“Someday I’ll shit out a work so filled with hatred for the human condition, it’ll cauterize skin on contact.”

Misery Loves Comedy

ANYway… I was GONNA say that I kinda hate the Internet… I mean, isn’t it just an infinity of intellectual miscarriages enamored of their own worthless opinions?

“…that’s not the ‘Net; that’s ‘humanity.’

This one’s out today, this beautiful Wednesday, from Fantagraphics. It’s a $24.95 hardcover, with a deceptively plain green and white package design, collecting works from 1992-2003, at 172 pages.

And all things considered, that’s not an extraordinarily large amount of stuff. But the chief appeal of this book, as all recurrent readers of writer/artist Ivan Brunetti already know, is not any display of prolificacy. Rather, it's that the small amount of material happens to embody, with formidable aplomb, an entire, peculiar-yet-familiar approach to making autobiographical comics, and ably documents its creator’s development in seemingly every applicable way. One might almost convince themselves that an era is perhaps summarized between these covers, but no, it is only the singular era of one man, writ large enough that he might seem to speak for the form itself.

Misery Loves Comedy is indeed soaked with misery and comedy. Seemingly every page beams some fresh emotional atrocity or angry splash of gore slapstick, and the two serve mainly the same purpose. The book happily requests on its back cover to be filed under “Erotica/Hate Literature,” and opens with an introduction by Brunetti’s therapist, who details the shame and terror the author undergoes in creating comics for public consumption, and closes with the benediction “Enjoy the cartoons. Don’t get too impatient waiting for the next book. Treat your children well.” By the end of this little tome, you will absolutely believe in the seriousness of this preface. I believed it immediately - comics have gotten to be a bit like pornography, in that I’ve come to accept that just about anything is probably true. Did Ivan Brunetti really have his therapist introduce his new book. Sure! Did someone in Germany really make an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial porno? Yes. Absolutely (note: never click that link).

The purpose, and the delight & tedium of Ivan Brunetti’s work of this period, is that he’s equipped to make you believe that truly anything is possible in his autobiographical comics, so steely-eyed is its gaze upon his failings and self-loathing. Primarily, this book collects three issues of Brunetti’s comic book series Schizo, published from 1995-98. Indeed, the original color covers of every b&w issue are included, complete with glossy stock, to give the impression that the issues themselves have somehow been artfully squished into the larger book. There’s other material -- shorts and strips from the earliest and latter stretches of the artist’s career -- but the meat of the collection is/was also the primary material of those first three issues: chapters one through four of a projected (and thereafter abandoned) eighteen-part serial called Self-Caricature.

That’s an important title to keep in mind, as Brunetti’s approach to autobiographical comics is anything but naturalistic, and the exaggeration-prone properties of the form are largely employed toward heightening the artist’s projection of self-loathing. The reader is always kept aware that it’s a projection, although there’s rarely anything facile about Brunetti’s storytelling. Yet, despite the initial randomness of the visual approach, there’s a definite progression through the three issues of Schizo, which is only enhanced by the intuitive arrangement of this collection’s contents. I’ve mentioned before how the organization of older material from various sources into a new book can create fresh and particular effects, if enough attention is paid to detail. That necessary attention is absolutely paid here, and the effect is potent - the autobiographical Brunetti is put on a sort of path by the organization of these contents, and its one that enhances the effect of the earlier materials.

But wait! What are these comics about? What do they look like? Well, they’re always about one thing: the bottomless well of anxiety, loathing, and miscellaneous negativity inside of Mr. Ivan Brunetti. And they always look like different things: stylized narration, heavy realism, gag strips of every style and stripe, pure text, a myriad of varied cartoon lines.

Issue #1 of Schizo, the first piece presented in this collection, remains utterly marvelous in exploring Brunetti’s single-minded subject matter as reflected through the surface of a diamond. The ‘main’ story of the issue takes the form of Brunetti narrating his horrified mental state - fantasizing about murder, chatting with a nasty God, wandering through symbolic scenes of killing and violence and vomit, musing on the horrors of society and life. We sometimes get other viewpoints. There’s a bit with Brunetti’s concerned (and evidently long-suffering) wife. There’s also a bit with familiar Christian icons portrayed as Popeye characters, God anally assaulting the Baby Jesus and emptying a revolver into the back of the Child’s head.

Dang me

I didn’t even come…”

This sort of material quite easily runs the risk of seeming tinny, like so much empty ‘shocking’ posturing. But as Evan Dorkin notes about Brunetti elsewhere in the book, the “overall seriousness and unrelenting nature” of the material differentiates him from “wiseass insincere angry folks who have MTV options and publicity people.” Then again, Zero Benjamen slags him as “mediocre shit” that “steal[s] all the attention away from folks out there who are honestly trying to say something interesting and wondrous about life.” And sure, even Brunetti has trouble enlivening as old-hat an idea as the List of Things I Hate, another piece of the first issue.

But the wonder of that issue rises from its accumulation of anger through dozens of varied images, many stories and story types that all add up to exactly the same thing, as if all the comics in the world cannot hold in one man’s hate. Half the fun is in how far he’ll go, and he goes far - by the time he displays the actual photographs of a close female friend, confessing his nasty secret crush, you’ll seriously be thinking that anything is possible.

Obviously, this struck a chord with a lot of folks. The letters page to issue #2 is packed with so many notable names on the record you’d swear that somebody extremely beloved had died in a particularly cruel manner. This is where the Dorkin quote above came from. Robert Crumb is present. Chris Ware. Dan Clowes. Peter Bagge. Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Matt. David Mazzucchelli. Art Spiegelman. Bill Griffith. So many more. You wouldn’t think this would attract quite so much attention.

The collection positions some Horrifying Early Work in between issues #1 and #2, lots of utterly grotesque gags and strips, which are really quite remarkably reminiscent of Johnny Ryan in their determination to hit directly upon the most marvelously awful things for dirty laughs. The earliest of this material dates from 1992, and I believe Ryan’s earliest minicomics work appeared in 1994, so perhaps the two were unknowingly sharing a certain wavelength, although there’s little surprise that Brunetti broke out so fast while Ryan languished in obscurity for a while - besides the obvious gap in visual proficiency, I get the feeling that the molten core of artful doom at the heart of Brunetti’s work struck a certain chord for a certain time in alternative comics, while Ryan (provided that his earlier work isn’t incredibly far removed in storytelling thrust from his later professional publications) has always preferred a the pursuit of perfect, evil gags, unencumbered with any pretension of chest-beating self-analysis, similar taste in shit and puke be damned.

Pretension does become a problem with issue #2 of Schizo. By this point, especially when read as part of a whole collection, the shock of issue #1 and its endless contortions has waned. Brunetti becomes increasingly verbose, his tortured monologues and dialogues becoming tortuously lengthy - one page is filled almost entirely with tiny lettering, the words of Jesus Christ, no less. Later comes a nearly unbearable illustrated prose semi-treatise on the state of the world. Robbed of visual invention, the whole enterprise sags. Frankly, it’s boring. I wouldn’t call it calamitously boring, more ‘three vehicle accident with injuries’ boring. But still, it really seems that Brunetti has already found himself in a rut. It emphasizes how crucial the artist’s kaleidoscopic visual sense had been to the prior issue.

But even then, the collection’s structure affords it some affecting ironies. In the middle of issue #2 is a text piece by Brunetti’s wife, one of those frazzled ‘I gotta live with this guy!’ pieces that nonetheless carries with it real affection. After issue #2, the collection presents some Contributions to Various Periodicals. One of those is a humorous one-pager about the Spice Girls, and how Ivan thinks Posh Spice is hot. His wife is perturbed. The punchline of the strip is that the two have divorced. For real. And goddamn if it doesn’t serve up an extra-nasty sucker punch, the type that only a collection of this sort can manage.

Issue #3 of Schizo is the last in the collection. Its letters page is full of reader invective, some playful, some serious. This is where the Benjamen quote above came from. But it’s an altogether more developed thing, consisting mainly of a gorgeously-paced 20-page slice of Brunetti’s past working life. Yeah, it’s still full of meanness and excellent lines, but it’s spookily controlled (all 4 x 4 grids), assured storytelling, packed with funny, well-realized characters, touches of irony and subtle visual flair, and a genuine flavor of life to go with the suffering. In a way, all three issues of Schizo were little transformations, just as the stories of issue #1 were so impressively flexy - issue #3, then, sees Brunetti evolving into a newer, more interesting (for my money) form.

Hell, he even seems a little better! Healthier! The path that this collection takes him down seems to represent an exorcism of his worst demons, his self-assessment beginning as a dazzle, turning into a slog, and emerging as something with a greater depth of entertainment. After issue #3, the collection presents its final section, Miscellaneous Color Pieces. Shit, the book even fucking ends in color! And I do believe these are the newest pieces of all, showcasing the artist’s current streamlined style, and venturing into subject matters like reporting and biography - there’s a suite of winsomely connective James Thurber pieces that form a great little saga in miniature, informed by Brunetti’s obsessions, but not overwhelmed by them. There’s even (*gasp* *choke*) an inspirational story of a downtrodden woman overcoming her station to achieve a dignified poise! Yow!

It was the first time in my adult life that I felt something close to faith in humanity.”

So narrates the great depressive, who ends the book a little different than he began. Shizo #4 would not come out until 2006, eight years after #3. It’s not in this book, and it has no right to be (even if it would fit in dimensionally). It’s too much the present, and this book is a chronicle of the past, and an often great one, for those with the fortitude. By the end, they may believe the words of Jim Woodring, from that star-studded letters column:

Here’s what I predict: this book will bring you lots of acclaim; you’ll become a critics’ darling and a sophisticated fan favorite; all your vile juices will be spent and only your discerning mind, acerbic wit, and formidable drawing skills will remain; you’ll produce biting, humanist work that will bring you a larger, nay, a huge audience that will include most of your original fans; you’ll have a long and fulfilling life and end up buried next to Jim Morrison. Like Sartre, your paean to existential isolation will cause humanity to embrace you. By God, I wish I were you, with all the joy and fulfillment you have in store for you. This is a great day.”