Ivan Brunetti, Misery Loves Comedy (Fantagraphics, 2007). $24.95, hardcover.
by Jared Gardner
As I confess to you, because it is true, that I adore Ivan Brunetti’s work, I struggle to resist the urge to qualify my adoration. “Of course,” I should add, “his work is self-indulgent, misogynistic, violent, and often vile beyond anything else found in the form, and in many ways it constitutes a set-back for those of us who are devoted to seeing comics finally crawl out of the gutter.” I should indeed say all of the above (and then some) so that you will still respect me in the morning, but I would be lying. The fact is, I love wallowing in the gutter with Brunetti, and I love that even as he enters that stage of life where he is invited by Yale University Press to oversee the first university press anthology devoted to the contemporary graphic novel, he is still writing single-panel gag cartoons exploring the hitherto-unrevealed humor in baby-rape, suicide, and…well, I refer you to Brunetti’s masterful Hee! (2005) and Haw! (2001) for details. But I do not relish having to put into words the nature of my affections.
Misery Loves Comedy collects the first three (out of print) issues of Brunetti’s ongoing serial, Schizo, originally published from 1995-1998. Like others reviewed in this issue of guttergeek (Joe Matt & Adrian Tomine), Brunetti is a slow worker and his productivity has been especially slow of late, even as his visibility on New Yorker covers and the aforementioned Yale imprint have increased. But even in the most grotesque single-panel gag cartoon (say, a man asking the dismembered body at his feet if it was good for her, too), Brunetti has a rare ability to summon up simultaneously the complete 1930s New Yorker cartoons of James Thurber and the experimental films of Andy Warhol. Which is to say, a single panel from Brunetti is worth pages from the average hack populating alternative/autobiographical comics today.
Misery Loves Comedy charts Brunetti’s maturation as an artist and a thinker. The best part of the first issue of Schizo is the relentlessness of it all—the sheer monotony of the theme of misery and self-loathing, coupled with the wild range of Brunetti’s art, which many readers more familiar with his recent comics might be surprised by. The best part of the second issue is the letters page, which features comments from a pantheon of indie comics legends—Clowes, Crumb, Matt, Chester Brown, Kaz—almost all of whom chide Brunetti for being tiresome in his relentless pursuit of misery and self-loathing. As Joe Matt happily declares, Brunetti makes him feel less pathetic: “You really take the cake and shit on it…when it comes to being or portraying yourself as pathetic.”
But even as Brunetti absorbs the critiques of his first issue, even in the second issue he is already changing. Not in terms of his themes, which remain fiercely committed to addressing such pressing issues as constipation, castration, and the various ways in which recently deceased bodies can be used for water sports, but in terms of the range of the humor and the broadening of its objects. His parodies of classic comic strips are truly brilliant: effortlessly he captures the tone and pacing of Peanuts or Hi and Lois and simultaneously savages both his own miserable domestic life and the mainstream comic and the audiences who consume them.
Schizo #3 features a masterful novella, “Work Equals Degredation,” that captures the rhythms of an average day at work (assuming, that is, that the average person harbors criminal and psychotic fantasies every moment of the day). But now it is the pitying of himself and his society that has emerged as his central theme—chastizing a whiney, blame-gaming culture by skewering himself (both literally and figuratively) in virtually every comic.
The one disappointment for more recent Brunetti fans who perhaps fell in love with him after Schizo #4 is that there is not a lot of color work in this volume. #4 was published last year by Fantagraphics, and in many ways, the most recent is the best of the four, both graphically (Brunetti has been channeling the line and palette of his good friend Chris Ware in recent years, and it suits him well) and in terms of the range and subtlety of the humor. Although die-hard fans surely were distraught to find not a single dismembered penis or sex act with a decapitated head in the whole issue, the man must be forgiven for mellowing a bit in his middle years (he turns forty this year). His move toward biography and history, which begins to take shape in Schizo #3, has opened up new territories for Brunetti to explore—stories that get him (just a bit) beyond the bleak nihilism of his self-portraits in the early issues.
If you are looking to test friendships or, better yet, test your own sense of humor, buy this book. And if your humor (or your friendships) survive the experience, take it up a notch and get copies of Hee! and Haw!. And then, once we all have that out of our systems, we will be ready to follow Brunetti wherever he wishes to take us in the years to come. I can’t wait (let me grab my raincoat first, though).