Monday, February 08, 2010

The Ten Best Comics of the Aughts:

9. Schizo #4
by Ivan Brunetti

Sometime in the early years of the previous decade, Ivan Brunetti discovered the Golden Mean of cartooning. By which I mean: he had been a good cartoonist before, but at some point in the years between the release of Schizo #3 and #4, Brunetti matured into one of our best living cartoonists, an artist with an absolutely impeccable understanding of the craft and construction of comic strips. His timing is perfect; his lines are perfect; it doesn't feel stifling or over-thought or too precious. His strips breathe and choke and swoon in all the right places.

He's a depressed man, Mr. Brunetti, and this fact has historically stood front and center in his work. This is certainly within keeping of the historical preoccupations of "alt" cartoonists of his generation, and Brunetti mined that vein for richer lodes than most. The problem is, of course, that serious depression isn't really a healthy way to live, and as funny as it can be to wallow in misery, at the end of the day misery is still inescapably miserable. As hilarious as his joke books - Hee! and Haw! - were and are, they're also steeped in some serious, distasteful and intense self-loathing. You know it because like recognizes like:

With that said - and at the risk of careening over the edge into dipshit armchair psychology - the formal mastery on display in Schizo #4 seems to have brought with it a calmness, a sensation (at least from the reader's perspective) almost akin to serenity. The stories are still sad and the world is still full of misery, but somehow Brunetti crossed the threshold from making art that merely reflected the despair of living, to art that uses that selfsame despair as the foundation of an attempt to find consolation for those left alive.

The most impressive facet of Brunetti's skill is how thoroughly he inhabits every design element on a page, with every piece conceived as part of singular whole that builds meaning from its dense context. He was always something of a stylistic magpie, but his most recent work pulls deeply from the most profoundly simple sources: John Stanley, Ernie Bushmiller, and especially Charles Schulz. Although these are frequently-dropped names in cartooning circles, reading Brunetti you feel strongly that there is a monstrous chasm between homage and deep comprehension. It's not just style, it's the way Brunetti creates visual patterns that carry the eye across the rows of panels; the way his characters often seem to stand still while the world moves pivots around them (keeping the reader's eye directly where he wants it to linger); even the way his lettering doesn't merely clutter up the top of the panel but often invades the horizontal plane, forcing the eye to cross the illustration - to take in both the visual and linguistic elements of the panel in one gulp. The motion in a row of four panels is always to the right, just as the eye reads.

Lots of people have attempted to copy Schulz's four-panel rhythm, but few people have ever really understood the way Schulz's rhythm was dictated less by the beats of a gag and more by his commitment to the understanding that his gags only worked if played entirely straight. That's why Peanuts has gained such a melancholy reputation, but that's also why the strip retains its bite: comedy is tragedy once removed, or so the saying goes. Play it straight and we're not simply laughing at Charlie Brown for a brief moment, but we're lingering on the sensation for a while longer.

(Read "Whither Shermy?" in it's entirety here.)

Brunetti isn't necessarily telling jokes anymore, but amazingly even in the process of telling the life stories of such renowned jokesters as Piet Mondrian, Søren Kierkegaard and Louise Brooks, he manages to illustrate not merely their pathos but their preposterousness as well. Humor in the face of adversity is not obscenity but instead a kind of dignity. Is their any more dignified figure in twentieth century art than Charlie Brown, America's own homegrown Job?

(Read "Louise Brooks" in its entirety here.)

In paring his style down so radically, Brunetti is left at times with little more than stick figures. But at no time is the reader left with the impression that anything necessary has been omitted. Rather, reading a Brunetti page is a reminder of just how very little a comic needs to be effective. Study this piece here, one of Brunetti's recent New Yorker covers. Although abstract in many ways, it is nevertheless completely legible: by which I mean, with just a few perfect lines Brunetti is able to communicate more than all the complex crosshatching in the world. Arms and legs are no more than spaghetti strands of India ink, and yet they carry the burden of tiny, imagined lives, heaving and sighing and trembling with earned vigor. With very little he accomplishes very much, and to date, Schizo #4 is his magnum opus.

10. X-Force by Peter Milligan & Mike Allred

This list is composed of English language comic books originally released between 2000 and 2009.

Schizo #4 is available for sale from the Fantagraphics store here. Additionally, much of Brunetti's past work is available in recently released hardcover compilations: Misery Loves Comedy, a collection of the first three issues of Schizo and other miscellany, and Ho!, reprinting his previous dirty joke books Haw! and Hee! Brunetti is currently on the faculty of Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches comics and design. Never the most prolific artist, in recent years his output has mostly been that of an educator, having compiled two volumes of the impeccable Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories for Yale University press, as well as the instructional manual Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, included with the ninth (and so far most recent) issue of Buenaventura Press' fantastic Comic Art magazine. The Cartooning pamphlet is the product of Brunetti's work as a teacher and theorist on the subject of comics, and is therefore of prime importance for anyone interested in either Brunetti's cartooning or comics in general. Comic Art #9 is available for sale from the publisher here.

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