Although Ivan Brunetti has crafted many graphically striking comics and illustrations over the last quarter-century, perhaps the most telling inclusion in his new book, “Aesthetics: A Memoir,” is the worst looking. While attending the University of Chicago in the 1980s, the Italy-born/South Side-bred artist did a comic strip for The Maroon student paper, that, while quite funny, was an artistic mess. “Misery Loves Comedy” was as visually amateurish as countless college-press comics made by undergrads who'll never pick up a drawing pen after graduation.
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By reprinting a particularly shoddy, overly ambitious early strip (for purposes of "self-mortification," he claims), Brunetti is showcasing two of the most fascinating aspects of his now-lengthy career. The first is that his work ethic and focus are remarkable. I can't think of any other cartoonist whose early professional work was so far superior to work he did as a young adult. By intensely studying the comics canon, Brunetti became a masterful mimic ("The closest I came to 'art school' was the few months I spent in 1994 drawing 60 comics in the style of ['Nancy' artist] Ernie Bushmiller."). He eventually developed a distinct style that exploits both the emotional intensity and diagrammatic universality that minimalist comics can achieve.
But the more fascinating factor suggested by this unexpected reprint is that Brunetti's relationship with his college comic may betray his public nihilism. The artist's decades-long dance with the depressing, morbid and miserable ("Typically, I loathe my strips nearly as much as I loathe myself," he writes) contrasts with the pride he obviously takes in his work, as this handsome collection of both his most commercial works (New Yorker covers, posters, a CD jacket) and most personally artistic drawings, paintings and sculptures implies. Brunetti claims that his bibliography of comics compilations and sketchbook reproductions is meant to be something between a purge and an attempt to "elevate the most minuscule of my accomplishments." But this collection of his work — from his paternal claims to his ugly collegiate offspring to photos of precious paintings he's made for his wife — make this downer talk seem more self-flagellation than self-loathing. Brunetti knows there's good in even his worst work, and great in his best. Despite the gloomy captions, "Aesthetics" captures this as well as anything he's published.
Brunetti's previous books include compilations of his work, an instructional cartooning book and edited collections of contemporary cartoonists. But his newest publication's titular tease of being a memoir promised something new. Though "Aesthetics" is light on text and stingier with personal anecdotes than most issues of his sporadically published comic book Schizo, the curation and captions here might make this his most revealing work yet. Alongside his best-known illustrations are art projects and exercises he's done to deal with his failing eyesight (a gestural cityscape drawn from a moving train) and obsessiveness (a detail of a 30-foot-long piece of nearly 2,000 similar sketches of a girl). There are photos of his archival movie and animation artifacts, shots of his workspace (shades of Darger's desk?), and annotated reproductions of drawings done between the ages of 4 and 6. "I consider this," he writes, "by far my best period as an artist." Of a sketch of Tom and Jerry he did as an 8-year-old, Brunetti characteristically adds, "my drawings were starting to get worse."
Perhaps reading pride and satisfaction into Brunetti's constant chorus of de-affirmations is misplaced optimism. Maybe I really do think this impressive volume reflects an artist who, in addition to being able to catalog his weaknesses, genuinely understands his strengths. Or maybe I just wish he did. But in rare moments of joy in "Aesthetics," I like to think Brunetti is revealing bigger truths. Reflecting upon realizing a childhood dream of illustrating a Marvel Comics cover featuring Spider-Man, Hulk and their super-colleagues, Brunetti offers the following advice to the discouraged: "Hold on to your dreams; if you can persevere, eventually reality will bend to your will."
Ivan Brunetti will talk with Art Spiegelman at Printers Row Lit Fest at 10 a.m., June 8, in the Harold Washington Library Center. Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago.
By Ivan Brunetti, Yale, 120 pages, $25Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun