Ivan Brunetti is one of today’s raunchiest and most personal cartoonists, black humor with a bitter-sweet edge. He agreed to answer five questions for a story I was working on, and boy did he answer. Here’s the unabridged interview.
The original story was about racy cartoons from Brunetti, Johnny Ryan and Icelandic madman Hugleikur Dagsson. If you read Norwegian, my original story is here. And some of their cartoons are printed here. On to the interview:
ØH: When and why did you start to the push the boundaries of what is considered good taste in humour?
IB: As a child, my drawings were pretty benign and wholesome; Disney and Peanuts characters, mostly. I was never encouraged to draw by anyone; in fact, there was active discouragement on my family’s part. And I didn’t grow up in a world where anyone became a creative person of any kind. So by the time I was 12, I pretty much stopped drawing.
When I was in college, I was inspired by Matt Groening’s weekly strip Life in Hell to start making my own cartons and expressing my own opinions. I guess «bad taste» was there at the very beginning, because I have a «dark sense of humor» (or so I am told). I never thought of myself as pushing any boundaries or even being offensive (it was not my aim). In fact, I find vulgarity, crassness, and the like to be offensive and often repugnant.
I started drawing cartoons to amuse myself; I had very little ability and thus drew spontaneously. Perhaps my «themes» were likewise «off-the-cuff» and not well thought out. It wasn’t until my middle twenties that I got interested in the craft of cartooning and started to push myself to draw better. At the same time, I also wanted to write better, so I tried to be as honest as possible. Unfortunately, to others this has translated to «bad taste,» but that was never my intention or goal.
ØH: Have you ever been threatened, punched, reported to the police or hated on, or experienced any other aggressive or unexpected reactions to your comics and cartoons?
IB: The last time I was threatened or punched was during childhood, when I was a communal punching bag, which only fed my martyr-like personality. As far as I know, the police have never been called on me, but as America teeters closer and closer to a total economic collapse and quite likely, in my lifetime, a police state, I could envision a future situation where I am not so lucky.
There isn’t anything I have drawn or even imagined that was not already acted upon, in a much worse fashion, countless times by other human beings, to the point that names exist for these acts. Reality has always trumped my worst imaginings and bleakest thoughts.
As to the question of aggressive reactions, the only examples I can think of from my adult life are the mean-spirited, ill-founded, uninformed opinions of that lowest of all inverterbrates, the comic-book critic. Most of them are myopic twits who hail from socioeconomic classes much more privileged than my own, so I automatically loathe them anyway. I don’t think these people understand ANYTHING about my motivations, craft, or goals. If life were fair, the most heinous misfortune would befall all of these people, but alas… life is far from just. The assholes and dickheads, we shall always have with us. Even a deluge wouldn’t wash them away, sadly.
A while back, a few of my cartoonists friends had the great idea of setting up our own website, a secret message board that can’t be found via a search engine (I am a web designer, so I helped create the site). One can only join after he/she has been approved by all the other members, and we’re up to 21 people now. We don’t really want it o get much larger, though. Anyway, it’s been nice to have this «safe haven» where we can communicate in peace, complain about publishers that don’t pay us on time, or laugh at photographs of comics critics.
ØH: What is most important for you when you draw jokes? Is it the punchline, the ability to shock the reader or the contrast between cartoony drawings and adult themes?
IB: My favorite punchlines are the ones that by all rights should not be funny. If I laugh involuntarily, and then immediately think, «that’s not funny,» then that’s a good punchline. It means it’s honest, and has short-circuited the superego...
ØH: What kind of humour is the most provoking in USA today? Is it jokes about politics, sex, race or religion?
IB: I think politics, race, sex, religion can all be «taboo» in certain contexts, but it’s kind of arbitrary what gets a response and what gets ignored completely. I try not to think about these things, but I wouldn’t say I’m a thoughtless individual. I would never draw something purposefully with the specific intent of offending someone or a group of people. That just seems asinine to me. At the same time, I am aware that many things I consider humorous would probably be horrifying to most people. I don’t know, I try not concern myself with the audience, since they’re really imaginary when you’re drawing. They only exist after a drawing is published. It’s more important for me to make myself laugh. What other honest barometer is there, in the end?
ØH: What do you feel about today’s mainstream cartoons and comic strips, have they forsaken the ability to provoke? And is your work maybe a reaction to this in some way?
IB: I don’t think 99.9% of newspaper comic strips were ever meant to provoke. Political cartoons are a different story. I think those are mostly simple-minded, muddled, and quite often retarded. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed at one. It’s all a lot of self-righteous nonsense to me, and those cartoons are much too aware of the perception of the audience. It seems compromised by its very nature.
I’m suffering a mild migraine today, and my patience for the world is pretty much at zero, so I apologize if I sound too negative. There’s a lot of wonderful, amazing, groundbreaking work being created in comics, but almost none of it is in mainstream comics and editorial cartons. I’m not a fan of my own work either. I never could stand my drawing. I’ve never made a living as an artist, and I have other jobs to earn my daily bread, so I have the luxury of not caring what an audience thinks of my work. I’ll eat just the same. I don’t think I could depend on drawing for my sustenance; it would be too nerve-wracking and I have zero self-confidence.
This makes me sad, because I love cartooning, but ultimately I am a failure at it. Recently I was able to take a trip, and I took a short tour through the American desert. I remember the bus turning a corner and suddenly planting us in front of this amazing view of the mountains and a lake. It was soul-crushingly beautiful, especially after trudging though various urban garishess before driving out into the countryside. There’s something repulsive about man-made objects, mostly because man made them, and there is no more abhorrent creature on the planet than man. Anyway, it was heartening to know that the mountain will be there a long time, until the Sun explodes, long, long after our miserable species has ceased to infect, pollute, and dominate the natural order. What was your question?
PS! The author of this interview is by the way a comic critic. If you read Norwegian, you can find my review of Ivan Brunetti’s Misery Loves Comedy here.