Ivan Brunetti first established himself as a cartoonist with Schizo, Haw!, Hee! and the collection Misery Loves Comedy. In the past decade Brunetti hasn’t made very many comics, though that doesn’t mean he’s slowed down.
He’s continued to work as an illustrator having drawn everything from the cover to Patton Oswalt’s comedy album My Weakness is Strong, to his work as a cover artist for The New Yorker. He edited two volumes of An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, which were published by Yale University Press. Brunetti also wrote the books Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice and Aesthetics: A Memoir.
His new book, his first for children, is Wordplay, out this month from Toon Books. It’s a playful look at language aimed at readers in Grades K-1, and Brunetti chatted with CBR about why he’s been moving in different directions in recent years, working with The New Yorker art editor and Toon Books publisher Françoise Mouly, and his own experience of learning English.
CBR: What is Wordplay, and how have you been thinking about the book?
Ivan Brunetti: Wordplay is my first book for children. To my mind, it’s in essence a comic-strip story in the format of a children’s book, so I approached it as I would any multi-page comic, but with a different audience (from my other comics) in mind. I had drawn a gag panel or two for kids, eons ago for Nickelodeon magazine, but that was about it, in terms of experience with writing for this age group.
Françoise had a hunch that I could produce either a Level One or Level Two book, which means that she had more faith in me than I did. Since those levels are ideal for employing limited vocabulary and simple, repetitive set-ups, it turns out that I was in my element (because in my adult life, I still employ those same life strategies). As always, Françoise turned out to be right about everything. I’m not sure how she surmised that I would be able to do this project. Around that time, I had sent a few cover ideas to The New Yorker that depicted classrooms and playgrounds; the “Eureka” light bulb must have gone off for Françoise, for which I am grateful. While I had “children’s book” on my bucket list, the likelihood of actually doing one ranged from minimal to nonexistent.
One thing that helped was having a very tight deadline that demanded a quick turnaround; there just wasn’t enough time for me to succumb to my usual overthinking, self-doubt, and all-encompassing pessimism, and thus talk myself out of the project. It turned out to be quite an intense two months of writing and rewriting and drawing and redrawing; I was surprised that I still had a little fire in my belly, actually, because in recent years I have turned into a decrepit, mushy mass.
As far as the content goes, Françoise sent me a general list of possible topics, and the one that jumped out at me was “compound words"; since English is not my first language, I thought it might be nice to play with the language, using my immigrant’s ear. The book is really about daydreaming (which I have much experience with), but compound words are the vessel through which that theme is poured. As with every project I have ever done, it became deeply autobiographical, though it doesn’t look it on the surface. Sometimes the least autobiographical-looking stuff, however, reveals the most about my true self. As to why, I guess that’s a mystery.
You’ve been working with Françoise for a while now at The New Yorker and I’m curious what your interactions have been like working on covers and working on this book. What is the process like, and was it very different working on the book?
Working on this book was pretty similar to working on the covers. I’ll summarize. 1) I tend to disappear off the face of the Earth every so often. 2) Françoise seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to knowing that I have given up on drawing. She will at those times contact me and inquire about my health, and as to whether I can send along some sketches for cover ideas. 3) I muster up some half-baked sketches, most of which get rightfully rejected. 4) Occasionally, one of the sketches has some spark of life, and Françoise will isolate something interesting about it that could be explored either more fully or from different angles. 5) She makes suggestions for improvement, her instincts being invariably on the money. 6) I work up some new sketches, and sometimes one miraculously gets approved by the magazine. 7) Françoise and I usually have quite a bit of back and forth throughout the creative process, in order to refine the concept and compositional clarity. 8) I learn a lot every time I speak with Françoise, and I try my best to incorporate what I learn. 9) My sincere wish is to hand in something that I am not ashamed to show her. 10) There are usually further corrections, and other editors might have a say in all this, and then I incorporate those additional revisions into the drawings.
The process was identical for Wordplay, just a little more intense and concentrated, because there were more drawings to create, as well as a story to consider, not to mention that everything had to be crystal clear for the child audience. I thought this was an enlightening exercise. I always aim for absolute clarity, so I enjoyed that part of the challenge.
I never say this about anything, but it was actually both an edifying and enjoyable project. It was a lot of work, but it rekindled a love for drawing that had dissipated via neglect (perhaps because of the very tough year I’d experienced at my job, just prior to working on the book). It was nice dusting off the ol’ pens again. I thought, “Oh, that’s right. Cartooning. I forgot that this was what I wanted to do with my life.” I approach everything through cartooning, and that’s how I problem-solve. Losing touch with that felt like losing an integral part of my body and/or soul.
You made comics like Schizo and Haw! and others, but for the past decade you haven’t made as many comics. You have though drawn covers and you wrote two books, Cartooning and Aesthetics. What inspired or pushed you in that direction?
Who can say? None of these things are really planned out. Life just seems to go in unpredictable directions, despite my efforts to steer it. There’s some force, kind of like a weed pushing through the cracked sidewalk, that keeps me coming back to cartooning, but I never know what exact form it will take as it twists clings, and grasps. I mean, I have some ideas for what I might work on next, but I have learned not to get too enamored of ideas. Maybe on my deathbed I will figure it all out, not that it would help much at that point.
How do you think that those ideas you were articulating and thinking about in those books affected what you’ve been doing in recent years and in working on Wordplay specifically?
I think of every project as “all of a piece” and as one continuous process: sometimes it comes out as drawing comics, sometimes writing essays, sometimes creating a how-to-book, sometimes editing an anthology, sometimes curating a show, sometimes making little toys to amuse myself, sometimes chopping up all my notebooks and randomly stuffing the scraps into boxes or re-binding them into haphazard books. For the last decade, it has mostly come out as seething critiques and free-associative, searing, hopefully humorous monologues in my teaching method. Sure, I may have been misguided at times and put all my eggs in the wrong baskets, but all one can do is try his best. I seem to slither and stumble through life as if I’m frantically avoiding a cosmic divining rod.
It’s hard for me to do anything unless someone asks me to do it. Left to my own devices, I would likely permanently meld myself with a depressed couch. I’ve been very fortunate that someone or something always comes along and points me somewhere. Wordplay was like that for me. It was enjoyable to research, sketch, and structure the story, and it’s always life-changing to get a chance to speak with Françoise. I can’t imagine being that smart and creative, but I always hope that a cubic Angstrom of that magic will surreptitiously soak into my brain via the conversations we have.
I usually fail when someone tells me to “have fun” with a project, but this time I really tried, and by gosh, it worked. I hope that this comes through to the young (and old) readers. I like playing with language, and I truly wanted the book to reflect and hopefully transmit that pleasure.
You were born in Italy and English isn’t your first language. Wordplay is both serious and playful and I'm curious, is this how you think of language? Does the book in some ways resemble the experience of learning English for you?
Very much so. Perhaps it was simply a coping mechanism when I was a child, as I learned a new language and adjusted to a new culture. I still silently pronounce every word in Italian first, and I can only remember the spelling of words if I see and sound them out (again, inside my head) in my original language.
Sometimes it seems completely, absurdly unfathomable that language even exists. Some animal made a sound at one point, and from that tentative wheeze, all of human civilization eventually sprung.
The only other thing I’ll mention, which probably explains everything you need to know about me, is that as a lonely kid, I would read the dictionary for fun. And here I am, 40 years later.
Wordplay by Ivan Brunetti is available now from Toon Books.