Author Article by Ivan Brunetti: The Art of Cartooning

The artwork of IVAN BRUNETTI has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and the literary journal McSweeney’s. His comic strip Schizo (1994-2006) has received international acclaim, and he continues to receive enormous respect as a true authority on the art form. Here the cartoonist and comics scholar discusses the inspiration for Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, a new book that aims to present a clear and unintimidating approach to a complex art form, free of  ‘extraneous clutter’.

Article by Ivan Brunetti

In 2009, I was asked to put together a small, in-house exhibit of my comics, cartoons, and illustrations at Columbia College Chicago, where I am currently an Assistant Professor. It was interesting to overhear students’ comments on the show.

My drawings are often rather abstracted (and minimalistic), and even though I showed my laborious process of planning and composition, I could not communicate the notion that the simplicity is systematic and a function of the overall design. This was one of the main reasons I decided to revise and expand my book Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice (a previous edition had been published in 2007).

While I would discourage students from imitating the way I draw, as they should be developing their own visual approach, I wanted to offer some guidance in the way of going about constructing one’s pages and tapping into our own innate sources of narrative. The Cartooning book is really about the removing extraneous clutter from our drawings and our thinking.

One of the nice things the College did was generously agree to produce an accompanying catalog for the show, which contained a running essay on the pieces included and the process of creating them. Perhaps someday I will expand this booklet into a proper book. Currently, I am actually trying to create more artwork, so that, you know, such a book would have some justification.

The introduction of the catalog booklet, which I will likely expand into a meatier essay someday, gives some insight into why I am a cartoonist, and what I think this artform has to offer. While it’s not exactly Dostoevsky, it’s still a sincere little piece of writing, and, much to my embarrassment reading it now, the sentiments are quite unguarded.

Because the booklet is out of print and thus unavailable anywhere, I thought I would share the introductory essay with you here:


I learned not only how to read from comic books, but also how to see. I learned about line, shape, color, value, space, texture, color, balance, harmony, unity, contrast, variety, rhythm, repetition, emphasis, continuity, spatial systems, structures and grids, proportion and scale, and composition by studying and copying the drawings from the comic books of my Italian childhood. The word disegno literally meant drawing, but also design. Thus, the two were forever fused in my mind, each inseparable from the other: drawing is design, and design is, essentially, drawing.

My eyesight has always been terrible (and getting worse each year), and as a result my artwork is a distorted, flattened, cross-eyed interpretation of the world, only minimally connected to consensus optics. I have tried to convert this severe limitation into a idiosyncrasy. A pre-derangement of the senses.

I have almost no formal training, save for three basic art classes in college. The closest I came to “art school” was the few months I spent in 1994 drawing 60 Nancy comic strips in the style of Ernie Bushmiller, in my abortive attempt to get a job as a traditional daily strip cartoonist. I learned almost as much as I did when I was kid copying Mickey Mouse.

The only thing I have ever been able to do with any competence is make simple characters out of simple lines and simple shapes and put them into simple little boxes with simple little words, so that is what I do. Perhaps I am merely trying to vindicate my 8-year old self. 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 (crossed with Robert Crumb) and a vastly, hopelessly inferior one at that.

No matter. I am happy to be a subatomic particle whizzing around inside the seemingly infinite ocean of cartooning. I believe that cartooning, we shall always have with us. The calligraphic quality that I see in cave paintings is still there in Kandinsky and in Leonardo’s beard in red chalk and in the way Charles Schulz drew Patty’s hair in the early Peanuts strips. The line in all its incarnations is, to me, the mind asserting itself, absorbing and transforming experience. We cartoonists are trying to perfect a blend of drawing and writing, via observation, memory, and imagination.

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.


About the Author

Ivan Brunetti has published numerous graphic novels and taught courses on editorial illustration and comics at Columbia College Chicago and the University of Chicago. His drawings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and McSweeney’s, among other publications, and he served as editor for Yale University Press’s two-volume Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories. Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice is available to buy from Yale University Press.



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