Yale University Press has just published Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, a slightly revised edition of a booklet originally published in 2007 as an insert in Todd Hignite’s Comic Art magazine. The volume is a distillation of the cartooning course Brunetti has been teaching at the University of Chicago and Columbia College for several years now. At 88 pages, the book is far briefer than many that similarly promise to teach aspiring cartoonists the techniques of the trade. But to borrow a phrase from another cartoonist, Brunetti’s book is like concentrated orange juice: a potent dose that, like Brunetti’s own comics, values concision in the service of maximum personal expression.
Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice is structured as a fifteen week course, with exercises and assignments for each week. But this is no workbook: Brunetti’s mostly written text imparts a set of foundational principles that provide context for each of the book’s assignments, which lead the student from initial doodling to a final comics story. As a teacher, Brunetti is thoughtful and humane, peppering his lessons with devastatingly wry comments, idiosyncratic cultural references, and disarming revelations of personal vulnerability. He very much comes across as that one, quirky, transformative teacher who brings a subject to life by successfully communicating to students everything he has come to know and value in a lifetime of effort—including the questions and doubts with which he still struggles.
Brunetti’s personal investment in his teaching proceeds directly from the development of his own cartooning practice. He’s best known for having produced four issues of his comic book series Schizo. The first two issues, published in 1995 and 1996, are notoriously visceral, expressive comics, in which Brunetti’s darkly comic vitriol for much of what passes for civilization is only matched (or exceeded) by his own self-lacerating confessions, critiques and catharses. By the series’ third issue in 1998, Brunetti’s take on himself and his environment was no less caustic, but was tempered by a more (relatively) objective perspective that brought his autobiographical approach closer to satire, and a new formal rigor that was informed by time spent emulating Nancy cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller’s graphically austere comic strip style.
By the series’ fourth issue, published eight years later in 2006, Brunetti was a cartoonist reborn. Like a writer obeying Strunk and White’s famous dictum to “omit needless words,” Brunetti had pared his visual style down to a bare but stylish pictographic calligraphy. He eschewed idiosyncratic page layouts almost entirely, favoring a strict grid of panels on each page (what he calls, in Cartooning, “the democratic grid”). Within that grid, he maintained a steadily consistent point of view on his iconographic characters. Rather than using the shifting compositions of his earlier comics, Brunetti minimized differences between his panels to allow his characters to come to life. This new formal approach structured a series of single-page comics, some of which were autobiographical, many more of which were sensitive biographies of artists —Françoise Hardy, Piet Mondrian, Louise Brooks, and Val Lewton,—with whom Brunetti felt sympathy.
In his own work, Brunetti has, through a painstaking process of elimination, honed in on comics’ most elemental form—what he calls in Cartooning the “haiku-like rigidity” of the comic strip—and eliminated all unnecessary elements to create a direct channel for clear expression. This is largely the approach that Brunetti imparts to his students and readers of his book, and it has a number of enormous advantages as a pedagogical technique. By quickly gaining some facility with the basics of clarity, consistency, and concision, a student can harness even a rudimentary form of doodling towards the harder business of expression. While Brunetti briefly discusses the advantages of numerous drawing tools and encourages exploration, he strikingly asserts that the “only tools absolutely required for this course are:
This doodle-based approach presents cartooning as a very direct form of picture writing, where images function as an artist’s handwritten visual vocabulary. This calligraphic method promotes personal expression and implies an auteurist tendency. In fact, Brunetti explicitly prohibits collaborative projects in this course, and he frequently exhorts students towards authenticity in their storytelling (“there are no wrong answers here, only dishonest ones”). In addition to being enormously empowering to novice artists in both visual and narrative terms, Brunetti’s teaching is also a potentially helpful corrective to some aspects of contemporary graphic novel publishing.
The artists who produced the graphic novels that gained broad cultural legitimacy for the form proceeded from an auteurist sensibility, distinct from the assembly-line process of corporate comic book production (one which requires education in such idiosyncratic assembly line practices as “penciling” versus “inking,” and often favors an illustrative style). Ironically, some publishers seeking to enter the graphic novel field have duplicated the practices of corporate comic book production in order to more directly assert editorial control over content, maintain publishing schedules, and cultivate a list of books that meets the perceived needs of presumed sub-audiences. This operational practice frequently inhibits the expressive qualities that established the graphic novel as a category ten short years ago.
Many other instructional books about comics have laid bare the labor-intensive processes of comics production in ways that may be useful to any developing artist regardless of aesthetic intent. Brunetti’s book presents cartooning as an immediately accessible artistic practice in the service of personal expression. More than any other instructional book, Brunetti’s has the potential to create cartoonists. And if those budding cartoonists take Brunetti’s insights to heart, and if they develop and refine their own practices beyond the solid foundation Cartooning provides, they may become the kinds of cartoonists whose contributions, like Brunetti’s, continue to elevate the form.
[Bill Kartalopoulos teaches classes about comics and illustration at Parsons The New School for Design. He is a co-organizer and the Programming Director of the Brooklyn Comics Graphics Festival, the Programming Coordinator for SPX: The Small Press Expo, a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a frequent public speaker, and the curator of several comics-related exhibits including the recent "Cartoon Polymaths" exhibit at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center.]