Despite a cast made up largely of talking cats and giant robots, and perpetually blurred lines between the real and the fantastic, Skyscrapers of the Midwest has proven to be one of the most truthful coming of age stories to hit the world of sequential art in some time. It’s dark, brutal, sad, and on occasion, even hopeful, which is to say, it’s a lot like being a kid.
Set in a rural Midwestern farming town, not unlike the one where author Joshua Cotter grew up, it’s not all that surprising to discover that one of the driving factors in the creation of the book was a sense of catharsis from the small town life the artist has since left behind.
Now complete and collected in a hard cover volume by Ad House, Cotter finally seems to have sufficient distance from the Eisner nominated series.
You’re living in Chicago now?
I’m living in Chicago now, yeah. I grew up in Northwest Missouri, but I’ve been here a couple of years.
Is it one of those fresh out of college sort of deals?
Yeah. I was married at the time, and my wife was a teacher, and you get paid about twice up here what you do in Missouri, so we figured we come up here and try it out, and I can just do work wherever, so we came up here, and we separated about a year. We’re still amicable, though, and I’m still living up here and enjoying it. It’s a good place to be in.
Was moving to the big city a big dream, growing up?
No, you didn’t do it, because even St. Joseph, which was nearby, had only 2,000 people. It wasn’t a big city, but if you lived in the country, you were still scared of it. Out of my graduating class, I think there’s only a couple of us who actually left and live in cities—of course, my graduating class only had 18 people in it. But I went to the University of Central Missouri for college, and I lived in Kansas City for a few years. I went back to my university and taught for a year, and then we went to Chicago for a year. I’ve been out of school for nine years now.
But the plan wasn’t ever to go to college and then move back to your small town, was it?
No, no, no. I knew I never wanted to move cattle or hogs or pull hay, ever again. I really had to get out and go to school and try something different. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of work, it’s just that I had my fill of it as a teenager, and never wanted to touch another hay bail, as long as I lived.
Was art always considered a way out?
Yeah. It was an escape for me. That’s exactly how it was. That’s how I show my brother and me in the book. We were very isolated, and the only way that we had out was to play with action figures and, of course, draw. We only had three or four channels on the television, and art was my only outlet. As I got older, it was all I wanted to do. I went to school for illustration, and did freelance illustration for a while and didn’t care for it. I worked for news weeklies and stuff, and I just got a little sick of the sensational work, after a while, so I just started writing my own and illustrating it, kind of like Carroll did for Alice in Wonderland, and it kind of just turned into comics. I never set out to do comics, it just kind of happened.
I’ve always assumed that, up until fairly recently, most artists never considered comics to be a viable financial option. Is that part of the reason that you didn’t initially pursue it full-time?
Yeah, when I got out of school, I worked as a production assistant full-time, doing graphic design stuff, and then did freelance illustration on the side. It still wasn’t fulfilling. I knew that there wasn’t a lot of money in comics, but it’s not like there was a lot of money for me in illustration, anyway. I started making mini-comics, DIY stuff. I made five minis before Skyscrapers got picked up. Then I started working with Chris [Pitzer of Adhouse], to have someone to help with the stapling and folder and everything. Working with Chris wasn’t like a money thing to jumpstart my career. It would be nice to make a living at it. But right now, I still have to work another job. It’s just something that I enjoy.
What do you do for money, at this point?
I work at an art center in Chicago. It’s a gallery and a place where people can come to take art classes and stuff. I started teaching cartooning and comics there. I taught some adult classes and then taught some kids classes. After a while, I just didn’t feel like teaching anymore, so I kind of do administrative gallery work at this place. It’s kind of like a home to me. I’m really close with everybody that I work with, and it’s a really good community atmosphere. It’s a nice place to be in Chicago, and I can work part-time or full-time there and then do stuff on the side.
Do you find that it’s good to have a dayjob so closely related to what you’d like to be doing?
It’s something I definitely wouldn’t do, if I could make a living doing comics. As much as I like the place I work, I feel like any job is taking away from time I can be drawing. But realistically, I have to pay my bills. I’ve even been thinking about going back to freelance illustration work, here and there, just to get some extra cash, because Chicago is a pretty expensive city. But I’m getting by, and I’m satisfied, but if I didn’t have to work a job, I’d definitely have a higher output, but so it goes…
How much time do you set aside to work on comics, at this point?
Well, since I finished Skyscrapers, I’ve been taking a little bit of a break. Up until that point, I was working on it daily. Any time I wasn’t at the job, I was working on the book. I’d been working at it for about five years, and when I got done in March, I was just exhausted. I just didn’t touch any comics or anything for about nine months. And then the book came out in May, and I kind of traveled a bit for it in June, and then when I got back, it started coming to me. I was going to do another big, full-length thing, but then I decided that I wanted to do something a bit more experimental and loosen up. So recently, I’ve been working on this thing that’s like a sketchbook, and I can’t tear out pages of anything. Once it’s in, it’s in. so it’s kind of a challenge for myself to do something different.
To answer the question, I’m starting to get back to it. I’m not doing it daily—I’m trying to get out and enjoy the summer, but I’m getting a couple of hours in, here and there, and then, once winter starts back in, and you don’t want to go outside—in Chicago, anyway—my productivity will pick back up and I’ll probably be doing it daily again. When I’m in full comics mode, I work on a daily basis.
Did the success of the book effect your decisions about subsequent projects? Was there a lot of pressure on you?
People have been very positive, and of course that helps me. To illustrate the point where I’m working with comics, Nickelodeon contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a show. It was very exciting, because I had grown up on cartoons. But once I started doing it, it just didn’t seem right. I realized that, while I have my hands, and while I’m able to draw for great lengths of time, I should keep doing comics.
Of course with any form of art, if you’re getting a response, you’re doing something right. It’s not the only reason you create, but you do it to communicate with others, and if I see people responding, it compels me to keep moving. I’m not necessarily on the same path—after Skyscrapers, this book I’m working on now is going to be pretty cerebral. It’s kind of impulsive as things come out. More like a sketchbook. Then I’m going to go back to something more structured.
What specifically didn’t feel right about the animation job? The medium?
I’m not telling myself that it’s something that’s never going to happen, just because it’s interesting to me. But as things are, I don’t know…Maybe it’s a control issue. With comics, I’m able to have no outside editorial input. I’m able to just let it be what it is, purely. That’s what was great with working with Chris at Ad House. He just trusts you to be an artist, and then he would put it out. That’s really important to me, and I know that if I got wrapped up in something like a TV show, there’s absolutely no way I’d be able to do it myself. That’s kind of part of it. I’m sort of a control freak, I suppose. At the same time, the most important thing to me is just working on the comics and getting out what I have to get out. If it takes me somewhere else in the future, so be it, but I don’t think I’m quite prepared for that, yet.
Even the most humorous moments in Skyscrapers are still pretty dark. In the respect, it doesn’t seem like your work is exactly the perfect fit for a cartoon show.
Yeah. That’s what I asked them, “are you calling me because you saw Skyscrapers?” and they were like, “no, no.” I guess they got to my Website. When I was doing Skyscrapers, I was also doing weekly stuff for The Kansas Star. A lot of that stuff is a little more lighthearted and humorous. I think they were responding to that, rather than the Skyscrapers material. the other day, someone said, “hey, do you want to come into the coffee shop and read to the kids?” I was like, “I don’t know if that would be a good idea. Maybe you should just look over a couple of pages.” When I get to the “you fucking bitch part,” I don’t know how well the kids are going to handle it.
[Concluded in Part Two]