‘To me, the entire human race is nothin’ but a bunch of fuckin’ niggers’ – Ho! The Morally Questionable Cartoons of Ivan Brunetti

hoHow do you write a review of a book like this? It’s a collection of disturbing single-frame funnies from the pen of Chicago cartoonist Ivan Brunetti. There’s no flowing narrative or recurring characters. There’s no story arc or point to be made. The artwork – like some stark hybrid of Chris Ware, Bill Watterson and Max Estes – is appropriate rather than outstanding. It’s a bunch of pictures designed, as much as anything else, to be as offensive as possible. So I’ll ask again – how do you write a review of a book like this?

Well, ok, I’ve thought of two ways. Here’s the first:

Brunetti is a complex character. Like his Fantagraphics contemporary Johnny Ryan, his work is peppered with jokes whose taste is best described as ‘iffy’/ Racism, suicide, rape, paedophilia… hell, it comes as something of a relief to the conscience if he’s just making a joke about faces or genitalia. One frame depicts a boy pissing on a squirming baby, and cheerfully explaining to a horrified passerby, ‘It’s all right… I bought him off a crack whore.’ And that’s one of the tamer punchlines. How does anyone manage to come up with this stuff and still sleep at night?

It comes as no surprise to learn that Brunetti has suffered from depression. These images come dripping with the nihilism that can be found only in the very depths of the soul, or whatever you might choose to call it. There is torture and sadness in this blackest of mood humour, but it’s coupled with a morbid sense that the resultant shock might be enough to raise a wry chuckle. He has admitted to finding his work therapeutic in this regard, but also to being horrified by some of the things he produces. In an interview with Comic Book Galaxy’s Gordon McAlpin he made the following explanatory statement:

‘I’m one of the most squeamish people on Earth. Sometimes I’ll draw things to see if I can do it… I don’t understand why certain things make me squeamish. A lot of things I just can’t bring myself to draw. I’ll try to surprise myself.’

Which is all very well, but doesn’t explain whether it’s acceptable as comic material. Opinions are split as to whether this kind of thing can be classified as transgressive shock art or whether it’s merely uncomfortable use of bigoted ideas to produce a nervous laugh. Take the depiction of a white drunk putting his arm around a sober (and understandably pissed) black guy and saying, ‘Don’t get me wrong… To me, the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE is nothin’ but a bunch of fuckin’ niggers.’ Sure, there’s sledgehammer subtle satire here and the joke is on anyone who would agree with the statement. But have we arrived at the stage where one glaringly obvious word in that caption is shorn of enough political and historical tension for us to be able to laugh at it? Some liberal media might say yes. A lot of anti-racism activists would argue quite vehemently that even in its intended context, the gag is unacceptable.

Is shock value enough for comedy? An unfair comparison perhaps but some might argue that the eminently detestable stand-up Jimmy Carr uses that exact device, with the goal of little more than unsettling his audience. And yet underground comics artists have thrived on this sort of thing for years: R Crumb for instance. He knew as well as Brunetti that for shock art to have any value behind it at all, you have to have some degree of conscience as the engine. As readers we’re required to know and agree that this sort of thing is untenable, in order for us to constantly re-evaluate and come to terms with our own morals. Which would make the title of this book rather appropriate. So you should read this book and make your mind up. But be warned, it will play with your disgust and your chuckle muscle in ways you might not have imagined beforehand. It’s enough to inspire the sort of neurotic worry that fuelled this rant – but hey, like I said, Brunetti is a complex character.

Oh, and the second way of reviewing the book? Here’s some cartoons you should never ever ever show your mother, and some of them are so funny that I nearly shat. Buy it!

Will Fitzpatrick

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