Barbra in the Sky with Neil Diamonds
By Joshua Cotter
“[B]efore long,” Joshua Cotter explains in the ‘Outroduction’ of this limited edition volume, “I was trial and error-ing my way through the land of three to four panels…for an audience of over 500,000 Midwesterners, many of which (judging by the piles of hate mail I received), were the cranky, ‘blue-haired’ variety.” This is the story of Send Help, a strip that existed for five years, published on a weekly basis for The Kansas City Star.
The way Cotter tells it, it’s the story of a young cartoonist given a broad and far-reaching forum with which to hone his craft—a rather rare unfamiliar tale in this day, in which the aging-out format that is the newspaper comic seems almost entirely off limits to all but a small and elite club. For the cartoonist, it was something of a dream come true—after all, the format was Cotter’s only insight into the world of comics. He grew up on a small farm, relying upon syndicate strips at an age when many of us had noses buried in X-Men books.
It’s clear, of course, what Cotter’s editor’s saw in the young cartoonists—while he admits in the book that this collection represents something of a Send Help “greatest hits,” with an unspecified amount of material glossed over for aesthetic reasons, what’s present is, at least visually, on-par with Cotter’s Skyscraper’s work—in fact, there’s a deal of timing overlap in the creation of both titles.
It was the writing side on which Cotter readily admits he needed the most work. And in that respect, perhaps the three/four paneled newspaper format wasn’t the most ideal for Cotter, a cartoonist clearly looking to set out upon a career of crafting longer pieces. Send Help follows a pretty straight gag strip format, often with a b-reel joke at the bottom, following the adventures of two cartoonishly violent hamsters.
Rather, what the format really granted Cotter was a regular schedule—an obligation to crank out a new gag on a regular basis, and really, there’s no greater gift for a young cartoonist than a steady deadline and paycheck. The strips deliver with varying results, but it is, more often than not (at least those culled together for this book) quite hilarious—it’s a side that really didn’t make itself known in Skyscrapers or its followup, Driven by Lemons.
It’s a path one might recommend for the artist, were his longer form pieces not so well orchestrated. Of course, the first recommendation in that scenario be that Cotter find a forum a bit more welcoming of his morbid punch lines—while his editors do appear to have been surprisingly lenient, the Kansas City Star readership was downright livid that the strip was allowed to continue for so long.
And its not difficult to see why. Cotter’s jokes clearly emerge from a rather angsty place—they’re often violent (albeit cartoonishly so) and take aim such symbols of Americanism as Superman, Santa Claus (you know, the guy invented by Coca-Cola), and the meat processing industry. Whether or not they’re actually, you know, funny (they are), is sort of besides the point.
The real treasure here for Cotter fans, however, is a longer form work sandwiched halfway through the book titled, “The Richest Man in the World,” a first person account of a post-apocalyptic survivor generally lacking in the sort of gumption we’ve come to associate with the last man on earth. It’s fascinating, funny, and offers a few glimpses of what might have become a larger story, had Cotter not been derailed by the wonderful Skyscrapers.
There’s a surprising amount of worthy material packed into this slim volume, and for anyone who fell in love with Skyscrapers and Lemons, it’s worth the steep price tag—that is, if you can still manage to get your hands on one (the entire run is limited to 99 copies). Everyone else will have to wait for the inevitable Cotter b-sides collection.