Review: ‘Skyscrapers of the Midwest’ by Joshua W. Cotter
Skyscrapers of the Midwest
By Joshua W. Cotter
AdHouse Books, June 2008, $19.95
If Chris Ware were a few years younger, grew up in a more religious household, and had less of an obsession with comics formalism, he just might have become Joshua Cotter. Or maybe that’s just me being flippant – it isn’t really fair to Cotter; his work covers some of the same emotional terrain as Ware’s, but is otherwise very different.
Skyscrapers is difficult to describe; it’s made up of many short stories – sometimes as many as three to a page – that mostly focus on a family in the small town of South Nodaway, somewhere in the vast American Midwest in 1987. There’s also the robot Nova Stealth, who is both the human-sized hero of a Marvel-ish comic the elder boy of the family loves, that boy’s robot toy, and a gigantic god-figure stalking across the landscape, sometimes in imagination but other times clearly real. And then there are the stories that get into really weird stuff.
The stories mostly focus on the family’s ten-year-old son, who is never named. Neither are his father or mother, though his younger brother Jeffrey has the same name as Cotter’s own younger brother (to whom the book is dedicated). And Cotter was born in 1977, which would make him ten year old in 1987 – the same age as his fifth-grade hero. So we do know a name for this boy, even if that name never appears in the book.
Cotter depicts his characters as anthropomorphic, somewhat cat-like people, with large, blank – but still expressive – eyes. His cartooning sense is remarkably assured for so early in his career, developing a specific and idiosyncratic set of visual metaphors for Skyscrapers bit by bit as the stories progress. Migranes are shown as cicadas inside ghosted heads; the dead sprout rocket wings like Nova Stealth and hang in midair – Cotter’s iconography grows in strength as he goes along, building panel by panel.
The stories here are more interior than exterior, their events small and discrete: getting glasses, finding kittens, riding a school bus, going to grandma’s house. The first story sets the tone: the “young cat” isn’t picked for a kickball game, so he sits and plays with his robot, fantasizing about an evil robot attacking the school and himself transforming into another robot to battle it. He’s too imaginative, too locked in his own head, too fat, too odd and unpopular – yet another portrait of the artist as a young geek.
That’s what makes Skyscrapers of the Midwest reminiscent of Ware – and of a dozen other semi-autobiographical cartoonists – the focus on an outsider kid: playing with robots after his peers have stopped, a little fatter than he’d like to be, picked on and bullied. But Cotter’s world doesn’t have the suffocating inevitability of Ware’s – Cotter’s “young cat” is learning how to connect with others. His life might be tough now, but he’s getting better and more mature. The other boys might pick on him, but they’re not all there is of the world – this is not the inevitable pattern of his life.
And Cotter’s hero is also not alone; his brother may be younger and more immature than he is, but they genuinely care about each other and connect in a way impossible in a Chris Ware story. Skyscrapers ends on a moment between the two brothers; it’s different from a dozen other oh-I-was-a-sad-young-dork stories because it’s not about one lone loser, but about two brothers, who genuinely care about each other.
Skyscrapers of the Midwest is also a story rooted in a particular place and people, and Cotter shows us the details of that life – small communities in farming country, long drives to get anywhere, religious feelings that aren’t just rote. It takes place in a particular landscape, among particular people – nothing about it is generic.
Skyscrapers of the Midwest is a hidden gem of modern comics, and Cotter has the strength and subtlety of an artist with twice his experience. This may be, as Warren Ellis blurbed it, “one odd fucking book,” but it’s also one smart, touching and exciting fucking book, too.
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