Smash Pages Q&A: Ivan Brunetti’s ‘3×4’

The cartoonist and illustrator discusses his latest project for Toon Books.

Ivan Brunetti has had a unique career in comics. He’s the cartoonist behind comics like Schizo, Hee! and Haw! He’s a noted New Yorker cover artist and illustrator in addition to being the author of the books Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice and Aesthetics: A Memoir. In 2017 Toon Books published Brunetti’s first book for children, Wordplay, and this fall they’re publishing his second.

3×4 is about numbers and math, but also about art. It focuses on the children that readers might remember from his first book and gives them a new homework assignment. I asked him about how he worked on the new book, the relationship between art and numbers, and what he’s thinking about next.

We spoke when Wordplay, your first children’s book, came out, and you said that Françoise Mouly – your editor at The New Yorker and the editor of Toon Books – asked you for a book. How did this book come about?

I didn’t have a definite plan to begin a second book when Wordplay came out, but I enjoyed the process of creating the first one, and Françoise encouraged me to submit another idea. I think I came up with the idea for 3×4 a couple of months after Wordplay came out. I figured that a book about numbers might make a fitting complement to a book about words, so that was the genesis of the idea, trying to make a logical pair. After an initial conversation with Françoise, I sketched out the book in very rough thumbnail form (this is what I do for pretty much every project), and then the process of editing began. As you might guess, this is something at which Françoise excels, so through a fair amount of back-and-forth, with her guidance I somehow got to a tighter thumbnail—not in terms of drawing, necessarily, but in terms of structure and flow. I like to have a solid skeleton to build upon, although I’m aware that projects inevitably morph and mutate as they progress (and this was no exception). It’s sort of a very slow coming into focus, refining it while drawing it.

As far as making another book goes, what were your initial thoughts? Were you consciously trying to make something similar to Wordplay?

Well, I did want some continuity, so I stuck with the same cast of characters, inhabiting the same world so to speak, and I got a chance to develop some of the characters that really only had “walk-on parts” in Wordplay. I wanted to develop Annemarie and her family a little bit more as well. I knew 3×4 would be more of an ensemble piece, and that all the kids from the first book could now have some space to show a little bit more personality. I wanted to have a different teacher to initiate the project, so he is a new character. It’s a strange sensation, but I’m getting to know these characters a little bit at a time. I mean, they’re all based on different slivers of my own personality, as well as my observations of others. But they are starting to take on a life of their own now, which is what one always hopes for.

As far as the process goes, how was making 3×4 similar to Wordplay?

Having had the previous experience with Wordplay, I had a better sense of the time it take to complete the project, from first sketches to final printing files. Wordplay was actually under a much tighter time constraint. Although I was using a similar template and many of the same characters, in many ways 3×4 was more challenging to draw (since it features more characters and more settings); however, I enjoyed expanding the world of these characters. It did necessitate having to create more color schemes (never my forte), since we had to see the interiors of a lot of houses, but that forced me to experiment and get outside of my comfort zone. There was always another living room or kitchen to color. As I said, I am no expert at coloring, and I usually make some inexplicable decisions as a result. But it all works out in the end, which is my completely unjustifiable philosophy of life. While it was difficult to juggle my job and finish the book, that hovering deadline stress, for me, kept the project from going stale. I need that fire under me, apparently, to stay focused and committed.

3×4 is a book about counting and math and numbers, but it’s also a book about art and I wonder if you could talk a little about that.

I guess I have a hard time separating the two. I have some OCD tendencies, like many cartoonists. Obsessive counting, categorizing, planning, mapping, list-making: these creep into my drawing as well as my moment-to-moment mental state. Incorporating all that into the book was a way to exercise control over my habits and channel them toward something healthy and positive. I have no way of analyzing or testing this, but perhaps kids that respond to my two books have similar tendencies to my own and can thus relate. Even if they don’t, maybe they’ll be more tolerant of the type of kids that have these qualities or aspects in common with me. I always make lists and try to organize everything into small sets before I start any drawing or comic strip; my notes often resemble numerology more than sketches. Anyway, 3×4 was a way to channel all of this into something that is (I hope) entertaining and educational, and allows kids to have some fun with mathematical ideas.

You mention in the book that as a teacher you will assign your art students similar homework, though it’s a slightly different exercise.

Yes, I used to have my (college-age) students draw 25 sets, consisting of 3 things each (so it’s a total of 75 items). I also gave them a specific dimension that they had to compose within. They interpreted these simple instructions in many different and sometimes unexpected ways, so it was always enjoyable for me to see the resultant projects. Over the years, thanks to the Internet, students became able to view previous “solutions” to the constraints, and I started seeing less variety in the drawings, which bummed me out. So the project has been on hiatus. I’ll reintroduce it in the future with some changes, to make it interesting again. Maybe I should just make it “3×4” for the college kids as well.

Have you started thinking about another book or another project? What’s the next thing you want to do?

Recently, Françoise and I started working on another project for Toon Books; it’s not quite a children’s book, but more of a manual on reading and creating comics, aimed at adults and children. We’re still roughing out the exact contents. I believe the goal is to put it out next year. After that, I will likely devote myself to a long-postponed autobiographical story in comics form, even though no one is asking for it and I’m not even sure I care anymore, either. I have to get some things out of my system, just for myself, I suppose. I will probably work on this autobiographical project piecemeal for the rest of my life. I’d also like to draw another kids’ book, because I’ve liked getting to know the characters I’ve created and want to develop them more. I have no idea what the topic or story will be, as of yet, but surely something will come to mind when I least expect it.

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