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In four paragraphs, and in a book about cartooning, Brunetti then carefully detailed how to properly prepare spaghetti aglio e oglio. It tells you a lot about Ivan Brunetti; his Italian heritage, his belief in technique and form, his appreciation of simplicity.

Above all, that last part is what makes Brunetti as much a graphic designer as a cartoonist. As he notes in the introduction to Aesthetics, his latest book, in his native Italian, “The word disegno literally meant drawing, but also design. Thus the two were forever fused in my mind”.

Brunetti’s own cartoons as of late have been button-cute characters with noodle arms (possibly spaghetti) who have an incredible sense of motion and purpose. Like the best cartoons, you can tell instantly if they’ve had a bad day, an idea, or if they’re afraid of something.

They’re the perfect cartoons for the era of the smart phone or the tablet computer — cartoons that are like bright and colorful icons that can be recognized from far away. You might have seen his work on various New Yorker covers or in comics anthologies such as Kramer’s Ergot. But mostly, Brunetti now focuses on teaching illustration and comics at the University of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago.

64 Cartoon Characters by Ivan Brunetti.

Brunetti’s retrospective, Aesthetics: A Memoir is a small volume of collected sketches, comic strips, album covers, posters, and even sculptures, as well as photographs of Brunetti’s collections of old photographs, toys, and bric-a-brac. It’s a view of his process, his inspirations, and personal projects, to look at it is to understand clutter as inspiration. My favorite Brunetti cartoons are the ones that are the most cluttered, like his New Yorker cover that depicts an office as an endless grid of germs and frustration (and occasional contentment), or his Halloween party that shows the interplay of various halloween costumes. Both of these illustrations are messy concepts, and yet they’re both so endearingly cute. And the composition is so clean that you want to keep staring and find all the narratives.

Throughout his memoir, Brunetti draws upon his teaching background to advise the reader. Noting a perspective problem for a New Yorker cover he says “My credo: If you know you can’t do something right, then do it as wrong as possible.” In a caption for a Marvel comics cover, he remarks on how proud his 10-year old self would be of the 43 year old who drew the cover, “Some advice to the discouraged: hold onto your dreams, eventually reality will bend to your will.” But my favorite bit of advice is when you’re stuck, or “miserably depressed, devoid of confidence and hope . . . make a quick, funny drawing as a gift for a little kid.” I’ve tried this and it totally works.

Aesthetics: A Memoir Cover by Ivan Brunetti

Brunetti is often disparaging and critical about his own career and importance, which is often humorous and endearing, but it also seems unnecessary. In a moment of self-criticism, he places two versions of the same cartoon (a monologue from Louise Brooks about her life), in black and white on one side, and color on the other. In a typical self-effacing style, he says that while he once tried to hide “spatial and anatomical deficiencies” by adding color. Now he reflects, “the color seems to me an unnecessary adornment, an act of cowardice.” But really the fact that the cartoon can be easily read both in black and white and in color is proof of Brunetti’s strong sense of composition.

Brunetti experiments heavily with repetition, trying to recreate the same face hundreds of times, as part of a way to break creative blocks, and to gain a more meditative state. He includes some of these drawings, which are as mesmerizing to look at as they must have been to create.

96 Heads by Ivan Brunetti.

There are sculptures, dioramas, paint-chip tesselations, gocco-prints, plans for a moving sculpture — inspirations abound throughout Brunetti’s book. But the real surprise for those familiar with his work may be Brunetti’s posters, which have a voice all their own. A purple elephant on a pink poster for “The Show and Tell Show” has Brunetti’s sense of geometry (the circles) and type, but it’s incredibly bright and happy, with no sense of misfortune. The graphics on his 2012 Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation poster can’t be seen all at once but have to be “read” left to right, in a clever use of angles and abstraction.

There’s a photograph underneath the jacket, of Brunetti gazing down at a tiny illustration desk, with crumpled pieces of paper in a tiny waste paper basket. It’s a wonderful interpretation of seeing the cartoon medium as a smaller world that we get to visit; it’s also sadly evocative of Brunetti’s own struggles with making illustrations.

His sight has been declining steadily, making work very difficult, so his own desk is getting further and further away from him. Skill, muscle memory, and persistence are what continue to bring his work forward. Perhaps that’s because cartoons aren’t just illustrations; as Brunetti describes drawing, “every line is an ideology.”

Readers who want a better sense of Brunetti’s work can view a trailer here.