Ivan Brunetti first established himself as a cartoonist with Schizo, Haw!, Hee! and the collection Misery Loves Comedy. In the past decade Brunetti hasn’t made very many comics, though that doesn’t man he’s slowed down.
He’s continued to work as an illustrator having drawn everything from the cover to Patton Oswalt’s comedy album My Weakness is Strong, to his work as a cover artist for The New Yorker. He edited two volumes of An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, which were published by Yale University Press. Brunetti also wrote the books Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice and Aesthetics: A Memoir.
His new book, his first for children, is Wordplay, out this month from Toon Books. It’s a playful look at language aimed at readers in Grades K-1, and Brunetti chatted with CBR about why he’s been moving in different directions in recent years, working with The New Yorker art editor and Toon Books publisher Françoise Mouly, and his own experience of learning English.
CBR: What is Wordplay, and how have you been thinking about the book?
Ivan Brunetti: Wordplay is my first book for children. To my mind, it’s in essence a comic-strip story in the format of a children’s book, so I approached it as I would any multi-page comic, but with a different audience (from my other comics) in mind. I had drawn a gag panel or two for kids, eons ago for Nickelodeon magazine, but that was about it, in terms of experience with writing for this age group.
Françoise had a hunch that I could produce either a Level One or Level Two book, which means that she had more faith in me than I did. Since those levels are ideal for employing limited vocabulary and simple, repetitive set-ups, it turns out that I was in my element (because in my adult life, I still employ those same life strategies). As always, Françoise turned out to be right about everything. I’m not sure how she surmised that I would be able to do this project. Around that time, I had sent a few cover ideas to The New Yorker that depicted classrooms and playgrounds; the “Eureka” light bulb must have gone off for Françoise, for which I am grateful. While I had “children’s book” on my bucket list, the likelihood of actually doing one ranged from minimal to nonexistent.
One thing that helped was having a very tight deadline that demanded a quick turnaround; there just wasn’t enough time for me to succumb to my usual overthinking, self-doubt, and all-encompassing pessimism, and thus talk myself out of the project. It turned out to be quite an intense two months of writing and rewriting and drawing and redrawing; I was surprised that I still had a little fire in my belly, actually, because in recent years I have turned into a decrepit, mushy mass.
As far as the content goes, Françoise sent me a general list of possible topics, and the one that jumped out at me was “compound words”; since English is not my first language, I thought it might be nice…