Driven by Lemons by Joshua Cotter

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Driven by Lemons
By Joshua Cotter

joshuacotterdrivenbylemonscoverThere’s nothing new, of course, in the idea of issuing one’s sketchbook for the world to see. The release of Robert Crumb and Chris Ware’s volumes helped set the bar for modern, commercially released cartoonist sketchbooks, and a handful of books, including, most recently Peter Kuper’s Diario de Oaxaca and Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days, have helped redefined the parameters of the space.

Where once sketchbooks were conceived of as private works—the visual equivalent, perhaps, of a personal diary—the line has since been blurred. Today a sketchbook can prove every bit as successful a commercial endevour as a graphic novel, so it should come as no surprise that contemporary artists often begin them with the ultimate goal of releasing them largely intact.

Joshua Cotter showed me Driven By Lemons for the first time in an uncompleted form at SPX 2008. I had been downright ecstatic in my praise of Skyscrapers of the Midwest, and in a couple of months would place the book atop my year end list. Cotter happily presented a little sketchbook with methodically detailed pages, fluttering between narrative and abstraction. It was a downright sight to behold, even while a good chunk of its pages remained blank.

Cotter was insistent that the sketchbook was more than just that—it was his next work, and it would be released to the public in more or less the format that I was currently holding in my hands, a promise he and Adhouse’s Chris Pitzer kept, with a stunningly faithful recreation of the original book. It’s all in here, pencil lines, white out marks, smudges—even the hardbound cover maintains aesthetics of the book’s original packaging.

That SPX marked the first time I had met Cotter in person. I’d recently reviewed Nate Powell’s Swallow me Whole and had formed a—perhaps tenuous—connection between the two in my head, one I happily explained to Cotter. It had something to do with the perception of sanity. Skyscrapers explored childhood fantasy as a means of escapism. The characters in Swallow Me Whole, a few years older than their Skyscraper counterparts, were diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. The theory held that, in the case of these two stories, the divide between imagination and insanity was simply a factor of time and diagnoses.

Perhaps the fact that Lemons opens with the story “Skyscrapers of the Midwest II” is a bit more than just a bit of cheekiness on Cotter’s part. No one would mistake the four-page story for a proper sequel, of course. The wordless piece is a much more literal interpretation of its title than its predecessor, comprised of four sequential panels that find a semi-truck falling from the sky past the Sears (okay, Willis) Tower.

As a sequel, it reads like something of an inside joke from the author, directed toward those who demanded a continuation of his previous book. For readers who fall into that camp, perhaps there’s some consolation in imagination that, just out panel a giant robot has released the plummeting truck from a cold, robotic hand.

If, the tenuousness of sanity was, indeed, a driving factor of Skyscrapers, then Lemons can certainly be taken to be a logical extension of that conceit, driving ever deeper into unknown realms of perception, often times beyond familiar character reference points into pure geometrical abstractions. If Skyscrapers drew heavily upon Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat period, Lemons takes more than a few cues from the work of Charles Crumb, with panels of sequential art dissolving into full pages of hand-scrawled text and progressively more elaborate abstractions.

In fact, were Cotter not so sociable and seemingly well-adjusted in person, large portions of Lemons might easily be mistaken for the works of a far more unhinged individual. Attempting to interpret the book as a cohesive narrative might similarly drive the reader to the brink.

Which isn’t to say that those elements aren’t in here. Cotter seems intent on delivering a story with Lemons, albeit one illustrated in something of an experimental fashion. Where, in a book like Pim & Francie, cohesion is largely placed upon the interpretation of the reader, built by piecing together disparate scraps culled together from more than a decade of work, Lemons was created in one go, and the author no doubt purposefully planted the seeds of comprehension.

Locating them all and connecting the dots certainly isn’t an easy task, however, and, as evidenced by what is presently the sole comment left of the book’s Amazon page (one star), the task may likely prove alienating for readers seeking clear narrative. Fortunately, however, Cotter’s pages are rendered beautifully enough for Lemons to be appreciated while divesting narrative context. As an art book, this stuff is downright fascinating. And given its packaging, it could almost be a piece of outsider art, the journal of a Henry Darger-like character.

For Cotter, half the fun will no doubt be listening to reader interpretations of his work. After all, Driven by Lemons is, above all, a book brimming with ideas—more than its 104 pages can contain, perhaps. Ideas that are often in conflict with one another, creating a sometimes uncomfortable juxtaposition of visuals. From the malapropism attributed to William Faulkner, which lends the book its name (on the next page, Faulkner, incidentally, transforms into a cartoon lemon) to the end of book superhero Jesus (himself, it seems, transformed from the robot in Skyscrapers to a more fundamental view of what constitutes a hero), Cotter seems as though he’s almost struggling to get everything down on paper before it dissolves into the ether.

It’s demons, by the way. That original Faulkner quote. An artist is a creature driven by demons. The inside cover features colorful reproductions of the Faulkner quote, with Ls hastily pasted over the Ds. Whatever his muse may be, Cotter is certainly driven by something, that much is certain. The result is sometimes terrifying and sometimes beautiful, but however you might ultimately interpret it, it’s nothing if not completely engrossing.

–Brian Heater

One Comment to “Driven by Lemons by Joshua Cotter”

  1. Robert Crumb Info | January 20th, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Sketchbooks aren’t necessarily “open season” to publishers unless the artist allows a publisher to reproduce. I think it’s ironic Crumb never lets too much of his “private” sketches go public but a group of his images can get reproduced. Kind of ironic, especially his not being too privy to selling or promoting on his own.