In the past several years, artist and Chicagoan Ivan Brunetti has taught cartooning at Columbia College Chicago, illustrated nine New Yorker covers, edited two “Anthologies of Graphic Fiction,” and published books ranging from the cartoon collection “Ho! The Morally Questionable Cartoons of Ivan Brunetti,” to the hands-on comics creation guide “Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice.” In other words, he has done a lot more with himself than he might lead you to believe in this interview. His latest work, the illustrated autobiography “Aesthetics: A Memoir,” will be available in May of this year.
Where did you grow up on the South Side, and what was it like?
I moved from a small town in the rural central-eastern portion of Italy to the southeast corner of Chicago, known by the inhabitants as the “East Side.” If you are downtown and buy a map of Chicago, my old neighborhood is very likely not even pictured. Nothing south of Hyde Park seems to exist, at least for tourists. In any case, it is a remote, oft-neglected corner of the city.
In 1976, it was home to many steel mills and factories, most of which are now skeletons or nonexistent. There are few jobs left, although the air is cleaner, I imagine. My family lived within walking distance of Indianapolis Boulevard and thus the Illinois/Indiana border. The Skyway loomed overhead. We were “drive-over country.”
I remember most clearly the tightly packed, modest A-frame houses and bungalows, the rusty steel mills, the majestic ComEd plant, the many steel bridges over the Calumet River, the slag heaps, the horrific smell from the Lever Bros. soap plant, the long pier at Calumet Park, the dingy little grocery store where my family bought huge tins of olive oil, the fresh boysenberries (I hope?) the older kids could pick right off the neighborhood trees, and the desks at my elementary school, which had over sixty years of carved graffiti deeply gouged into them.
I watched the neighborhood slowly crumble as the once-mighty force of American Industry dwindled and disappeared. Culturally, there wasn’t much to speak of, besides the tiny neighborhood library, my one beacon of hope, truth, and escape. Nevertheless, I still find industrial sites achingly beautiful, regardless of their state of decay.
What is the best thing about Chicago?
Well, Chicago is pretty much all I know. I couldn’t function anywhere else. I’m like one of those microbes that symbiotically lives inside a crab’s anus. Change makes me anxious. The size of the sidewalk squares here simply makes sense to me. I know all our city’s smells: I can tell when a janitor walks past me on the street, because the smell of disinfectant reminds me of my first week of school in America. The landfills near Hegewisch remind me of driving to work for the graveyard shift in 1987. Chocolate and Garfield Boulevard are intimately connected in my mind. A dumpster on the first really cold day of autumn smells like 1997, the year of my divorce. Walking past Catholic churches fills my mouth with the dry, clingy texture of communion wafers. The North Side is blander than the South Side. There’s worminess in the air after a rainstorm Tap water has a tinge of dead fish in July… the list goes on, like an inter-sensory matrix.
Why do you draw comics? Also, because I think they’re basically the same question, how and when do you find yourself drawing comics?
I’d be lying if I claimed to be a cartoonist these days. For the last seven years, I’ve drawn maybe one to two pages of comics a year. Most of my time is spent teaching and mentoring, punctuated by drawing the occasional illustration. I’ve done a little bit of editing as well. Looking way back, to twenty years ago, my general method was to force myself to draw comics on weekends and evenings, after I got home from my job. I guess I did that for about a decade. As I’ve grown older, frailer, and duller, but perhaps less repressed, I’ve lost a lot of energy, so it’s been more difficult (and logistically problematic) to draw in the evenings and weekends. My depression gets in the way, admittedly.
It’s always been amazing to me how stupid, thoughtless, and insensitive most people are when it comes to dealing with the issue of mental illness. I suppose that if you haven’t yourself ever been debilitated by such illnesses, it’s almost impossible to have empathy for those that suffer from things like depression. We’re a distasteful species overall, but despite my frustration, I honestly wouldn’t wish depression on my worst enemy. Depression is like being squished by a giant thumb, erased like a stray mark, crushed into less than a ghost. It’s so corrosive that it also turns the victim into an atmospheric poison. It’s hard to exist, much less draw while in such a cloudy, diffused state. I’m sure that any comic I ever finished was the result of micro-bursts of mania and delusion. Anyway, it’s all taken a toll, and my fearful suspicion is that perhaps I’m spent.
Short answer: for the most part I’ve given up on myself, but I try to get a drawing done here and there. A huge chunk of me has been left unexpressed, which nags at me, but that nagging may be what saves me.
I was pretty delighted to discover that some of your stuff is on the cover of Patton Oswalt’s comedy album “My Weakness Is Strong.” How’d you end up collaborating with him?
The cartoonist Tony Millionaire introduced me to Patton Oswalt in 2006 at the San Diego Comic Convention. Patton bought some artwork from me and offered some kind words of encouragement, which I didn’t deserve but gratefully accepted nevertheless. Over the years, Patton has commissioned me to draw things like his Halloween card. I also drew a poster for him as part of the 2012 New York Comedy Festival, but I think Hurricane Sandy interfered with the event. He’s always been great to work with, a mensch.
Are there any underappreciated cartoonists out there whose work is worth reading?
I serve as an advisor for a comics anthology (entitled “Linework”) put out by my (best) students and former students. We’re currently assembling the fourth issue, which will be out in May, right around the same time as my own book, “Aesthetics: A Memoir.” There are some great young artists in “Linework,” and I know we’ll be hearing more and more about them. Here are just a few that people can Google: David Alvarado, Kevin Budnik, Andy Burkholder, Pete Clodfelter, Nick Drnaso, Rachal Duggan, Erik Lundquist, Marieke McClendon, Jeremy Onsmith, and the list goes on and on. The issues are on sale at Quimby’s Bookstore and Shop Columbia, in person or through their respective websites. There must be close to fifty artists that have been featured in Linework.” Anyway, it’s highly recommended, and the fourth issue is looking to be best one yet.