The memory of a book is not the same as an initial assessment
, or a re-read. Looking back, when starting to write about Joshua W. Cotter’s excellent graphic novel Skyscrapers of the Midwest , I see that I read it at almost the same time as Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole. At the time, I said Skyscrapers was my favorite, but I’ve thought about Swallow much more often in the past decade, and returned to Powell’s work in a way I haven’t for Cotter.
So which of the two is “better”? 2008 Andy thought it was Skyscrapers. The default Andy of about 2010-2020 would probably say Swallow if asked to choose between the two. And today, after I’ve just re-read Skyscrapers?
Today I think I’m going to say picking between two books by completely different people is a silly game, that books are not in competition with each other in any sense other than for attention in the moment. The world is wide; there’s room for everything. There’s especially lots of room for strong books.
But today I have just re-read Skyscrapers. And I seem to be avoiding writing about it directly – maybe because what I wrote in 2008 is still entirely applicable and I don’t really have anything to add to that. This is the story of a boy who probably is a semi-fictionalized version of Cotter himself, at the age of 10 in 1987. I wrote about a lot of the impressive elements of the story a decade ago, and I only have a few things to add to that.
There’s a subplot here about a young man – eighteen or twenty, I guess – who looks a lot like the young protagonist and is in a bad relationship (almost entirely because of him) with a woman of the same age. Reading Skyscrapers this time, I wondered if that was supposed to be a flashforward, the same boy a little older. I don’t think so: the rest of the book is set in 1987, and there’s no transitional elements to imply that shift in time. More importantly, he interacts with the main plot once, so he must be a different person – maybe similar, maybe a warning of what the protagonist could become.
There’s also some fake-nonfiction elements as part of the package – the letter column is answered by a cowboy named “Skinny Kenny,” as the biggest example, but there are also some fake ads and similar stuff. This is loosely incorporated into the overall story, since “Skinny Kenny” replies to letters that, at least in one case, is clearly by a character in the story and is about the story.
But those are the only major pieces I didn’t mention in my old post: otherwise, I agree with what 2008 Andy said. This is impressive, and it still struck me in 2021 as a lot like a more humanist, less formalist version of a Chris Ware story: similar elements about a similar childhood, with the story heading in a different direction and with a very different art style. In Ware, the story is about how a boy is irreparably broken – whether because of comics, or just adjacent to comics isn’t really important. For Cotter, the hermeticism of a boy’s imagination is both positive and negative, like so many things in life, and his characters need to have other connections, especially to family, to get through those tricky years.
We do sense that this boy will get through; he won’t be broken like a Ware character. And I’m reminded that I’ve lost track of what Cotter has been doing for the past decade, so I really should see if he’s done anything else this strong.