist Ivan Brunetti. "All through high school and college I just assumed that I just wasn't going to make it, that I would blow my brains out. The problem is that I never did that. So there you are, alive, and you're stuck having to do something."

The something Brunetti settled on is writing and drawing Schizo, a darkly funny, intensely personal, uncompromisingly nihilistic comic book. Schizo provides Brunetti with a forum for his darkest fantasies.

"The subconscious is morally reprehensible," he writes in his "Manifesto, of Sorts," included in the first issue of Schizo. "The id wants to fuck your mother and butcher your father. The id wants to sniff assholes. The id wants to rape and be raped. The id wants to eat flesh and lick bodily secretions. The id wants to piss all over itself and cry like a shit encrusted infant howling in naked fear as it stares at its own eventual deathly demise."

Schizo's first issue, the one with a five-headed self-caricature of Brunetti on the cover, lived up to this manifesto, featuring 48 pages packed tight with images of murder, mutilation, suicide, lots and lots of blood, piss, and other bodily fluids, not to mention strange sex and the relentless defilement of every sacred cow possible.

In one cartoon, "The Nun with Two Dicks," a nun with breasts and two penises has sex with multiple partners simultaneously, first with two of her students and then with an archbishop and the Pope. In another strip, called "Everything Sucks," a character who looks a lot like Brunetti stabs himself in the eye, then in the gut, then slits his throat and pulls his head off, slams it against the wall, and shoots it five times before leaping out the window. The punchline: Wife returns home, smile on her face, announcing, "Hey! Check it out! We won the lottery!"

"The comics are torture," Brunetti says, "'cause it's hard for me to draw. And they get so personal. It's hard to detach myself from what I am doing. Most of the writing is from notebooks I keep from really depressing moments in my life."

Only two issues old, Schizo has already stirred up considerable interest in the underground comic world. Last fall Bill Griffith plugged Schizo in an episode of Zippy the Pinhead. And Brunetti has received fan letters from such noteworthy cartoonists as Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb, who suggested that he try to "lighten up" and consider "getting on Prozac" or trying "positive autosuggestion."

"I wasn't expecting any sort of response from my comics," he says. "I just did it for myself."

In person Brunetti looks average enough--unruly black hair, trimmed beard, small, watery eyes behind a pair of round black glasses. If he were wearing a tie and tweed jacket he'd be a dead ringer for his cartoon alter ego Ivan, the angry, whining, self-loathing hero of Schizo whose rants ("1,784 Things That Make Me Vomit") and daydreams ("Six Reasons Why I Wish I Were Man Ray") make up the bulk of the book.

Brunetti speaks softly, with the hesitancy of someone not used to being listened to. "All my life all I've wanted to do is draw, but my parents actively discouraged me from art." Born in Mondavio, "some little shit town" in central Italy, Brunetti moved to Chicago with his family in 1975 when he was eight. They landed on the southeast side, "Ed Vrdolyakland, where all the steel mills used to be."

A bookish kid, Brunetti says he felt out of place in the working-class neighborhood. He spent a lot of time reading comic books and drawing. From a very early age Brunetti copied Disney characters from the newspapers. "In Europe there are a lot of Disney comic strips," he says. Later, "when I really got into animated cartoons," he branched into doing the Warner Brothers characters: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam. By the time he was 12 he began to draw from life.

But his folks had other plans. His father told him he was too old for comic books and made him sell his collection. "There was a lot of poverty fear," Brunetti says. "My family came from a rural area, and both my father and mother grew up in poverty. If only I had been a really dumb kid," he sighs, "where my only talent was drawing, they might have encouraged me, if that was my only hope."

Brunetti's parents pushed him to give up drawing in high school to focus on his schoolwork. "Everything was expected of me. They never showed me any encouragement. I never heard a positive comment in my whole life. I guess it had an effect on my psyche." Nevertheless, Brunetti's classmates elected him "most likely to succeed"--"thereby jinxing me for life. Fuck 'em all!"

Brunetti enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he majored in English. "The most useless, worthless major. But also the easiest one. I didn't really want to be at the University of Chicago. I didn't want to go to school. I just wanted to get it over with."

While at the U. of C. Brunetti discovered underground comics and began to think about becoming a cartoonist. "I had been following The Far Side and Life in Hell and I thought, these guys can't really draw. But they are funny. And they got a job doing this." He started doing a strip for the Maroon, the school newspaper, called Misery Loves Comedy.

"I'm pretty embarrassed by it now. I had decided I would come up with an easy drawing style, something that would only take five minutes or so. It was pretty stupid stuff. I put no effort into it."

After college, Brunetti continued to draw Misery Loves Comedy while he looked for a way to make a living.

"For a while I thought maybe I could get a job in advertising, but luckily that didn't work out. I went to a few ad agencies and got bad vibes. I remember when I had an interview at Leo Burnett I tried to be up and positive. I really went out of my way to show I was this really up guy. And the guy who was interviewing me said, 'Why are you so down?' Compared to everyone there I was. But they were all completely hyper. So it was obvious I would never fit into that."

Brunetti took a couple of stabs at making his cartoons pay. In college he had published an anthology of favorite Misery Loves Comedy strips that was partly subsidized by the university. It sold very well at 25 cents a copy. Out in the real world he published a second volume on his own, but he had to raise the price to $9.95 to cover costs. "I really lost a lot of money on that." He still has boxes of this book stacked in his closets.

Brunetti got married in 1991 and took a job at the University of Chicago Press editing stories for an astrophysics journal. But he continued to cartoon on the side.

"I had to force myself to make time to draw my comics. Work was pretty demanding. And to come home, sacrifice your social life, and put a strain on your marriage by sitting at a drawing table and locking yourself in, you have to have either discipline or a psychosis."

Around that same time an old friend from college started an underground comic book called Biff Bang Pow, and Brunetti was invited to contribute. Figuring that this was his big chance, Brunetti consciously drew comics that he thought would have wide appeal, at least to a college-educated audience. Collaborating with Thad Doria, he created a parodic team of superheroes--the Fine Art Force-- with names like Impressionist Girl, Captain Cubist, and Renaissance Man. In each episode of this "action-packed esoterica," they would confront some problem related to art history. The first installment was called "Hello, Dali!" and found the Fine Art Force stranded in a world that had mysteriously been transformed into a Dali landscape, complete with melting watches and mysterious whiskered blobs of protoplasm.

After three issues Biff Bang Pow ceased publication. Even more disappointing, the Fine Art Force failed to earn Brunetti any kind of recognition. "I realize now my work was too depressing to appeal to the masses but too compromised to appeal to underground comic fans."

He sank into a deep depression, feeling locked into a life he hated. "That was such a depressing time. I really had no idea want I wanted to do."

Brunetti says he gave up on the idea of becoming a famous cartoonist and retreated into his studio. Then as an alternative to lying on his bed in a dark room, he started drawing whatever popped into his head. He censored nothing and what came out was sometimes pretty vile--horrific murders and ghastly suicides dominated. Even his titles were extreme.

He called the first episode of his proposed 18-part autobiography "Why Every Single Person in the Entire World Could Be Instantaneously Obliterated From the Face of the Planet and I Wouldn't Turn to Look, Even if There Were a Loud Noise, or I Hate You, I Hate You ALL!" And later in the same issue he titled a story, "Yessir, I'm Just Another Completely Screwed-Up Catholic Boy."

When he had 20 pages of material, a friend persuaded him to start submitting it to publishing houses. And Antarctica, a company in Texas, called him on the phone.

"They gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted," and Brunetti took the company at its word, making the last 28 pages every bit as foul and taboo breaking as the first 20. To Brunetti's surprise they published Schizo unedited and asked him to do another.

"I figured the book would show up and disappear like everything else I'd done. Just fail miserably."

Schizo caught the eye of Fantagraphics, a larger publishing house that specialized in underground comics, including Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's Love and Rockets and Daniel Clowes's Eightball. Fantagraphics asked Brunetti to work for them. In October 1995, they reprinted the first issue of Schizo, and in January of this year released the second installment.

Sales have been respectable but not brisk, and Brunetti has little hope that he will make anything more than the $500 he gets per 48 page issue.

For now he's taken a leave of absence from his editing job to draw and to work on a fumetto, a comic book using photographs instead of drawings. So far all he's done is convert a Fred Flintstone doll into his own likeness. Still, Brunetti's pleased by the attention Schizo's getting in the comic book world.

"R. Crumb told me to lighten up," Brunetti says, as a slight smile flickers over his otherwise solemn face.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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