Ivan Brunetti: Editor, Cartoonist, Illustrator & Teacher Digs Deep To Find What Truly Connects
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
A lot of questions come up for me when I think of comics, but those were quickly diminished when I learned about the complexity and weirdness of the craft. I can now absolutely appreciate why comics exist, and the messages I may have missed from them this whole time. I met Ivan at Columbia College this past spring after class one day knowing full well who he was already. How could I not when another teacher is walking around campus with the same last name as me? After realizing we were probably not related, he starts to explain how he and other cartoonists also have questions of their own. Questions like, "where do these things exist, how does time work, are we spectators or participants in the story, does there really even need to be a story, can a comic be a poem? They are questions that keep cartoonists experimenting, exploring, falling flat, and rising to new heights." I found his passion and love for the art most endearing, especially knowing that it could be considered a form of self-expression, where a person can really create from the heart. Since this past year has been very heart-led for me, I appreciate when an artist can admit that much of their work can emerge from a vulnerable place, as Ivan did in this discussion. "I am inviting the viewer directly into my mind, my thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can somehow connect there."
Can you describe your different roles, what led you here, what inspired you to do what you do, and how you have come to develop your own style as an artist. Is this something you must teach to students, and if so, what does that philosophy look like?
My life has taken so many unexpected twists and turns, that I honestly don’t know what has led me here. Random forces, maybe. I try to be open-minded and follow opportunities as they arise, often at the risk of failing and looking like an ass. Plus, I have trouble sticking with routines and plans, and I’m constantly looking for challenges that will “pull out the rug from under” my expectations and drive me crazy. I find that strangely energizing, even if unnerving. To answer your question, as a child, I learned to draw by copying Disney comics; later I graduated to Spiderman (perhaps the “reluctantly responsible” aspects of that character appealed to me, but I can only speculate), and later still I became obsessed with Peanuts, which pointed toward a possible path for drawing, writing, self-expression, and tackling life’s complexities within an aesthetic system built on simplicity. I gave up on drawing through high school, as I was battling what in retrospect was a pretty severe depression.
I grew up on the far South Side of Chicago, in the shadow of smoky steel mills and factories, and my environment was not exactly conducive to pursuing anything creative, as that was generally ridiculed and dismissed, nor was it encouraged by anyone (save for the miracle of two high school teachers, who fortunately gave me some hope). Thinking back on it, I had pretty much stopped drawing around 7th/8th grade, actually, after many years of obsessively drawing every day, as kids often do. But I managed to eke out, at best, only a handful of drawings in the ensuing 5-6 years. My spirit was thoroughly crushed. In college I discovered Matt Groening and Lynda Barry, as well as RAW magazine (edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly), and those artists reignited my passion. One of my friends died suddenly and unexpectedly toward the end of college, and that jarred me. It's as if I woke up to life's fragility, not only its exasperating randomness but also its precious, fleeting qualities. That tragic event snapped me out of my solipsism and lifted the stupor of melancholia just long enough for me to decide that I wanted to reconnect with drawing, and to find a way---any way---to make it a part of my life again. We only get one chance at life, which seems obvious, but not while you are in throes of depression. Well, it was a very long road back to drawing, full of twists, turns, bumps, potholes, detours, road blocks, etc., but eventually I got there. I try to explain to students that you have to have a deep love for what you are pursuing. Success rarely comes easily, and a reserve of perseverance and resiliency is absolutely crucial and vital. And I try to remind them that somewhere within them all, there exists that reserve.
"Drawing answers all questions. We can try to “out think” ourselves, but it’s better to follow your heart than your head (when it comes to art). It’s only via the process of doing, of getting it done, that our thinking gets sorted out—never before."
But I started drawing comics during college, gravitating toward what were then called underground/alternative comics (back in the late 1980s), and that was a path I pursued for a decade or so, teaching myself for the most part; however, over time I lost interest in (a) drawing the cruelty and horror of the world and (b) exploring my own self-loathing. It certainly wasn’t helping me or anyone else, or changing anything for the better. I started drawing quieter, more melancholy comics, but my pace in the last twenty years has slowed to a weak, sad trickle. I think I secretly want to fade into oblivion, ever-so-slowly. Somewhere in there, I started doing more serious research into the history of comics, and documented that in two anthologies I edited. This coincided with my starting to teach, which was yet another unexpected turn, which dovetailed with another pursuit: analyzing the more theoretical aspect of creating images in sequence, and the pedagogy thereof, which is what I tried to do with my Cartooning book. I had some lucky breaks, and got a chance to create illustrations for The New Yorker as well to write and draw two children’s books (three, if one counts my “how-to” book for kids, Comics: Easy as ABC!). None of these things were planned, but I have tried to go with the flow, in the hope it will all make some sort of sense eventually, even if only on my deathbed. As far as teaching goes, I mostly try to reassure students that they still have time to figure things out; the important thing is to keep making work. Drawing answers all questions. We can try to “out think” ourselves, but it’s better to follow your heart than your head (when it comes to art). It’s only via the process of doing, of getting it done, that our thinking gets sorted out—never before.
I read an article where in it you stated, “The best work is made when we let ourselves be vulnerable.” I have really been into vulnerability lately, and attempt at getting my students to just keep answering questions to their most deepest desires, and not worry about how it is perceived, because in a way, that is how things get developed. If you allow your sense of wonder to somehow meet your intuition, creative things happen. What did you mean with this statement and where is vulnerability most prevalent in your type of work or teaching?
We will never make something deep, honest, and true without making ourselves vulnerable, risking rejection, embarrassment, or criticism. When we pull out something deep from within ourselves, we can create work that truly connects with others. I really do believe that when we take these risks (and they are scary), the rewards are so much greater, both for ourselves as creative people, and for our audience. I think it’s about respecting the audience, too. Why give them something compromised, defensive, inauthentic? They deserve better, and they will value that deeper work much more—treasure it, even. “Don’t be afraid” is a common refrain in my teaching. “Dig deeper” is another. “Spend more time on it” is yet one more.
Your most recent comic in the New York Times reminded me in someway of my experience teaching online this past semester. I tried to keep control of a classroom built of tiny faces in boxes on my computer, so when I noticed your use of small boxes of images of students, and guiding them through a process of creativity by using images in small squares, I laughed out loud. What was the philosophical meaning behind this, and your mention of Kafka?
I never really know what these strips are actually “about” until much later (sometimes many years later); they seem to be about one thing while I am drawing them, but then reveal other aspects to me over time. I go with my gut, and I try to leave in as much as possible that makes me uncomfortable. I figure that the content is on the right track if it “gets away from me” a little bit. If I don’t feel that anxiety and nervousness while I am drawing, I think maybe the work is a little too shallow and pat. That strip was partly about its own creation, sort of: the exercise described therein becomes the strip itself. I had vague notions of chaos and order, the small and the large, cause and effect. I don’t know what it means, if anything. I did try to make spaetzle, and the gory result was as depicted. I try to write about little things, everyday events that maybe feel like they’re connected to (or rhyme with) bigger things, without trying to figure out exactly what these bigger things are. I certainly have no answers. I like the questions better, anyway. Kafka has long been one of my favorite authors; anytime I think I have some sort of “idea,” I inevitably find out Kafka got there first. He seems to have seen the world with a frightening crystalline clarity, and with a wrenching sensitivity. But there’s always a sense of humor there. So I, too, try to hold on to that…
"Don’t let anyone discourage you from your dreams and pursuits. Just keep pushing yourself to improve, to get better and better each time. All too often, students want the answer, the solution, the certainty that A+B will equal C, but art is not a math problem."
After reading an article for Columbia College on your work, I was interested in one approach of your teaching, “don’t tell the students what to do; rather, guide and challenge them toward finding their own solutions." Then I read another article you wrote for The Paris Review where you idolize Charles Schulz and explained the moment when you tried to illustrate his work. "And anyway, the veneer is never the thing itself. You know how sometimes you might hear what sounds like a simple melodic line in, say, Mozart, and then you see the actual sheet music, which reveals an unfathomably complex, rich structure, an eternity condensed into tiny, elusive black marks flowing through, over, under, and beyond the staves, swimming like furtive cells viewed under a microscope, seemingly unfixed and unfathomable yet cohering into a unified and inextricable whole, all of this therefore outing you as an arrogant, deluded, oblivious fool? That was me.”
If I were a student of yours and read that piece, I would very much be trying to tell myself that I just need to keep doing so that I learn as you did. Is it easy to give them all that information and experience stored in your brain, and do you find that within all of your writing and illustrations you might be somehow delivering your method of teaching?
Yes, I think that constantly working, whatever your creative practice might be, is the only way to move forward, to gain clarity, to sustain oneself, to keep up the momentum. I teach illustration students primarily, so I focus my advice on drawing. Whatever one is making, that is the work, and we must respect our creative drives. I encourage everyone to pursue whatever it is that interests them, beguiles them, vexes them, compels them. Obsession and devotion to one’s craft are necessary parts of the job, I think. I’m always stressing: don’t let anyone discourage you from your dreams and pursuits. Just keep pushing yourself to improve, to get better and better each time. All too often, students want the answer, the solution, the certainty that A+B will equal C, but art is not a math problem. A lot of my exercises are designed to push students beyond easy solutions, to sketch and sketch and sketch until your brain stretches out and reaches some unexpected places. That uncharted territory will lead students to their best work, and they will surprise even themselves.
Part of the description of your Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice book is that it "offers the reader an unintimidating approach to a complex art form." What is the complexity of this art form and what can the average comic reader and cartoon viewer gain from them? What makes an image compelling, and how do you bring it to life with all of the meanings?
I’ll answer the second question first: the image that comes to life is authentic and deep, regardless if it is rooted in memory, observation, or experience. I like to start with things that are concrete, simple. These things can be explored and connect to larger, more abstract things. That’s partly what that New York Times strip was about, I think (again, I don’t know; maybe I’m nuts). If I draw a tree branch, and spend time really looking deeply, I start to consider more than the tree branch… life, growth, aging, nature, patterns, the planet, the universe. These things floating through my mind exist somewhere in the drawing, and they can be felt by the viewer. I am inviting the viewer directly into my mind, my thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can somehow connect there. Comics seem simple on the surface, which is what I like about them. They beckon the reader. They also inspire others to become artists. There’s something unpretentious about them, a sense of “you can do this, too.” Of course, once you get sucked into the craft of comics, you realize how complex they are: you have to develop a reasonable mastery of drawing, writing, drama, not to mention tools and materials. Then you realize how weird comics actually are: where do these things exist, how does time work, are we spectators or participants in the story, does there really even need to be a story, can a comic be a poem? Those are the kinds of questions that keep cartoonists experimenting, exploring, falling flat, and rising to new heights.
You can learn more about Ivan's work at https://www.ivanbrunetti.com