Ivan Brunetti and the Chicago Underground Comics Scene

Ivan Brunetti; image by Bill Volk

Once again, Ivan Brunetti returns to the University of Chicago to teach the class “Writing the Graphic Novel,” in which the cartoonist reaches out to “people who want to create comics and communicate about the cartooning language.” However, this class is only one of the intersections through which Chicagoans can get involved in the city’s local and self-published comics scene. So take a breath, unzip the plastic cover of protection and take a look into Chicago’s vibrant world of underground comics.

Exhibit A
From his website alone, an interested student could hardly guess that Brunetti teaches a creative writing course on comics at the University of Chicago. Ivanbrunetti.com is nothing more than an elegant, minimalist archive of postcards and other images he’s collected, with no author biography, no explanation, and only indirect suggestions about the character of Mr. Brunetti himself. His postcards of black-and-white actors and models whose names are lost to history come in three delightful categories: “Demure,” “Not So Demure,” and “Cats.” Another section of the site is devoted to magazine covers that feature Drew Barrymore. The only hints that he has any interest in comics are a single page of “Krazy Kat” and the cover of a ten-cent “Fritzi Ritz” comic. The meaning of any of it is left as an exercise for the reader.

Misery loves comedy
Brunetti, it turns out, is an Italian-born cartoonist who has illustrated a cover for “The New Yorker” and written cartoons for “The New York Times,” “Entertainment Weekly,” the brochures for University of Illinois at Chicago that can be found around Hyde Park, and even Scooby-Doo and the comic book supplement of “Nickelodeon Magazine.” He has lived most of his adult life in Chicago and considers it “a healthy place” to create comics. “It has all the advantages of a large city,” he says, but “not as many distractions. And the brutal winters are actually a way to encourage you to buckle down and do some work.” When he’s not drawing on commission or working as a web designer, he writes cartoons and comics, mostly about his own life and the stresses and worries that plague it. In sharp contrast to his website, which leaves the reader wanting more context, Ivan Brunetti’s comics seem to offer a direct link to his mind and overflow with barely-mediated emotion. His long-running series of short comics anthologies, “Schizo,” is all intensely, almost suffocatingly personal. The fourth and most recent issue, published by Fantagraphics, is full of one-page stories of relatively small panels on enormous full-color pages, including even the front and back covers. It includes biographies of Kierkegaard, Louise Brooks, the Marx Brothers and others, but even these point back to himself and his values and worries. Even though it’s implicit that he’s choosing to make his material public, even that he’s fictionalizing much of it, reading one of his stories feels startlingly invasive, like spying on a stranger’s therapy sessions. For example, the introduction to Fantagraphics’ anthology “Misery Loves Comedy,” a collection of the first three full issues of “Schizo,” is written by Brunetti’s social worker. There is a strange tension between the reserved, minimalist, nostalgic sensibilities of his work’s form and the sometimes explosively offensive flavor of its content. Everything about his work suggests that he is pouring his heart and soul into it; that he is stressing, wailing, and gnashing his teeth over it. In this respect, Brunetti embodies everything good and valuable about alternative comics.

The Class
Before he started teaching at the University of Chicago, Brunetti studied there. He says that at the time “there wasn’t even a creative writing program, just three creative writing classes in the English department. It’s a miracle that there’s a course in comics now.” Brunetti enjoys being able to influence the next generation of comics artists as well as the University’s largely theory-dominated course standards. However, even though it’s called “Writing the Graphic Novel,” Brunetti’s class is constrained by the same factor that shapes all other classes at the University of Chicago: the quarter system. Brunetti says that, with the shortened class time “it’s just not possible to write a novel-length work…but we’re going to be working toward that goal, to have the proper building blocks. It’s important that the class be based on practice. I try to help the students gain insight into the abstract principles that way. The analysis can only come after you create something. First and foremost, I want people to create.”

Brunetti’s “Schizo” is a good place to start when exploring local comics, but a bad place to finish.

“Templar, Arizona,” by Spike
This is probably one of the most famous webcomics native to Chicago. It’s a slickly-drawn, slickly-written story of a strange alternate-historical city.

“Paradigm Shift,” by Dirk Tiede
Though much of its character design is Japanese-influenced, there isn’t a comic out there more specific to Chicago. For this supernatural detective story, Tiede has taken exhaustive reference photos and recreated local environments with such a level of detail that they’re immediately recognizable even when their names aren’t mentioned.

“Skybeard,” by Steve Gillies
The tagline says it all: “You will believe a man can fly. With a beard.” By the author of “Pro Wrestling is Not Gay” and “Pro Wrestling was Never Gay,” this three-part series of mini-comics uses crudely-edited clip-art to deliver a surprisingly engaging meditation on superheroism, city life, academia, and facial hair. It is just as ridiculous as it sounds and could not in good conscience be excluded from this list.

Keep in mind that this list comes with a warning both from this author and from Mr. Brunetti: it is nowhere close to complete, and there is no substitute for heading out and actually searching for comics. It’s the best way to enjoy a form that’s prized for its idiosyncratic charm and the personal touch lent to each work by its creator.

Places to find local comics in chicago
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single dedicated comic book store to be found south of the Loop, but wonders await those who know where to look.

It’s a bit of a hike from Hyde Park, but this store, named after the mouse with a negotiable number of heads created by Chicago’s own Chris Ware, is the single best place to find self-published comics, zines, a complete collection of Jack Chick tracts, and all kinds of printed curios and apocrypha that can’t be found anywhere else. (1854 W. North Ave. www.quimbys.com)

Chicago Comics
Belmont’s self-proclaimed “leading small press comic shop in the Midwest” has a solid selection of self-published, local, mainstream, and foreign comics. It strives to provide one-stop shopping for the comics dork.
(3244 N Clark Ave. www.chicagocomics.com)

Graham Crackers
The Loop location of this chain comics store is more focused on mainstream comics, but there is a self-published and local comics section in the back. It’s not an ideal place to look, but it may happen to have a title or two that can’t be found in the previous two locations. (77 E. Madison St., between Clark and Dearborn, www.grahamcrackers.com/chstore.html)

If you create your own comics and are interested in connecting with readers in Chicago, all of these locations will sell self-published comics on consignment. The paperwork can be found on their websites.

Art Night–How you can get involved
Though cartoonists tend to be a reclusive breed, and members of an independent comics “scene” might never actually meet each other, a loose social group called Art Night Chicago offers an alternative for cartoonists in need of encouragement, inspiration, or just an excuse to sit down and get some work done. It was founded by Dirk Tiede, the author of Paradigm Shift, who, until recently, hosted the meetings in his house. Tiede explains, “When I first moved to Chicago, I looked for other people who made comics, and it turned out that there were a lot of them, but they never really talked to each other. It took me six years to meet other cartoonists, and even then they didn’t talk to each other. The whole Art Night thing was just an attempt to change that.” Now that Dirk and his wife have moved away from Chicago, control of the group has passed to fellow Chicago cartoonists Brion Foulke and Gerry Swanson. Future dates and locations remain undetermined, but those interested in attending the next meeting are encouraged to join their mailing list at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/artnightchicago.

Of course, one of the best things about comics is that a comics writer doesn’t need a group of collaborators to produce work or to somehow validate it. Comics allow for, but do not require, any degree of productive collaboration. This sets comics apart from media like film, which practically demands collaboration, and media like painting and poetry, in which a large number of collaborators puts too much strain on the work. Here are a few titles that contain advice for artists interested in self-publishing their comics.

“Making Comics,” by Scott McCloud
“Understanding Comics,” this book dwells a little less on the theory and a little more on the practice of comics. Though it still features plenty of McCloud’s beloved diagrams, ”Making Comics” also offers an honest guide to drawing materials, the anatomy behind facial expressions, and exercises for the reader at the end of each chapter. McCloud gets bonus points for drawing himself a little grayer and doughier than in his previous books.

“Whatcha Mean What’s a Zine?” by Esther Pearl
This guide is aimed at young adults, but its advice on how to self-publish in print media (and how to locate people all over the world who are interested in this kind of work) goes way beyond the basics and is a must-read for anyone who’s considered getting into mini-comics. It gets bonus points for being sold in the Museum of Contemporary Art gift shop.

“How to Make Webcomics,” by Brad Guigar, Dave Kellett, Scott Kurtz, and Kris Straub
Writers from the digital comics collective halfpixel.com go over all the important technical aspects of drawing, designing, and hosting webcomics.

The independent comics scene in Chicago is relatively quiet compared to those of cities like Portland and San Francisco, but artists like Ivan Brunetti and the members of Art Night are doing their best to reach out and swell its numbers. For the aspiring cartoonist and comics enthusiast alike, Chicago offers an intimate community and a broad selection of local art for those willing to take the time to seek it out.