Ivan Brunetti on An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories: Volume 2

This week, I am trying to give a Christmas present to my readers by posting more interviews than the average of one a week. Today’s interview is with Ivan Brunetti, editor of An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories: Volume 2. As detailed at Yale University Press: “Comic art is a vital, highly personal art form in which change—rapid and unpredictable—is the norm. In this exciting new anthology, comic artist Ivan Brunetti focuses on very recent works by contemporary artists engaged in this world of change. These outstanding cartoonists, selected by Brunetti for their graphic sophistication and literary style, are both expanding and transforming the vocabulary of their genre.” In addition to being an extremely talented artist in his own right, Brunetti is also very busy. But he was recently kind enough to grant me a brief (yet in-depth) email interview. My thanks to Brunetti for his time, as well as to Yale University Press’ Robert Pranzatelli for his assistance.

Tim O’Shea: What is the greatest advantage to working with an academic press, as opposed to another type of publisher?

Ivan Brunetti: Well, I’ve never edited an anthology for another publisher, so I can’t really compare it to anything. My own comics are published by Fantagraphics Books, but my dealings with them are in the capacity of “just another cartoonist” in their stable, one with middling sales at best. They pretty much let me do whatever I want, as long as it’s within budget. I was very nervous about working for Yale, since, well… it’s Yale! Obviously they have a high reputation, and I didn’t want to sully it. But the people at Yale Press have been extraordinarily great to work with, and they also gave me a lot of leeway and freedom to make the book I wanted, again as long as I stayed within the budget. So I guess I’ve been pretty lucky in both instances, working with publishers who have trusted me. In both cases, I was able to create very personal books. And I should mention that, in the case of the Anthology, I wouldn’t have been able to make the books I wanted without the generosity of all the cartoonists involved, who have been exceedingly supportive and kind. I got the chance to correspond with my cartooning heroes. Who’d have thunk it? A nothing sort of person like me….

O’Shea: Back in November, Chris Mautner interviewed you about the book. In that interview you mentioned you could not track down Elinore Norflus. Has anybody reached out to you since then with contact info for her? How pleased were to give her name and work some greater exposure?

Brunetti: There were two artists whom I could not track down, both of them originally published in Robert Crumb’s Weirdo. Eugene Teal, I would guess, is deceased. The other is Elinore Norflus. Those pages have been burned into my brain ever since I first read Weirdo. I noticed that the early issues of Weirdo said “copyright by R. Crumb,” meaning he had copyright of all the contents, so I basically asked Mr. Crumb if he would be willing to give permission to run those pieces. He said he would take responsibility for granting me permission to run the pages, and I think he was happy that I took an interest in those particular artists. So, if anyone steps forward, I will pay them. Mind you, there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as all the contributors were paid pretty modestly to stay within the permissions budget. And this, too, is something I am very grateful for; the artists believed in the book and accepted a small courtesy fee for reprinting their work. In any case, it gave me great pleasure to include those pages. They are charged with the very essence of life.

O’Shea: Have any reviewers or readers confided to you a perceived theme or motif to the collection that you never intended to have the works evoke?

Brunetti: It seems everyone has their own interpretations, which is good, actually. I haven’t heard anything too far afield from what I was “going for.” When I flip through the book, I always notice little things that I didn’t notice before… connections that I probably perceived subconsciously. So I like leaving surprises for myself. The human brain is pretty amazing, and we perceive and process much more than we are aware of. I tried to organize both books intuitively; the intellectualization and theorizing can come later, I figured. If something “flows,” it has its own logic. I like the fact that it sometimes hits you much later why it worked, exactly. Hopefully the readers will feel that same sort of “holistic coalescence,” the sense of things unexpectedly falling into place into a unified whole, even before you’ve had a chance to analyze it.

O’Shea: In Yale’s informational video (below) on the anthology’s two volumes, you said “You’re in someone else’s head for awhile. And you start to see the way they view the world–the way they experience the world. Sometimes it just clicks where we feel that connection…” In gathering these stories, getting in these people’s heads–were you able to also take away some ambitious or effective narrative nuances that you now want to attempt in future stories of your own? Has the experience added to your own storytelling skills to some degree?

Brunetti: Gee whiz, I hope so. I always learn a lot studying other cartoonists’ work. In fact, that was pretty much my “art school”: poring over comics and figuring out how these things worked. Ultimately, there was no clear answer, other than the artists I liked obviously worked really hard, perhaps obsessively so, had unique points of view, and revealed something genuine on the page that cut to the core of what it means to think, feel, live. You can’t put it into words, but you know it when it’s there. And so, all I have tried to do with my own work is to be honest, and clear. I never learned to draw very well, and I struggle with writing even simple sentences, so it’s not like I have some special talent. I can make my friends laugh, sometimes, that’s about it, but pretty much anyone can do that. So, really, when all is said and done, all that’s left is the integrity of the work, and for me that means: Did I work hard enough on it? Did I communicate clearly the emotions I wanted to express? Was I being honest? Was I true to myself or the experience I was drawing about? Judging from the reviews I get, one would guess the answer is “no,” so I always push myself to try harder. I honestly don’t care about the here and now. I care about 100 years from now, and beyond. If I can make one page, just one page, that lasts longer than my corporeal self, it was all worth it. If I could paint, or sculpt, or make music, or design buildings, obviously I would have chosen to work in those arts, since they have proven themselves to last (the jury is still out on comics). But the only thing I’ve ever been able to do with any competence is make simple characters out of simple shapes and simple lines and put them into simple little boxes with simple little words, so that’s what I do. Maybe I’m just trying to vindicate my 8-year old self, who knows? I am aware that there is no originality in my work, that pretty much all I am doing essentially is making my own version of “Peanuts” or R. Crumb—and a vastly, hopelessly inferior one at that. But I’m happy to be a little sub-atomic particle whizzing around inside the ocean of cartooning right now. It will last as long as humans last, I believe. The calligraphic quality I see in cave paintings is still there in Kandinsky and Patty’s hair in the early Peanuts strips… we’re still trying to perfect that blend of drawing and writing, that alchemical merging of observation, memory, and imagination. The line, to me, is the mind asserting itself, absorbing and transforming experience.

I hope, in some small way, to contribute to this Sisyphean quest, even though, ultimately, everything will be ground to dust and forgotten and reborn into something else, over and over and over again, world without end.

Ivan Brunetti on An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Vol. 2 from Yale University Press on Vimeo.

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