Ivan Brunetti’s Penned-Up Energy

The prospect of turning 40 makes most people crankier. But this comic isn’t most people.

In a 2004 interview with Comics Journal, Ivan Brunetti explained that during his childhood he was scrawny, terrible at sports, antisocial, and picked on by bigger kids. When CJ editor Gary Groth then asked why he was picked on, Brunetti responded, "I don't know. Because I'm a homo?"The 41-year-old Brunetti is not actually gay. He's married, lives in Chicago, has three cats, and is fairly successful and well-respected in the world of professional illustrators; Chris Ware of Acme Novelty Library fame is among his biggest fans. When Brunetti draws himself, it's often in the R. Crumb vein: hunched, bespectacled, sweaty, nervous—an all-around withdrawn misanthrope. When he illustrates his own Q&A sessions with journalists (Brunetti often does this in lieu of having his interviews printed in standard form), he makes himself out to be the most awkward and depraved man alive. Depending on how you look at it, his self-portrayal is either a social defense mechanism, a method of psychological coping, a sign of his humility, or a furthering of his public mystique. It's probably a little of each. Comics, for better or worse, tend to attract the socially inept. It helps if readers have someone they can identify with.Despite the fact that his illustrations have appeared in such mainstream publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and SPIN, Brunetti is best known for creating some of the most morally questionable comics ever published. In one of his single-panel creations, a naked, skinny man is shoving a rifle up the vagina of a blindfolded woman, who asks: "Is it all the way in yet?" In another, a beret-wearing artiste is asked by another man: "Are you one of those 'naive' painters, or just a no-talent art-school fuckwad?" Obviously, anger informs much of Brunetti's work.Seattle-based Fantagraphics has published four issues of Brunetti's comic Schizo, two collections of his single-panel cartoons called HAW! (plus a smaller companion volume called HEE!), and a beautifully bound anthology of his work called Misery Loves Comedy. Flipping through these books is a lot like flipping through the notebook of an extremely talented teenager: Brunetti's style, while unique, is deeply indebted to Crumb, Charles Schulz, and the narrative flow of daily strips. Matter of fact, if the U.S. were a less puritanical beast, Brunetti's strips would look right at home in the funny pages of our finer metros.Lately, Brunetti seems less angry. His panels and his storytelling, which once exploded like sticks of dynamite, now favor the subtle and deadpan. As he told the Web site Comic Book Galaxy, he'd now just as soon have his characters "sit in the restaurant and have a conversation" than try to have "every panel turned up to 11."In some of Brunetti's recent strips (see Schizo #4, published in 2006, for the best examples), his humdrum, day-to-day existence as a Web designer and teacher of comics takes center stage. When he draws himself now, his chin is up slightly, his shoulders pulled back. He wakes up, gets dressed, scolds his cat for breaking a vase, eats cereal, reads Peanuts, meditates, and then walks to work in the pouring rain.In the past, having to walk in the rain would have led to much rage and hatred. But rather than spit and froth at the world as he once did, Brunetti seems content to revel in his own nerdiness and idiosyncrasies, to accept life as it unfolds. Who knows whether it was the approval of his peers, public recognition of his work, or what, but Brunetti seems to have made peace with the universe. Though his jokes aren't as in-your-face and riotous as they were, they are certainly a lot more open, playful, and fun.Then again, maybe that has to do with simply growing up. Quoth Brunetti in Comic Book Galaxy: "I have this renewed energy as I get closer to 40."bbarr@seattleweekly.com==========Ivan Brunetti With Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine. Leo K. Theatre, 3:45–5 p.m. Sun., Aug. 31.

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