Skyscrapers of the Midwest
By Joshua W. Cotter
If there’s a problem inherent in the oft-tread world of bildungsroman, it’s the innate desire to uncover the literal truth of childhood, separating the perceived facts of our youth from the mystic chords of fuzzy memory inexorably jumbled in amongst the people, places, and events. Such attempts, while perhaps noble in certain respects, often ultimately fail, as the faded, the false, the overblown, and the outright imaginary aspects of our memories are every bit as vital to our sense of selves as any verifiable fact. It’s a concept that many of the greatest and most ambitious authors embraced with abandon, from Faulkner to Twain to Winsor McCay, and it plays an integral role in making Joshua Cotter’s book so extraordinary.
At its outset, Skyscrapers of the Midwest paints a rather familiar picture—a coming of age story about a insular youth retreating further into his shell, thanks to the perceived cruelties of the outside world, shaping his future self, one traumatic episode at a time, all unfolding against a bleak Midwestern background. It’s well worn subject matter, to be sure, and despite the fact that—at least aesthetically—its key players are the big-boned and lovingly cross hatched descendents of Robert Crumb’s pre-acid trip sketchings, it has many of the raw ingredients for a story as banal as the beige landscapes suggested by its title.
Soon, however, it becomes clear that Skyscrapers’ familiar stories are not content to unfold by any conventional means, Cotter diving head first into the realm of the unreliable narrator hinted at by the series of tongue-in-cheek false advertisements that open the book with strains of Chris Ware’s obsessive-compulsive cynicism. Upon being confronted with a clichéd, but none the less traumatic experience (try explaining its quaintness to a schoolyard child who has recently been subjected to it), our protagonist seemingly gleefully retreats into the fantastic, inhabiting the world of the plastic robot action figure in-hand, launching the reader into a momentary fragmentation of Cotter’s recently established reality, a blurring of the lines between the true and the fantastic that will remain shaky for the nearly 300 hundred pages that follow.
But as much as Cotter seems content to indulge the flights of fancy of his protagonist, it soon becomes painfully clear that even the seeming invulnerability of his temporarily armored fascade is ultimate no match for the harsh realities of a schoolyard kickball game. As that brief chapter closes, it seems we are once again on stable ground, the previous few pages having been little more than the product of an overactive imagination. But just as soon as we seem confident in our bearings, two short asides shake the boundaries even further, harnessing the full power of the fantastic, embracing a sense of magical realism to paint a far more realistic reality than author might be capable of portraying with more traditional tools, without delving too far into the realm of the melodramatic.
It’s a method deeply ingrained in the fabric of Skyscrapers of the Midwest, a sense that there must be something truly wrong with life, if even its momentary means of escape are so hopeless.
Explorations of further means of escape prove equally fruitless in Skyscrapers. A particularly powerful sequence several chapters later finds the protagonist plagued with self-doubt at his own baptism, seeking, no doubt, an Augustinian moment that will simultaneously appease those around him and resolve his youthful existential crises. Upon his actual baptism, however, he is ultimately plagued by the very waters that seek to cure him, visions beneath the water chanting accusations of his own false pretenses for conversion.
The presence of religion, like the superheroes before it, continually manifests itself in the book, perhaps most clearly in the presence of cicadas (referred to, in a nod to the Moses’s plagues as “locusts”), which serve less-than-subtly as flying metaphors, gliding in and out of dreams realms and the life of a young boy for whom Jesus and a flying robotic sentinel occupy very similar roles.
Cotter’s obsession with the blurred borders of reality also happily carriers over to his artwork, borrowing layouts from Sunday funnies and yearbook pages which add an element of reality to the work (many of the yearbook pages appear to be almost directly traced from actual albums), while drawing attention to the fact that this is indeed a cartoon, and, at the end of the day, no matter how true-to-life any issue tackled within its pages seems, real life–for better or worse–begins again the moment the book is closed.
These constant dips into and out of the book’s own self-imposed reality only serve to make the book all the more gripping, swirling stronger and stronger, and ultimate sucking in attentions like a whirlpool and layering on top the rich, complicated detail of both Cotter’s artwork and his decidedly convoluted plot points with invoke Jimmy Corrigan one moment and David Cronenberg (or Kafka, perhaps) the next.
Skyscrapers of the Midwest is that rare critical mass of dynamic art and storytelling. In the synthesis of these elements, Cotter manages to capture the wonders and horrors of childhood, which are perhaps far more entwined than we’d wish to remember. And like our own youth, each re-opening of the book uncovers new layers and connections just below the surface.