Skyscrapers of the Midwest is a book about talking cats, and robots, and menacing squid-like creatures—it’s also one of the year’s most powerful and intensely person. For author Joshua Cotter, the creation of the book was as much an act of personal catharsis as anything else.
The personal touches that fill the story—ostensibly a memoir of a small boy growing up in a creatively stifling small town in the Midwest—along with Cotter’s extensive use of fantasy to help tackle some of the more personally difficult issues he takes on, help separate the book from the droves of coming of age stories that have popped up in the world of sequential art.
In this second and final part of our interview with Cotter, we discuss the role of these therapeutic sessions both personally and in terms of the creative process, and how a piece of art so intensely personal can be simultaneously universal.
Skyscrapers has very dark sensibilities. Do you think that’s indicative of the place where you grew up, or something internal?
It has a lot to do with myself. I used to be a horrible pessimist. I’m very cynical, and finally after 30 years of that, I’m working through it. That’s why I did the book initially. I thought maybe it would be theraputic. It was very difficult at times, because I was purging a lot of stuff, but now that I’m done with it, I think it was the right thing, because I have a much better idea of who I am and where I am.
When stuff comes out naturally, it tends to be a bit darker and a bit more confused, and I just can’t really go against that. But even Skyscrapers has humor, and I tried to leave it on a light note, but to have my medium be the purest representation of where I am now, I can’t put many limitations on what comes out, and it just happens to come out negatively [laughs]. It really has helped me a lot. Ultimately, I hope people aren’t too depressed by it. But it also has moments that show that, reality, as harsh is it can be, there are many things well worth living for.
That sense of catharsis was the main reason for doing a “coming of age story?”
Every kid has those moments in childhood that are embarrassing and painful and where you’re rejected. It’s something that we all go through. But all my life I’ve been hyper-sensitive to things. The things I was experiencing had such a profound effect on me. Rather than moving on from that like some people are able to do, I just hung on to it. I knew I had to get rid of it, somehow. I had to work with and see what it is.
That’s how Skyscrapers started out for me. It was a mini-comic I did for myself. I printed a couple hundred copies or so, and sent them out to some friends and family to see what they thought, and it just kind of happened that it led to Chris getting a hold of it, and it became bigger than I planned. The book isn’t really cohesive from the get-go, and I think a lot of people noticed that, because really, I didn’t set out to make a 300 page book. I was just doing something as an experiment and an exercise, and once it started, I just wanted to see where it went. I tried to let it go organically, after that, but I think what happened—the early stuff especially is pretty angsty and negative, but I think as I got older, and grew, there’s a little less cynicism involved.
Are there any specific instances of personal breakthrough that you can point to that occurred while working on the book?
I’d like to consult the book, but I don’t really keep it around, because looking at it hurts, sometimes. Let me try to think back…The thing about the robot, when I first drew it, it did something for me. The one with the grandma was very therapeutic—it was something I had to do, because loss is something that can be very hard for a child to deal with. The moment with the robot falling and hitting the ground and breaking did something for me—I don’t understand quite what it was. I don’t know if I want to.
And then the final scene, I labored so long to get it right, with the kid hallucinating about the grandma. That was very necessary for me to finish Skyscrapers. I got out a lot of what I needed to. So yeah, there are certain parts that jump out at me that I had to draw and write in a certain way for them to work for me. I didn’t necessarily analyze it, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it worked, and I’ll just kind of leave it as it is.
Between the use of fantasy in the book and the fact that these are anthropomorphic cat people we’re dealing with, these seemed like indirect approaches to the issues that you were dealing with. Was that necessary to the process to not exactly tackle things head on?
I think it would be to much to do that. If you just purged and purged—it’s like if you have an action more with just straight action. If you don’t get a break here and there, you’re desensitized. While it was important for me to purge this stuff, I didn’t think it was necessary to make everyone want to kill themselves. With comics as a means of expression, you have to take the audience into consideration and not drive them into the ground. And escapism is a part of childhood. My childhood, compared to others, was pristine, but escapism was necessary.
Is that part of the reason why it’s what they used to refer to as a “funny animal comic?”
Um, yeah. Aesop’s Fables or anything else, for some reason, there’s something to anthropomorphic characters. Rather than saying specifically, “this is me and this is what’s happening,” while some of the stuff is autobiographical, it’s not purely autobiographical. But this way other people can relate to it and find themselves in the characters. You find yourself in that book, or music, or movie, and in order to drarw them into it, you can’t just pummel them with horrible after horrible thing.
The fact that they’re not humans makes it more universal to humans.
I think it does. It’s from my own experience, thinking back to what affected me the most, whether it’s Looney Tunes or the Muppets or Sesame Street—anything Henson did, really, or The Wind in the Willows with anthropomorphic characters that always had an affect on me. I think it allows for the characters to be more universal, rather than being too specific.
Was this idea of catharsis just one major obstacle that you had to get through in this book?
It was one major obstacle. And I think with autobiographical comics, people are trying to get some stuff out, but also hoping that people will relate to it and connect and grow. With my next thing, it’s me dealing with what happened when I moved to Chicago, but it’s masked with this narrative. I’m kind of playing with the structure. It kind of moves in and out of reality.