This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Time Out Chicago’s May 31-June 6, 2007, issue. For more, read my Q&A with Brunetti at Underground Bee.
For a collection of comic books, Ivan Brunetti’s Misery Loves Comedy (Fantagraphics, $24.95) looks unusually plain on the outside. No dust jacket. No illustration. Just the title and the author’s name embossed on a dark green cover.
“I wanted the book to look like a psychiatric case study,” Brunetti says. “I wanted to have a cover that would seem nonthreatening, and when you open it, then it would hit you.”
Boy, does it hit you. Self-loathing and misanthropy are standard topics in underground comics, but few artists have tunneled down to the extreme depths that this Chicago artist explored in his Schizo comic books. Collected in the new anthology, these 1990s cartoons reveal Brunetti feeling violent impulses, shame over lustful longings and disgust at humanity. Decapitations, eruptions of puke and elongated penises fill the panels. These disturbing (and often disturbingly funny) confessions are punctuated by comic strips with titles such as “Drink My Piss, Motherfucker” and “Please Hurt My Oversized Testicles.”
After reading the first Schizo, R. Crumb wrote a letter published in the second issue: “Have you given any thought to getting on PROZAC? … I thought your comic was sharp and funny, but SO fucking NEGATIVE and SELF-ABSORBED, it’s hard to take… But then, Kafka is hard to take, so I dunno…” The later cartoons in Misery Loves Comedy show evidence that Brunetti has mellowed a bit, and further proof is revealed in the two almost-sweet covers he drew this year for The New Yorker, one of a little girl skating on an ice floe, another showing a variety of costumed kids.
It’s not just New Yorker covers that are keeping Brunetti busy. Between his job running Columbia College’s website and teaching classes there, Brunetti edited 2006’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, (Yale University Press, $28), an omnibus of comics by some 80 artists, and he’s starting work on a second volume, slated for 2008.
Brunetti, who lived in Italy until he was 8 and then grew up on Chicago’s southeast side, is sheepish when he talks about his early comics. What was the response when his family and friends saw Schizo? “Very bad,” Brunetti says quietly. “Very, very negative. No good came out of that. I regret a lot of that. I wish I could have stepped back from everything and written it as fiction. Now I feel like I’m trapped. If I wrote something as fiction, it would just seem really false. It would be obvious, from having read my other stuff, that I’m really talking about myself.”
Brunetti describes himself as a private person who hates violence and vulgarity, and his friends agree with that assessment.
“Anyone who’s familiar only with his work might be surprised to learn that in person he’s incredibly kind and generous, but if you think about it, this isn’t really that much of a contradiction,” says Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware says. “Despite his regular territory of the dark, dirty depths of the human soul, he also never diverges from the Charles M. Schulz basic charter of the cartoonist: ‘Cartooning is, after all, drawing funny pictures.’”
Allowing the old comics to be collected in a new book was a difficult decision, Brunetti says. “The issues had gone out of print, and people kept asking me. It’s like a repository for those things. It’s like a tombstone. I almost wish people would think I was dead or something, that it was a posthumous project.”