I’ve read enough bad or lackluster anthologies over the years to know it’s not something you can just slap together. It takes real editorial vision and guidance to put together a solid collection of work, whether you’re talking about new material or older reprints.
Which is my roundabout way of saying just how impressed I am with Ivan Brunetti’s two Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories. I had already known Brunetti was a first-rate cartoonist (Schizo, Misery Loves Comedy), but these books, taken together, show him to have a considerable sensitivity and thoughtfulness towards the medium, not just in his choices, but in their arrangement and layout.
While the first volume provided a strong art-comics overview for the uninitiated, the sequel casts a somewhat wider, though no less fascinating net. I was pleased, for example, to discover there were a few artists new to me, while the stories I was familiar came with a slightly new perspective due to their juxtoposition with other works.
I talked to Brunetti recently over the phone about the new collections, the challenges of putting together these anthologies in general, and the chance that we’ll see a new issue of Schizo in 2009 (sadly, probably not likely).
Q: What made you decide to do a second volume?
A: Besides insanity? At the time I put together the first book, my list of stuff I wanted to put in there got so huge I had 800 pages at one point. Actually the first book was supposed to be no more than 300 pages but I convinced Yale to let me do 400. And at some point I was thinking “500 pages would be good.”
Anyway, they couldn’t go more than 400 because it would have made the book go into another price range. After the first book was done I was thinking it would be good if I could put all that other stuff in another volume. I kind of swore I would never do this again cause it’s a lot of work, putting together an anthology, but it was kind of nagging at me and I felt like the first volume needed this companion to complete some of the ideas that started in the first book. It was my idea and Yale pretty much agreed to it before they knew what the sales were going to be on the first one. I think there was an indication it was going to do OK, especially for an academic press book. So my editor pretty much convinced the Yale editorial board to approve the second book and together I think they form a complete unit.
Q: I was going to say that I assumed the first one did reasonably well to justify a second.
A: For an academic press it was good. They were pleased with it. I actually don’t know what the sales really are because there are all these people returning books and stuff. Probably it will be a while. I can assume it did OK because they wouldn’t have approved the second one if the first one had all the indications of tanking.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the selection process? It sounds like you already had an idea of what you wanted in, but how did that differ from the first volume if at all?
A: I feel like the first volume established the center. In the second I had more leeway to move to the left of center and put some stuff in there that was maybe a little more aggressively experimental and also just exploring different sides of comics. There’s a section on collage. That’s kind of the metaphor for the whole book. It’s one aspect of comics that’s not often explored. They always get compared to film and animation and things like that. I wanted to compare it to something else. You could compare it to collage. You could compare it to sculpture in a way too. It was just another way of looking at them. I tried to pick things that illustrated that.
In the first book there was a tribute to Charles Schulz and I wanted to do this tribute to Harvey Kurtzman as well, so I got to do this tribute in the second one. I also wanted to put in newer artists that haven’t been around as long as some of the old-timers and just mix it up a little more. With the first book I felt some responsibility to mostly stick with things that have been around awhile and we’ve had a chance to chew them over. I think half the contributors of the second one were not in the first one. I also, with the people that I put in both volumes, I tried to explore a different avenue of their work wherever I could.
Q: Could you give me an example of that?
A: One example would be Art Spiegelman. In the first one he’s represented with Maus and an essay on Schulz. In the second one there’s one of his most experimental strips, The Malpractice Suite, which invented art comics in a way. It was a real turning point in the history of art comics and using collage. In the first volume the selections I had by Chris Ware were a little bit different. There wasn’t much of his humor strips. I wanted to put some of those in the second one.
Q: It seems like the trick of any anthology is knowing what to put where, the sequencing. The new book — and the first one — has a real nice flow from one story to the next. Can you tell me about the decision-making process involved in knowing what goes where?
A: It’s really wide open. One interesting thing is when you put a story next to another story it sort of changes both stories. I talk about that in the introduction. The way you put colors next to each other and you realize they’re not really absolute, they’re relative to everything else. I think I explore that a little bit more in the second one. In the first one, there are a lot of visual connections between stories, but it almost felt like I was putting together one long story. It was one continuous narrative.
The second one feels more like putting together a collage where you’re looking for visual rhymes. There’s also thematic and literary rhymes as well from story to story but I was really looking for more subtle visual connections from one piece to the next so that the stories connected that way so it was a little more unexpected what you’d see next. Maybe one panel at the end one story might suggest another panel at the beginning of another story by somebody else. Maybe that’s why it feels a little more unpredictable.
Q: Another trick in an anthology like this is the format, in that you’ve got a lot of comics that came out in a variety of formats — ie large, small, etc. Can you talk about that challenge and how you tried to solve the problem?
A: If something wasn’t going to fit the format, I just figured it wasn’t going to do it any service. In the first book there were these really large pages by Gary Panter and I put them across the spread to show that those stories are more visual than narrative driven even though it’s like an adaptation of a narrative poem.
With this one, there were some strips that had to be reformatted. The Tim Hensley strip was originally done as two squares and it was just too expensive to do a gatefold. Originally I wanted to have two pages that folded in and the fold out to be two squares. But that would have broke the bank and made the book more expensive. I just work with the artist to come up with another solution for presenting that work. There were the two pages from [Brian Chippendale's] Ninja were obviously printed much larger. They lose a little bit of power but I tried to retain that spread some of the themes of the book anyway. You’re trying to stay true to what you’re taking in some way, even though they’re getting modified in size.
And they you have things where its small and you’re ganging them up many pages per page. That’s sort of changing things a little bit too, but I thought if I blew up the pages really big or left a lot of empty space I wasn’t using the pages of the book. I tried to make it really dense as possible. It probably needs a little breathing room. I tried to put a few stories that were more sparse and more space but I think both books tend to err more toward being really dense. I just want people to get their money’s worth.
Q: You talked about working with the artists. How much if any input did any of the artist have as far as selecting material or the format? And were there artists whose work you wanted but said no for whatever reason?
A: I don’t want to name names but there was somebody who didn’t want to be in a comics anthology and there were people who were ambivalent about comics in general. Then there were things that were prohibitively expensive and just impossible to track down the rights on. It’s really hard to get a hold of Marvel Comics. I would have loved to have stuff by Jack Kirby in there. You can’t even find who to contact to get those rights, plus they would have been so expensive. The recent Best American comics —
Q: — wanted to get in Paul Pope —
A: Yeah and DC wouldn’t even want it reprinted. There were those kinds of issues to consider. Also we had to work within a budget for permissions. The sad thing about that is the living cartoonists get the least money. The dead cartoonists do the best because they have estates and lawyers. Although even there, there were a few exceptions where they said “Oh sure, you can use it for free,” but most people wanted money. It was all over the place.
As far as working with specific artists, with everyone I had chosen a particular story that I wanted to put in the book and I think 90-95 percent were fine with it. It was a very small percentage of people that maybe wanted to run something else. Sometimes they’d give you a suggestion. Other times they’d leave it up to you and you’d suggest something else. I had a thing about the context of the book and how things would flow. And sometimes that meant re-ordering things a little bit because you put in a different story it doesn’t flow quite the same way. Things like that.
But for the most part, especially with the second one, I think most people trusted me cause they had seen the first one. Sometimes people had specific concerns like they were going to reprint their own stories or were having a book come out and they didn’t want to dilute the stories by having them appear in too many places. I understood that. We made some compromises. But that’s really a small, maybe 5 percent of the book was affected by that. For the most part, I got what I wanted.
Q: You’ve talked about this before, but I’m going to ask you again anyway: Is there an overriding aesthetic theme? Is there anything that connects all these stories together?
A: Yeah but I don’t think about that before I do it. I first go with what interests me. I make a list of all those [stories] and I had scans and printouts of them and I just started putting them next to each other and seeing what kind of different visual flows you would get. What both books are about is meant to be reflections of the creative process. I talk about that in both introductions. The first one is about the development of an idea, from a mark to a doodle to a panel to a series of panels to a page and then multi-pages.
In the second one it’s more about the unpredictable aspect of putting images together. Ultimately you cannot use a recipe or a formula. It’s a very intuitive process. When you draw one panel it starts to suggest another panel and it will either feel right or not feel right. There’s different directions you can take and there’s different kinds of stories and different kinds of moods and tones to a comic. I was trying to explore that aspect of it.
In a way it seems like comics have been dissected a lot more and it’s almost turning into a mannerism. Like there’s some method to doing it. That kind of bothers me. When I think of all the artists that I like they defy the rules in a weird way. After I’ve been teaching comics for awhile and I’ll say something like “this is the best way to do something” or give a critique and tell people how to improve their work. But then I look at a lot of the artists I like they’ll break some of the same rules. Rules are helpful to get started, but they should never be absolute. Whatever works is what works.
In the second one I didn’t want people to exactly know what I was doing from story to story. It’s more satisfying if you read it a few times and start to see connections between different parts of the book. Not just one story and the next, but different sections. there’s little clumps and repeating motifs. It was almost like you see more of the process in the second book. it feels a little less overwrought. It’s left a bit more raw as far as what that intuitive process is like.
This is a hard sell (laughs). I think people are looking to these books as though I’m establishing a canon. I am not in any power to do that. No one individual can do that. It’s going to take 50 to 100 years for people to judge all these anthologies coming out a little more objectively. I’m putting my two cents in there and I might be totally wrong. Maybe my approach to all of this is totally insane. I don’t know.
For me it was more important that the books felt like making comics. That when you read them you got a sense of how comics are created. I was really just trying to translate the sense of excitement I had when I got into comics. A lot of the stuff I put in there is stuff I’ve held dear to my heart for 20 years or more. It made me want to be a cartoonist. I was just trying to give that same feeling to people reading it. Maybe they don’t necessarily want to become cartoonists but they get an appreciation for it. I wanted that to come across. That was more important to me. That makes the case that comics are interesting and a worthwhile pursuit more than me sitting down and give the theory of everything.
I don’t like pigeonholing stories. Even saying “that’s a humor story and that’s a serious story.” Or “That’s an autobiogrpahical and that’s fictional” which are the very basic divisions people might make. I feel those are much more in flux. You look at a story and it’s really just a matter of your perspective. I think the best stories straddle both. Whatever dichotomy you come up with or divisions or categories, the best stories straddle many of those categories. Again, if you put them next to other stories, it brings out something that is unexpected. It’s like putting two sheets of colored paper next to each other. One of the colors if it’s more dominant might bring out its compliment in the color that’s not dominant. It starts to effect everything around it.
Those were the ideas that were interesting to me as I was putting it together. It was not “I’m the arbiter of taste and here’s the people I’ve chosen.” There was no way. There are too many comics. I had to narrow it down to what I was going to put in a year and a half ago and since then there’s been all kinds of new stuff. What’s nice is you can’t keep up anymore.
These books are not like a complete and final representation of everything that’s interesting in comics. There are many more new things. I hope someone else will take up the task of doing more anthologies that have a strong singular editorial vision, even if it’s a crazy editorial vision. That’s what I was throwing in there. It’s a very singular viewpoint. They’re almost like autobiography. They probably reveal a lot about me, whether I was trying to do that or not.
Q: I think people tend to see canons as set in stone which I think is kind of silly. I tend to look at them as flexible things — a constant, ongoing discussion.
A: Sure. If you think about a seminal painter like Vermeer. It took him 250 years to be appreciated. And it was other artists noticing stuff like that. It wasn’t academics.
Q: Yeah, and painters and artists always fall in and out of favor. Older artists are rediscovered. That kind of thing happens all the time.
A: I think other artists are usually on the vanguard of appreciating the aesthetics more than those that don’t practice them because somebody that is making paintings is going to see things that somebody who isn’t won’t see. Not to say that the other person maybe has more objectivity and distance. Maybe their view is more valuable. It takes both. It takes somebody far removed and somebody really into it. And again, after a certain number of decades we can all step back and look at things a little more objectively.
In the latest New Yorker there was an interesting article about the guy who forged those Vermeer paintings. There was a line in there that stood out for me that it takes 40 years for people to really see forgeries, because usually forgeries reveal a lot about the times in which they’re created. Somebody mapped this out. It takes 40 years for people to be removed enough from these things to actually see them as mannerisms and affectations.
It’s going to take some time and distance for everyone to see this more clearly. Then maybe we’ll have a canon. Then the question is how many people are in it? How many levels do you have? I’m sure it will get whittled down, if there’s still paper. It will be like, five cartoonists that were interesting. The rest of us will just disappear.
Q: It’s hard to say cause there’s so many subjective factors. Beyond just pure aesthetics, it’s whatever the succeeding generation deems as important, which is constantly in flux. There’s issues of “is that person’s work available?” Someone like Fletcher Hanks, who if it weren’t for Paul Karasik and a few other people tracking him down —
A: Raw magazine was the first. Of course, Paul Karasik was working on Raw at the time.
Q: That’s true. You’re right.
A: Was it 25 years ago or so? It started there and look how long it took for it to have a book. Now it’s almost like he’s become part of the pantheon in a weird way.
Q: He’s sort of a folk hero.
A: Thirty years ago I think Jerry Moriarty was the only person collecting that stuff. It was one guy who noticed it — an artist — who noticed it being interesting and collected it. Nobody else cared.
Q: Do you have a specific audience in mind when you’re putting these books together?
A: Probably the main audience is people that are not familiar with this stuff. If someone’s an aficionado they probably have most if not all of the things I put in these books. The books were never meant to showcase commissioned work, new work. We only had a budget to reprint work. Everything [in there] is already in existence. Just right off the bat, that’s what the books are. They’re collections of things that are already out there. There are collectors and people that appreciate the form and have been interested in it for a long time and they have these books already.
For those people, I think they might still be interesting books in the sense that you can give them to somebody as a handy compendium. “Well here’s some interesting comics, even if you don’t agree with all my choices.” I hope at least they’re all interesting. Even if someone wants to debate particular pages in there. I think that’s helpful.
Also I tried to put them in an order and arrangement that would be interesting even to people that are familiar with the stories, because again, there’s an art to putting them together as well. Maybe they’ll get some enjoyment on that level too.
Otherwise I think it really is for people that even if they’re familiar with some of the things, a lot of the stuff in these books is not familiar to them. I just thought, “Let’s imagine a person with an open mind and likes to read and has some visual appreciation.” My hope is that they’d find them interesting and would want to investigate all these artists more, or even if it’s just a few or one. Introduce them to something they wouldn’t have otherwise known about. That’s a success right there. If I had been 19 years old and found books like these it would have been interesting to me. Just thinking about somebody that is just looking into this world of comics and give them something where they have all these different avenues they can explore. Just introducing them to it basically.
You have to stay true to each artist you’re putting in there of course. You want to stay loyal and faithful to what they’re trying to do. At the same time you’re putting a collection together so the stories have to relate to each other and that’s very separate from the way these artists created their stories. It’s just balancing all these things out. It’s an intuitive process.
Q: You do have a few surprises in this volume though, like the Eugene Teal and Elinore Norflus strips, which I’d never seen before.
A: They were both in early issues of Weirdo, so we can thank Robert Crumb’s eagle eye and sensitivity for noticing those things and putting them out there for the first time. Those strips have always stuck with me. I just wanted to showcase them. I was actually not able to find any contact information for Elinore Norflus. If she’s listening out there, there’s a check waiting for you. Robert Crumb had copyright to Weirdo, so he pretty much gave permission and said you’ll take responsibility for it. When he actually wrote back to me he said “You’re the only other person that’s ever shown interest in Elinore Norflus.”
There’s something so raw and unmediated about those pages. I got under my skin. It violates every “rule” of what you’re supposed to do in comics. She’s kind of the real deal. It’s not someone pretending to be naive. I thought it had a real power because of it, whether people liked it or not. When I first saw it I didn’t know what to make of it either, but it stuck with me.
The same with the Eugene Teal comic. There was just something about it. I could never get that image of the frog riding a horse out of my mind. It burned itself forever into my brain. That strip almost works as a traditional comic. It’s paced like an old Sunday comic. But there’s something really off-kilter about it. I’ve met other cartoonists that have that pinned to their studio wall. John Hankiewicz, one of the artists in the book, had that at his drawing table. It’s interesting how many artists really felt attached to that strip. I count myself amongst them and so I thought, “You know, this really should be in there.”
It might have been a harder sell in the first book. I think people were definitely expecting more. Something canon-building. And I have that in the back of my mind, that everyone was going to scrutinize every single page. I felt like I had more freedom with the second one. But they’re all things that I like and stand behind.
Q: Why was it important to include the Harvey Kurtzman tribute? How does he relate to the other artists in the book?
A: I think he really had more to do with the previous generation that worked within the satirical tradition. Not so much on the surface with a lot of the newer cartoonists but to me that tradition is an important part of comics. The cynical, iconoclastic tradition. I wouldn’t put Schulz into that category necessarily. But those are two artists that I hold in high esteem. So I’m just going with my gut instinct on it.
At the same time Kurtzman relates things back to surreal and abstract humor strips that came before him. I put some of those in the book. And then he leads to the underground. He’s kind of this bridge between the absurd humor and iconoclastic humor that was in the Sunday comics before him and the underground artists of the 60s. Mad was really a big part of why the 60s underground happened. Without those we wouldn’t have the 80s alternative comics.
Q: It does seem like you can draw a direct line from Kurtman to Kevin Huizenga if you wanted to.
A: That would take more of a little term paper to write. I really just wanted again to pay tribute to two artists that really affected my approach.
The other thing about Kurtzman is his work looks like it’s really spontaneous and dashed-off at times, but I’ve seen some originals by him and there’s so much work into it to make it look that way. It’s an interesting aspect of comics. In a way it’s very desirable to have that look, but it takes so much control to actually make that happen. It’s almost like zen calligraphy or something like that. You’re trying to make it look one way but the only way to get there is through discipline, even though it looks like the person made it magically happen. His pages really spring to life. But there’s such a process to make that happen.
Also there’s that collage element to his work, putting everything but the kitchen sink in his stuff and mixing the styles, sometimes in the same story. There’s an early Mad where the style keeps changing page to page. He’s playing with these ideas of formally breaking down the medium. I think that’s another aspect at his continued — you’re seeing that with Kevin Huizenga, doing it in a less humorous vein, maybe more serious, but there’s that idea of taking comics apart a little bit and screwing them back together in a weird way so you get interesting combinations and effects. I think there was a lot of that in Mad.
Q: Looking over the contents list, most of the stuff you’ve included are by cartoonists — people who write and draw. There’s no real collaborative works here.
A: There’s two. The most obvious one is Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar.
Yeah in general I tend to prefer that singular vision and even if two people are working together it’s almost like a seamless thing. But that’s another area of aspect of comics that was not explored in those books and maybe someone can do a book of interesting collaborations. That would be an interesting book. It’s not like I’m editing these books to have the final word. I’d love for people to do a book that’s the total opposite of what I was trying to do and see how that turns out. That might be just as interesting or more interesting in its own right.
It’s not like there’s one way to look at comics. There are many ways of looking at comics. These books are meant to open up a dialogue. That’s fine if people want to argue about what’s in there. I hope people go beyond arguing and actually make something too. There’s anthologies of new work coming out even now that are pushing all these boundaries as well so at some point someone’s going to go through all that stuff and collect it and it might take awhile. There’s just so much new stuff now I think it will be awhile before the smoke clears and we can look at what we have.
Q: It is staggering right now to try and cover what’s out.
A: Sure. I went to the comic store and [realized] I don’t have enough money to keep up with what’s coming out right now.
Q: And that’s not counting manga.
A: Yeah, that’s a whole other world. It’s interesting. Now there’s more Japanese comics being reprinted but they’re not the things you would necessarily expect. There’s a lot of unusual manga, against the grain stuff we’re seeing printed in English for the first time. It’s exciting too because it’s this whole other world we’re unfamiliar with except for maybe a few people.
Q: Were there any anthologies that inspired you when you were putting these books together?
A: These anthologies I’m doing would not have existed without Raw and Weirdo. A lot of the stuff in there is from Raw and Weirdo.
Definitely the McSweeney’s that Chris Ware edited. Again, that’s a very intuitive put-together book. Chris Ware would say he was just using Raw as a model for that. He got there first. He got to do the hardcover book that put the stuff out there. It was a little different because for McSweeney’s he let the artist choose what they wanted to run. If they wanted a new strip or something old. In my case it was looking for everything that was already printed somewhere. It’s a different kind of editing process.
Something like Kramer’s Ergot too. It kind of made comics exciting again. I didn’t always completely love everything in there, but it opened my world up to a lot of stuff I hadn’t looked at closely before. Now that a few years have gone by since the fourth issue, it’s interesting to look back on that. It was my first exposure to many of those artists.
Q: Have you seen the new one yet?
A: I haven’t. I have a page in there. It’s the most boring page in the book.
It’s great that they tried to do that format. It’s like a once in a lifetime project.
Q: You do a lot of teaching about comics. Did any of that inform the editing of these books?
A: Sure. When I started teaching I had to make up some hand-outs just to illustrate things about comics. I always found myself xeroxing more and more stuff, going through my collection and finding things I though would appeal to students and also illustrate something about the form or the medium. In the process of doing that I think I was subconsciously organizing an anthology. The first time I taught it was just an adult education course. It was just trying to find things to get people interested in comics even if they weren’t familiar with what I was showing them. I think I’m still trying to do that with the books. I think there is a direct relationship with that.
Q: Is this something you see continuing? Will there be a volume three?
A: I don’t think so, unless they want someone else to keep doing it. In my mind these two books went together and they form a set. A third one, I’d have to rethink it and start over in a way. I’d have to have a whole different set of parameters. Both books were focused on North America, and there’s the rest of the world. If you open it up to the rest of the world, you have a whole different kind of book. I think that would be an interesting book for someone to do. Not have any American comics in it. I’m just not going to be able to do that.
I haven’t had any time to draw myself over the last few years. I think I’ve drawn one page of comics in the last few years now. I feel like I’ve removed myself from this form that I was trying to examine. I don’t like feeling detached from it. I just want to regroup and maybe get back into drawing myself. I dunno. Maybe I’ve completely lost my ability at this point. Maybe it’s like an athlete that hasn’t worked out for three years. All of the sudden your muscles have atrophied. Your arms are ready to slough off. I just want to get back into comics and making comics. We’ll see how that goes. I have my doubts. I might be a “former cartoonist.”
I’m glad I did these anthologies. It will probably be the only things I’ve done that will last beyond my lifetime. I’m pretty sure that that’s going to be the case, but that’s fine. I’m glad I did that. Hopefully it’ll be interesting to people 100 years from now when there’s no oxygen left. I’ve lost the thread of the conversation.
Q: You actually answered my next question, which was when will we see Schizo 5?
A: Well it took seven years to do the fourth issue and it might take seven years to do the fifth one. I don’t know. I might get back into the swing of things. I just started teaching full time two months ago and it’s been completely overwhelming. I’m teaching courses I never taught before like Basic Drawing and Introduction to 2-Dimensional Design. The really fundamental courses. I did not study art. I took three art classes in my entire life. So I don’t know what I’m doing. Week to week I’m improvising and things are working and not working. It’s taken over my life to try to get these courses organized into something I can whip into shape for next semester but it’s taken so much preparation every week. That’s been taking up a lot of energy but I’m hoping at some point I can pull in the reins and then I’ll have some time to get back to drawing. Because I do miss it. The less you do it the more it gets like science-fiction. Imagining yourself drawing seems as realistic as going to Mars. It’s this insurmountable thing. This hurdle you cannot jump over. It’s a much harder art form than a lot of people give credit. It takes a lot of planning and discipline and focus.