REVIEW: IVAN BRUNETTI: CARTOONING, PHILOSOPHY AND PRACTICE
IVAN BRUNETTI: CARTOONING, PHILOSOPHY AND PRACTICE reviewed by Gar Shanley.
No, this book isn’t Irish but it might help people who are Irish so I thought I’d review it. I bought Ivan Brunetti’s short book Cartooning, Philosophy and Practice yesterday and I’ve already finished it. The author wouldn’t appreciate this speedy approach to the book though. Instead, cartoonist Brunetti (Misery Loves Comedy, Ho!) breaks down his book into fifteen lessons and asks that you equip yourself with the recommended instruments (“pencil, paper, life”) and proceed through the book as if it’s a weekly course.
The early chapters are practical and might even seem obvious but you can’t reiterate the basics enough in my view. In these first few lessons we are taught how to convey information in a single panel, moving on to a four panel narrative and then to a whole page. Page panel grid structures of different types are explained as well as tools of the trade and how to discover your style.
Throughout the book, Brunetti quotes philosophers, cultural commentators and artists from many different fields. His frame of reference might seem a bit highbrow but, as comic people, I think we should realise that we exist in a strange realm that embraces the highbrow and lowbrow but rarely the conservative middlebrow (screw those guys). Amongst my favourite quotes are “cartooning, at its essence, amounts to no less than a geometry of the human soul” -Giovanni Battista Vico and “true art is to conceal art” – Ovid (which is a Roman poet’s way of saying “quit showing off and tell the bleedin’ story”). Don’t worry though, the book doesn’t act as an apology for comics by constantly associating them with higher culture, Brunetti draws many LOL-worthy analogies between the art of comics and things as diverse as Italian cooking and eleven year old girls wearing leather pants (a bit odd that latter one but there you go). Brunetti also keeps referring to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye so it might be good to familiarise yourself with the content of that book before embarking on this one. One interesting exercise in the book finds Brunetti telling the story of The Catcher in the Rye in a single panel.
Lessons ten to fourteen are combined in a single chapter near the book’s conclusion. Here Brunetti recommends overcoming blank page anxiety by placing instinct and intuition before mechanics or pre-planned story construction. Although the philosophy of its title permeates the whole book, it really gets an outing in this penultimate chapter. Brunetti’s ideas reminded me of similar views on storytelling expressed by the dramatists Harold Pinter and Dennis Potter. In short: fixed formulas are contrary to instinctual, genuine and original content so let your muse guide you through your tale.
This last piece of advice isn’t much use to cartoonists who have been provided with a finished script but might be of use to the writer who is going to provide them with that script. The book also got me thinking that cartoonists should spend much of their time following their own muse, perhaps even experimenting by drawing panels without knowing what is going to be in the next panel, à la Robert Crumb. Cartoonists should explore what is in their own heads instead of constantly interpreting what is in the head of some scriptwriter.
The book explores cartooning as a kind of alchemy. If approached without cynicism and unselfconsciously, comics can transport the reader to other times, other places (real or imagined), other people’s experiences and world views, every bit as well as, and often better than, other artistic media. The best thing about Cartooning, Philosophy and Practice is that it will help cartoonists daunted by the challenge of producing interesting content to break free of their inhibitions and produce something that (be it exciting, funny, scary or slice of life) rings true. And that, fundamentally, is what this arty lark is all about.
Speaking of creative and self-expressive inhibitions, I’ll share with you a final analogy that is typical of the book. Brunetti compares artistic ideas to spit – it doesn’t bother us when it’s inside but disgusts us when it comes out. The book recommends you gob it all up and damn the consequences.
Cartooning, Philosophy and Practice is a practical and informative book but also makes you think about cartooning, what it is and how best to express yourself with it. I recommend you pick this book up.