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Review: ‘Wordplay’


Writer/artist: Ivan Brunetti
Toon Books; $12.99

“Who can tell us what a compound word is?” the round-headed teacher at the front of a classroom full of round-headed little kids asks aloud on the first page of the new Toon Book, Wordplay. Annemarie, the little girl with glasses in the front of the room can, but you know who else can? Ivan Brunetti, the artist responsible for drawing this particular scene, and all of those that follow. Better still, Brunetti can show us, and given that he’s a top-tier cartoonist who has long straddled the worlds of comics and prestige illustration–not to mention a longtime contributor of covers to The New Yorker—it’s hard to imagine a better candidate for explaining compound words.

In his simple, straightforward Wordplay, he has Annemarie and her classmates receive the assignment of coming up with a list of compound words, which are, of course, “two words that join together to make a new word.” Annemarie, whose name is a compound one, suggests some words, discusses them with her classmates throughout the day, talks them over with her father on the drive home from school, continues to talk about them at dinner with her family, and keeps coming up with new ones right up until it’s time to hand in her homework (another compound word, that) the next day.

What makes the story interesting is that Annemarie imagines literal interpretations of the words, each of which earn an illustration in a big thought cloud that bubbles out of her head. So, for example, “mailman” makes her think of a big stamped envelope in a mailman’s hat with arms, legs and a simple smiley face, walking down the street, and “milkmaid” summons an image of a woman holding two pails who is made entirely out of milk, her ankles disappearing into a large puddle that a cat is happily licking from.

Each compound word appears in two-colored text, with the first of the component words appearing in red and the second in black. And the majority of them are then visualized in illustrations that, typical of Brunetti’s drawings, all fall somewhere on a spectrum between cute and funny.

Brunetti’s super-simple style, consisting of bold, obvious shapes that can make his drawings look almost as much like geometry as art, and the almost mathematical, machine-like precision of his layouts are perfectly suited to the subject matter.

Because his people are so uniform, with large, perfectly round heads and triangular or rectangular bodies from which their limbs stretch, the contrast with Annemarie’s imagined figures is pronounced, so much so that there’s a palpable visual pop when the big, boxy bodies of, say, anthropomorphic houses appear (as they do when she thinks of “housework,” “homework” and “homesick”).

Who can tell us what a compound word is? Ivan Brunetti can…just as any child who reads his Wordplay should be able to.

J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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