No other artist in the history of comics has worked out their misanthropy and self-loathing on the page quite like Ivan Brunetti. His collection of enormously foul and laugh-out loud hilarious single-panel gags, HO!, gathers material from earlier books HAW! and HEE! as well as presenting uncollected strips and new material. It's interesting to compare this work to his earlier comics reprinted in MISERY LOVES COMEDY. His drawing has become ever more refined, precise and abstracted from reality. The sort of nervous energy that forced him to fill up pages and add in torturous amounts of detail has been set aside (possibly because drawing in that style was so painful and painstaking) in favor of presenting just enough information to sell his nihilstic gags. The last strips in the book, where his characters have been reduced to neatly-drawn circles and other geometric figures, are among the most interesting to look at, almost taking on the appearance of diagrams as opposed to more traditional cartoons.
This change in formal technique has a significant impact on the overall aesthetic experience of reading these comics. There's a kind of dissonance that occurs when reading these cartoons, given the relative cuteness of the drawings vs. the raunchiness of the punchlines. Brunetti rarely goes for the obvious gross-out in the plastic qualities of his drawings; blood, guts, gore, and rape are made cartoony and even slightly abstract with his style. This does not provide a softening effect for his gags. Indeed, if anything, it makes them hit all the harder because the eye is so firmly drawn into his panels and never slides off the page--a scenario that happens for me, at least, when looking at the gross-out work of S. Clay Wilson, for example. There's an exquisiteness in the way he composes each panel to sell his gag, selling it just very slightly with background detail in a way that doesn't clutter up the panel but makes the gag just a little bit funnier. The drawings are reminiscent of old-school gags in terms of their set-up and appearance, just gone horribly wrong. If the bulk of the gags from his SCHIZO work was inspired by the mechanics and rhythm of daily strips like "Nancy", his HO! comics then are more reminiscent of "Family Circus". Working in this format forces Brunetti to drive home gags in a quick and devastating fashion.
In the preceding gag, Brunetti sells the joke with the exaggerated good-bye waving of the character. We get just enough background to establish the scene, and Brunetti delivers the dark punchline on the strength of the text. In the next cartoon, Brunetti raises the stakes for one of the darkest entries in the whole book. We are presented with a brutal scene and a punchline both dependent on the visual information given and deliberately turning the scene on its head; the hacky punchline is given gut-punching weight. The cuteness of the drawings themselves and the familiarity of the composition (having someone burst into a room unexpectedly with a confused expression is the set-up for a million gag strips) further induce a visceral reaction on the part of the reader. I simultaneously laughed and flinched at this strip, a reaction that I imagine Brunetti himself felt when drawing it.
The nastiest, and perhaps funniest, strip in the book follows this paragraph. It's been said that much of humor is born out of cruelty. I'd agree with that, and further note that humor is also a way of addressing power and power imbalances. Brunetti's focus on sex in his strips zeroes in on this idea of sex as a series of power relations in the form of abuse, humiliation and degradation. In the strip below, the punchline is a standard sexual insult for a clearly weak-willed male partner (the men in his gags are either predator or prey), who is preparing to turn the tables in the most explosive manner possible. He can't quite do it yet, however, as he's still afraid of his sexual partner, and that fear and sense of humiliation is what makes the strip funny. Brunetti sells the gag with tiny details. By giving the woman a certain heft, he implies her physical power and influence over the skinny, bespectacled man--clearly a weakling. The sweat beads and tremor lines are a dead giveaway for his role in the relationship, making the punchline that much funnier.
This collection is a punishing one at times, given the darkness of so much of this material. It's not exhausting in the way Brunetti's old SCHIZO strips were, in part because he is so much more restrained here and less obvious about the way he aims his venom at himself. While these gag strips are obviously not autobiographical, the misanthropic humor they showcase is very much in line with Brunetti's autobio comics in terms of both form and theme. Forcing himself to work in a single-panel gag format tightened his focus, with each strip yet another needle jabbed into the eyes of his viewers. Brunetti's enormous discipline and talent as a cartoonist shines through in this collection, using familiar techniques and twisting them around in gags that Brunetti was obviously compelled to draw, even as he recognized how over the edge they were. These are ideas that needed to not only be committed to paper as a way of flushing images out of his mind, but had to be shown to others so as to fully process the image.