Late on a Friday afternoon, the worst time of the week for a book signing, cartoonist Ivan Brunetti sat behind the counter at Chicago Comics in
and waited for fans. He waited and sighed. A line would form, fade away, form, fade. Some customers asked where the bathroom was. A girl with emerald hair walked up. "I draw in graphic novel style," she said, placing one of his books before him, opening to a blank inside cover, "but I read your books, and your comics have been incredibly helpful, inspiring. I want to thank you."
"I don't want anyone drawing like me," he mumbled, not unkindly, more to himself. He sketched the
into her book. She studied his face while he drew. Sweat trembled at his right temple, his stomach hung over the front of his belt. Before finishing, he drew himself in, as a grizzled beach ball of a man, daggers of flop sweat flying off the caricature's face. She smiled and walked off.
A young man approached the counter. "What are you working on?" he asked brightly.
"Lot of New Yorker stuff," Brunetti said. "I want to get back to telling stories."
"Cool," the guy said. Then, randomly: "Hey, can I tell you a joke from 'Peanuts?'"
Before Brunetti could reply, the guy began to describe a "Peanuts" strip, panel for panel; it sounded so melancholy that with a little more angst it could have been a Brunetti piece. Brunetti thanked him and looked around the store for another fan. The guy didn't budge. "What's your next book I can buy?" he asked.
"I'm finishing the cover of a Penguin reissue of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.'"
"I have an old copy. I won't be buying that."
Brunetti smiled weakly and dropped his head.
Ivan Brunetti is cringing.
He is a Chicago cartoonist and illustrator, swooned over by peers, beloved by his students at
, revered by a fervent cult of admirers, and coming into his own. At the moment, though, he's cringing. He's cringing at this story, at the picture, at what you think of him, at the nice things people say about him. He doesn't think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his peers: His best friend is the celebrated cartoonist Chris Ware; another good friend is cartoonist Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World"), who, like Brunetti, spent some formative years in Hyde Park. When I mention these guys, he cringes.
"Because I feel like a fraud most of the time," he said. "I haven't proven myself the way those guys have. I should feel lucky, right? I don't. I'm constantly complaining. Most of my problems are caused by myself."
One day I told him I wasn't exactly certain when this profile would appear in the Tribune. "It's a floater," I said.
"Like a turd," he replied quietly.
There is knowing self-effacement here. The introduction to his 2006 collection, "Misery Loves
," was written by a social worker. But the angst is no joke. He doesn't think much of himself, his talent, his appeal. Which is ironic, considering that during the past two decades he has gone from being the acerbic underground artist behind the insanely harsh comic "Schizo" to, recently, a well-regarded editor (of
Press' best-selling, two-volume "An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories"), an acclaimed New Yorker magazine illustrator and one of Columbia College's professorial stars. He's taught there since 2006. How he came to it sounds like a Brunetti strip, too: "He was working in IT," said Jay Wolke, chair of the art and design department. "Let's put it this way — not the best use of Ivan's brilliance."
When people talk about Brunetti, they often couch it with a "Let's put it this way." Francoise Mouly, the longtime art director of the New Yorker, said, "Let's put it this way — Ivan will never be comforted in life." She said it in her native French lilt, with the breeziness of tone and the bluntness of meaning we associate with the French. But without malice or sarcasm, only lament and concern. There is no comforting Ivan Brunetti.
She should know. She works with him, and, though the New Yorker is famous for rejecting submissions from both the established and the unknown, in the several years Brunetti has been designing covers and full-page comic strips for her, Mouly has yet to turn down "a Brunetti," as she calls the cartoonist's work.
Indeed, Brunetti is so admired for his clean and increasingly minimalist style — a mix of comic-strip nostalgia, streamlined shapes and a palpable disenchantment — that Lynda Barry, the former Chicago cartoonist behind the alt-weekly strip "Ernie Pook" (whom Brunetti grew up revering), named one of her cats "Ivan Brunetti." She also plans to teach his recent text book, "Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice," next year when she serves as the artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin.
"Everything about Ivan is real," she said. "But trying to explain what I like about his work is like trying to explain why I loved the smell of leaded gasoline when I was a kid. It's a tough thing to put into words."
Brunetti is 43. He lives in a bungalow in
with his wife, Laura Mizicko, a teacher's aide, and two cats, Linus and Schroeder. He was born in
and lived on a farm northeast of Rome, reading a lot, copying translated issues of Disney comics and dreading school, where he says life was one constant bullying. His father named him after Ivan the Terrible, Brunetti says. He wanted a fighter, a man's man.
In the mid-1970s, his parents moved to Chicago, to the South Side, where his father worked in steel mills. Ivan was 8. But he didn't feel at home here. Cartoonists are often gloomy people, always fighting a sense of failure, Ware said, citing "Peanuts" creator
as a famous example. "In Ivan's case, moving from Italy and arriving in Chicago not knowing a word of English, his problem was especially focused, and he threw himself into reading and copying comics as a way both of probably learning the language and, especially, of bolstering his sense of self-worth." A few years ago, Brunetti gave Ware a childhood drawing; it was signed "by Ivan Brunetti, the greatest artist in the world."
Even after he attended the
, though, Brunetti didn't feel rooted; and even now he refers to Chicagoans as "Americans," with that lingering remove of a new immigrant. At 25, he started "Schizo," a comic so caustic — and offensive and frantic, but with the thick black palate of classic newspaper strips — friends routinely asked if he would be arrested. It partly detailed his life as a copy editor at a local university press, and the homicidal daydreams that came to him while on the job. He declined to say at which press.
"It wasn't to shock," he says. "It was an unguarded look at how I felt, and I was probably losing my mind."
Comedian Patton Oswalt, who wrote the introduction to one of Brunetti's books (in exchange for original art by Brunetti), became friends with the cartoonist around this period, after they met at the
Comic Con: "('Simpsons' creator)
came up to me and said, 'Come over here. You've got to see this guy.' And it was Ivan, sitting behind his table, with stapled pages from 'Schizo.' I flipped through and was instantly a fan. He used the most disposable, cartoony style to get at some of the rawest feelings. It was remarkable. He understood these unappreciated forms but gave it the soul of a fearless confessionalist."
Brunetti has mellowed.
The walls of his home are lined with evidence of maturity, tasteful black-and-white comic art — pieces from Ware and Clowes hung alongside original art from old newspaper strips such as "Nancy" — and a few framed works from the New Yorker, bright, pastel, densely populated with cute, rounded characters.
Oswalt sees that switch as an artist refining himself as he grows older, "getting closer to the essential elements of what he does." Chip Kidd, art director at the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house, says, "I think Ivan's been following a reductive path, trying to see how much he can pull out of a character and still have it read emotionally. It takes Ivan like one or two brush marks now to do it, like Charles Schulz. Which is hard."
To put it mildly.
"Some can't help draw beautifully," Mouly said. "With Ivan, everything involves a tremendous amount of willpower. So when he does something he is giving it his all. Nothing just
out of the tip of that pen."
"People ask me a lot if he's really like that," Brunetti's wife said. "And yes, work is tortured for him. And his 'depressed' thing — it is part of him. Ivan is not happy-go-lucky. But it's only part of him. There's more there."
I glimpsed it during his class at Columbia, an introduction to cartooning. He was funny, encouraging, without coming off harshly judgmental. He afforded his students the generosity he doesn't allow for himself. During a break, a senior, Brian Morrison, said Brunetti's class was becoming "an island at this school, like it's own thing." I heard this from a few students. Some were a little familiar with his cartoons. Some seemed in awe.
One told me his class was the most awake he felt when he was at Columbia. Jeremy Smith, a former student, now an illustrator (who draws under the name Onsmith), said later: "I know why students say those things. The honesty Ivan has about himself, as a student it gives you the encouragement to be honest, too. The pretty stuff, the ugly stuff — it's all valid to him. Because it comes from the same place, if it's genuine."
Kidd, who says Brunetti's relative obscurity is due mainly to the fact that he's not much of a self-promoter, has been badgering the cartoonist to submit a book proposal for more than a decade. "He doesn't have a defining book. That's a big moment for a cartoonist," Kidd said. "And Ivan has a masterpiece in him; it's just getting him to do it."
A week after the class, I asked Brunetti if not having a definable work bothers him. He didn't answer. He stared forward. At last, he said, "Yes. It bothers me. My ineptitude bothers me. My laziness. I want to work on a sketch book (about childhood and Italy), but the danger is I work all summer and have nothing to show. I don't want to let anybody down. It's easier if I have an assignment, if I have something that needs to get done. Then I have that pressure. The thing is, I'll sabotage myself anyway! I push people with my methods. Maybe, at some level, I don't want to be successful. I don't know. Maybe." And then Ivan Brunetti smiled.