You're a Sick Man, Charlie Brown

Sex and violence go comic in the work of Ivan Brunetti

Comparisons between famously depressive Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and raunch-and-rant cartoonist Ivan Brunetti seem a bit of a stretch. After all, Schulz never drew Lucy sporting a strap-on dildo, as Brunetti does, and having her way with Charlie Brown. But the two illustrators share a world-view. Charlie Brown never gets to kick the football, talk to the little red-haired girl or fly a kite without snaring it in a tree. Brunetti's view of life is equally hopeless.

Even before the comic depictions of violent sex, self-mutilation, murder and mayhem that dominate Brunetti's bound collection of early comics, Misery Loves Comedy, there are clues that he's sick and conflicted. The title page shows Brunetti sitting by a wilted potted plant, a tear clinging to his eye, saying, "I'm sorry." The introduction is written by his therapist. As you might guess, she blames Brunetti's dysfunction on his parents.

Well, thank you, Mom and Dad! Brunetti's insecurity and double-edged anger is the freshest thing in underground comics since Robert Crumb sent Mr. Natural into the desert. Read past his point-blank titles ("Please Kill Me") and the illustrations of rape, slaughter and suicidal fantasies, and Brunetti emerges as an existential hero, confronting the world and his own demons with brutal honesty. You think you're the only one who has thought of stabbing yourself in the eye? Or strangling someone wearing a Styx T-shirt, then pissing on their corpse? Think again. And the best part? He does it for laughs.

Brunetti was born in Mondavio, Italy, in the 1960s and began drawing at age 4. The family immigrated to America, where, like many comic nerds, he was bullied by his schoolmates. His father, whom Brunetti described in an interview for The Comics Journal #264 as "domineering and tyrannical," made him give up drawing, forcing Brunetti to hide his doodling in the way most young men hide masturbation. He discovered the underground at the University of Chicago, jumped back into drawing and published his first issue of Schizo in 1994. Since then, he's done New Yorker covers and appeared in Entertainment Weekly as well as Dirty Stories and Hate comics. His reputation jumped when he edited and wrote the introduction to last year's An Anthology of Graphic Fiction from Yale University Press.

Crude, absurd and surreal humor have been part of underground comics since their '60s heyday. Brunetti personalizes that tradition, creating a brutally honest self-portrait that reflects our darker urges. "The mark of any great artist is his willingness and ability to say what everyone else is afraid to even think," he says in a manifesto that opens Schizo #1. By this measure, Brunetti is among the greatest artists to have ever lived.

Misery Loves Comedy collects the first three issues of Schizo as well as miscellaneous strips and cartoons published from 1992 to 2003. There's a variety of drawing styles ranging from the exacting, detailed portraits seen in "Six Reasons Why I Wish I Were Man Ray" to simple round-faced renderings influenced by Peanuts and Hello Kitty. Brunetti shows his skill as a copyist in scenes from favorite newspaper strips as only he can: daddy cutting a "felch fart" in a Family Circus parody, Dennis taking Mr. Wilson from behind, and Nancy offering to flash Sluggo if he'll reciprocate.

Brunetti synthesizes his world-view, sometimes without words, in single-page comics drenched in snide irony. "Music Brings Us All Closer!" makes a hilariously cynical comment on pop culture. "A Modern Day Fable" shames Steinbeck's The Pearl when an overgenerous cash machine leads to murder, whoring, drugs, suicide and donuts.

Brunetti's long pieces transcend comic humor while delving into the ironies of applied psychology and philosophy. "Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum . . ." has all the pathos of Job scraping boils with a pottery shard. Brunetti argues dogma with Jesus in print-heavy panels as Christ finds a use for his stigmata that any 14-year-old boy would admire. "If I Were Dictator of the World" balances wild images atop typed paragraphs urging global annihilation.

Schizo #4, issued in 2006, is not included in this collection, probably because it stands apart from the earlier work with its focus on the frustrations of making art and sketches of Kjerkegaard, Erik Satie, Louise Brooks and film producer Val Lewton. Brunetti seems to have dealt with his depression and anger, channeling it into a childlike stylism that retains more than a hint of slime. In a tribute to Schulz, Brunetti is seen plinking at the piano, Schroeder-like, saying, "The damage of youth never subsides." Those who enjoy Brunetti's particular brand of depravity can only hope he's right.


Misery Loves Comedy by Ivan Brunetti; Fantagraphic Books; www.fantagraphics.com. Hardback, 172 pages, $24.95.

 
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