February 2009

Bryn Evans


An Interview with Ivan Brunetti

The second volume of Yale University Press' Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories is quickly gaining praise as both an introduction to modern cartooning and an encyclopaedia for fans of the genre. Edited by Chicago-based cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, the anthology (like the first) is exhaustive and meticulously compiled, with works from the usual suspects (Charles Burns, Chris Ware) placed alongside gems like R. Sikoryak’s Action Camus and Mack White’s The Nudist Nuns of Goat Island.

Best-known for his raw autobiographical comics (collected by Fantagraphics and published as Misery Loves Comedy), Brunetti also has an exhaustive knowledge of contemporary cartooning, and was brought on by Yale University Press to edit its two anthologies of graphic fiction. I recently spoke to Brunetti about the creation of the anthologies, losing one’s sanity to cartooning and why he’ll never edit again.

How did you come to edit the Yale anthologies?

Chris Ware was originally asked by Yale University Press to edit the first volume (which didn't have a title yet), but he had just finished editing McSweeney's No. 13. Now that I know firsthand exactly how much work goes into these sorts of things, this was a Herculean effort on his part, for which everyone who cares about comics should be eternally grateful. Anyway, he couldn't take the project on.

I had done some minor "editorial assistance" with that issue of McSweeney's, certainly less than deserved any credit. But to make a long story short, Chris recommended me to Yale. I'm not entirely sure why he or Yale or anyone had any faith in me, but I took the responsibility very seriously. I had a few conversations with my editor at Yale, and we hammered out a "game plan" for what the book would be, what was logistically possible. I wrote up a pretty detailed proposal, and it was accepted by the press.

In that proposal, I listed all the artists and the specific stories I wanted to include, and the organizing principles involved. This was back in August 2004. Of course, in the process of putting together the book, many things changed. But it's fairly close to my original vision. I did the best I could to include a good cross-section that felt cohesive and unified.

After all was said and done, and printed and shipped to stores, I thought, "Gee, if only I'd had 400 more pages, the book could have been closer to 'perfect'." (Yes, I know no such thing exists.) At that point, I was pretty exhausted, as I was working a full-time office job, plus teaching two college courses part-time, plus trying to draw my own cartoons. I had also curated an exhibit as a sort of preview of the book. I, um, ended up in the hospital shortly after the Yale book was sent to the printer, actually. A wrecked man. I swore I would never edit anything ever again, delicate flower that I am. Well, famous last words...

That "I wish I had another 400 pages" thought kept nagging at me, so when I regained, and then promptly re-lost, my sanity, I decided to propose another volume to Yale Press. This, too, was accepted by Yale, and I think it was worth all the hard work that I, the press, the artists, the generous folks who lent a helping hand out of the goodness of their hearts, and production/design genius John Kuramoto put into it.

Were you free to do what you wanted?

Within reason, yes. I explained my reasoning behind doing a second volume in my second proposal, and Yale felt that my argument was valid. The people at Yale Press have been extraordinarily great to work with, giving me a lot of leeway to make the book I wanted, as long as I stayed within the budget. I've been pretty lucky; I was able to create a very personal book. And I wouldn't have been able to make the book I wanted without the generosity of all the cartoonists involved, who have been exceedingly supportive and kind. Without everyone's help, all the freedom in the world wouldn't have mattered. I am deeply appreciative for all of the above.

With so many artists and works included, was it more a question of what you would have to leave out, rather than leave in?

Not at all. One thing I quickly learned was that, shucks, I need another 400 pages. And that's just for North American cartoonists. If I geographically expanded the editorial "net," we're talking 800 or 1000 more pages. That's just within the purview of my "tastes." I never thought in terms of whom to leave out. I tried to fit in as many artists as I could. There are still a lot of great works out there; these two volumes are far from "complete." I'm not sure that such a book is even possible...

Did you consider including any of the more mainstream (Marvel, DC, etc.) works in the anthology?

I considered everyone and everything. Some of these larger companies (as well as syndicates) charge a lot for their properties -- assuming you can even get in touch with them or get a response. The few things I included that were owned by the larger companies took up a huge chunk of the budget. It would have been a very, very, very, very short book indeed if I included more of these works. I included what was most important for the overall book yet still logistically possible.

Were there any works that you weren't able to include that you feel should have been in the final work?

That list would equal another 400 pages, easily. Why dwell on the negative, I always say. I was more concerned about the works I could include, and ordering those in a way that made sense in the overall structure of the book. There'll be other anthologies, and they'll have different priorities, different editorial visions, different budgets... the quality work will eventually be collected somewhere. This was just one book. Other editors and other anthologies will answer the "should haves" in their own way.

Were you concerned with artists' responses, in regards to perhaps their perceived inclusive or exclusivity with the book?

There must be 3,000 cartoonists in North America. I included 85 in this book, and if I count the first volume, there are probably a total of 125 artists represented. That leaves 2,875 artists who are probably mad at me. What can I say? I'm sorry. I wish I had more pages and we could have made an infinite anthology. I don't expect everyone to agree with my choices; I only hope that the book is interesting and remains so, for many years to come, and that I have done right by the artists included. I am but one editorial voice. I couldn't even fit all of my own favorites. But I didn't think of it as excluding anyone. I tried to include as much as I humanly could, while making sure everything cohered into a unified whole.

Do you see this second volume as a companion to the first (presenting a new set of themes, differences in style and composition) or an entirely new and separate work?

Well, a bit of both, actually. This is what I tried to describe in the introduction. The second volume is definitely a companion to the first, very much related to it as a sort of sibling (I'm getting an editorial vasectomy after this volume, though). But the second book is also going in a slightly different direction than the first, opening different doors. The first book tried to create a center, and this one moves a bit left of center. That's kind of a stupid way to put it. There are biological metaphors in the introductions to both volumes; perhaps that's the best clue toward an interpretation of the relationship of the two books.

The careful readers will note various thematic and visual relationships (variations, complements, and other juxtapositions) between the two books, if they spend time with them.  I sincerely hope people will enjoy the books, and engage themselves with the mysteries, secrets, puzzles and secret messages I have hidden within them.

Was the goal to be more encyclopaedic, or act in a more curatorial capacity?

It is well-nigh impossible to be encyclopaedic when it comes to comics, because there are so many different kinds of comics. I definitely thought of the task as a more curatorial one. Can 85 artists still be considered "curatorial"? Some curators might think otherwise. But I like feeling overwhelmed, engulfed. I like to have my brain floating. I much prefer questions to answers.

What were some of the lessons/challenges you found in creating the first anthology that you considered before putting together this book?

After the first book I swore I would never edit anything again, because I am not of the right temperament to be an editor. As you can see, I did not learn my lesson. But this time, I swear, I have learned. What I want more than anything is to be able to draw again, and that means giving up other things, such as editing books.

With the creation of an anthology, it presents the reader with a type of comics history -- chronology, developments in style, etc. It's interesting that some of the artists included (i.e., Fletcher Hanks) are appearing to audiences for the first time, and in some sense, are being contextualized as contemporary works. Do you think there is a "linear" history of contemporary comics -- are we able to historicize it yet as literature (or a genre of its own)?

I'm not captivated by the linear approach to anything; holistic models have always been much more appealing to me, long before I even knew what "holistic" meant. Categories seem arbitrary to me. I mean, they're nice to have, but they are not absolute truth. Of course, it's entirely possible to treat a subject in a linear fashion. I'm perfectly willing to admit I am completely wrong. But I couldn't create a book that I myself would not want to read. At some point logic detaches from reality and experience, and you have to trust your intuitive faculties, and you get into the realm of the ineffable, or at least "really-hard-to-explain-in-words." I suppose that's an undercurrent of everything I do, whether it's drawing or teaching or what have you.

As for "historicizing," that feels too much like embalming to me; maybe I'm crazy, but I like to think of comics as being alive: squirming, devouring, excreting, regenerating, evolving. A little bit of slipperiness is good.

The "Interview with Ivan Brunetti" included in the press materials is hilarious. Did you consider including your own work in the anthology?

Thank you for the kind words. I included two of my own pages in the first volume, but my work did not really fit into the second volume. Having identified myself as a "practitioner" in the first volume's introduction, I felt that I had to put my money where my mouth was, and show where I'm coming from as a cartoonist. I picked two stories that were directly related to some of the themes of my introduction, plus there was a section of the book where these comics made sense, in terms of the volume's organization, structure, and flow. 

Robert Crumb told me I should include some samples of my own work. Who was I to argue? But I still felt like an asshole for including my own work, and certain people reminded me of that fact, just to make sure I was fully aware of the crime against aesthetics I had committed by including my own work. Fair enough. It was no skin off my nose not to include anything by me this time around, and honestly, I didn't have any work that fit the book's themes. Everybody wins.