Talking Comics with Tim: Joshua Cotter
I arrived late to the Joshua Cotter appreciation society, to be honest. By the end of 2008, Skyscrapers of the Midwest, found itself on myriad Best of lists of the year. Full confession time, this interview process was a long one–starting in mid-2008. Once I got the kind Mr. Cotter to agree to the interview, it took me a few months to get questions to him. I like to think neither the questions or answers are particularly date sensitive, per se. Toward the end of the interview, I was able to provide some links to pages from his 2009 upcoming AdHouse book, Driven by Lemons. My thanks to Cotter for the interview and AdHouse’s Chris Pitzer for his assistance.
Tim O’Shea: Would you agree with Daily Cross Hatch’s review that characterizes your “obsession with the blurred borders of reality“. Do you think you have such an obsession or would you characterize yourself (or this quality per se) differently?
Joshua Cotter: I never really thought of it as an obsession before, I guess. it does pop up pretty frequently in Skyscrapers… and in the book I’m currently working on, even to a greater extreme. It’s not something I walk down the street “obsessing” about, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in. Reality’s blurred borders are something we all get to deal with. not to get all comic-guy philosophical or anything, but reality is pretty arbitrary when you get down to it… we can convince ourselves of anything, anything to be certain/truth/fact, and once we determine something to be fact, that is our reality. I guess I just feel the need to question these ‘certainties’… as a child you’re provided with a foundation of truth… as you go along in life, learn, experience, aspects of that foundation get shaky. You start questioning what you were taught, but if you question that truth away, what do you replace it with? A newly conceived reality? Do we have backups? it’s all pretty blurry.
O’Shea: Granted it’s becoming more commonplace for comics to garner mainstream coverage, but still how thrilled were you to get a rave review in the LA Times (back in June), for example?
Cotter: It’s exciting. it’s all exciting. At the same time, I feel like they’re saying good things about someone else, complimenting someone else’s work, and I’m happy for that person. I have such a strange disconnect with my work at times. I look at Skyscrapers and I don’t really feel like I’m the person that created it… it’s hard to explain. I mean, it’s not like if I made bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast, and then I sit down to eat it and I wonder who made me this meal. I recall the hours of writing and drawing… the finished product just seems really foreign to me. It’s kind of like Tom Spurgeon said in his review of the collection: “the feeling…. the author had figuratively vomited this material onto the page out of a compulsion more than design”. I find it difficult to disagree with him.
O’Shea: Many a writer has tapped into his or her childhood for inspiration in their adulthood. Have you gotten a great deal of feedback from folks who found your story to speak somewhat to their childhood experiences as well? If so, did this response surprise you or had you hoped to appeal to readers on that level?
Cotter: When I started out with Skyscrapers, I was more interested in doing a book that took place in a rural setting rather than urban, not necessarily focusing on childhood… I was living in a city by that point, but I’d grown up in the country… My most vivid memories, emotional imagery, were all linked to that landscape. I decided to write what I knew (which was nothing new, I know). I really knew growing up in northwest Missouri, the social anxiety brought on by endless hours of isolation as a child… the contrasts.
I’ve received a lot of feedback over the years, and while most people mention their relating to the ‘coming of age’ situations, the individuals with the rural upbringing seemed to have the strongest reaction. Not to say that an urban adult wouldn’t be able to make connections with the book… you can’t get much more universal than childhood. But I think I feel a certain disconnect with stories that take place in urban settings… not as much now that I live in chicago, but definitely growing up and as a younger adult.
O’Shea: I was amused to read in this Chris Arrant interview with you that your affinity for robots started with Disney’s Black Hole. Have you watched the film again as an adult, or do you prefer to leave the film to your childhood perspective of it?
Cotter: I’ve considered renting it, watching it again, but I have a feeling it would be a disappointment. The memories I have of watching it as a child are too important to me. I can look at pictures of Maximilian online and get that same childhood excitement… some kind of weird rush. I can remember the temperature of my parents’ living room while watching it, how the carpet felt beneath me, the level of the lighting, my brother and I and our reactions to the imagery. If I were to watch it again i might lose all of that… I’m sure how the movie plays in my head is nothing like the real thing. But I prefer the version in my head.
O’Shea: In your interview with Tom Spurgeon in 2007 you admitted working on Skyscrapers was partially therapeutic. Do you hope most of your work starts out that way (beneficial to you as a person, entertaining to your reading public) –or do you expect to want to try some projects that are less personal in nature, less therapeutic?
Cotter: I think I’d start any personal project that way. If I’m doing freelance illustration, any commercial work, I don’t put myself into it as much, put myself out there. If I were to put myself into the freelance work, I don’t think it would work so well commercially. Or maybe it would. I mean, I’m in anything I draw to a certain degree. I don’t know if I’d be able to write commercially very well, though. Whenever I start writing, it’s always really personal, cerebral, stream-of-consciousness stuff… it comes from pretty deep within my head, scraping the muck out and getting it on paper. Any time I’ve tried to write any other way it just seemed to come out thin and insincere. So, I guess by writing I’m not necessarily fulfilling an urge to force my most personal moments on the reading public or anything… It’s just that it’s the only material coming out that I feel is really worth reading in the long run (for now, anyway). The project I’m working on now is pretty personal in nature, but the interesting thing with comics is if you make some of the iconography general or abstract enough, leave some of the definition to the reader, it can mean a lot more to a greater number of people. It’s not so personal anymore, it belongs to everybody. Or at least the reading public.
O’Shea: Again back to that Spurgeon interview (a must read for folks, as are all Spurgeon interviews…), you see ways that you can improve as a writer and artist. Are you starting to achieve those improvements in your post-Skyscraper work?
Cotter: Well, I think any writer or artist (or both) will always have a lot of room to improve. It’s a part of the life-long process of being an ‘artist’. Just starting writing a few years ago, I know I have a long way to go, and the only way to progress is to continue with tearing myself out of my comfort zones, experimentation… If I find myself faced with a fear of trying something that would be ‘too difficult’ to write and/or illustrate, that’s the thing I write and/or illustrate. Once I climb that hill, I’ve learned something (whether through failure or success) and I’m ready for the next one. Even if they’re just funny, talking-animal hills.
O’Shea: What made you want to take Skyscraper to AdHouse, as opposed to some other publishing house?
Cotter: AdHouse offered. I was just self-publishing up to that point… I ran into Chris at MOCCA a few years ago and he asked if I’d be interested in working with him. I didn’t know much about any publishers at that time… I looked into AdHouse, really, really liked the production he put into his books. And creative control is very important to me… If Chris publishes a book, he has faith that the artist knows what they’re doing and wants nothing more than to help achieve the final product that he or she has in mind. I knew what I wanted the collected Skyscrapers to look like, but I would have had no idea how to achieve that on a production level.T hanks to AdHouse, it turned out exactly like I envisioned it.I feel like I’m promoting a hair product.
O’Shea: You currently contribute to the Comics Stripjoint group blog. How did that come about? What are you learning (as a storyteller) from working in a group collaborative like that?
Cotter: At one point Travis Fox, Hector Casanova, Daniel Spottswood and I were all living in Kansas City. For a couple of years we made it a point to get together once or twice a week at Hector’s studio or the Broadway Cafe and draw, talk shop, and listen to music. We’d become friends through the ‘KC Comics Creators’ Network’, and after that kind of fell apart we just kept working together. A few years ago I moved away from KC, and in an effort for us to all keep in touch, show each other what we’ve been working on, give constructive criticism, etc., Daniel started up the strip joint. We seem to all take turns dominating the blog, but it’s still a great outlet for putting up sketches, freelance work, new pages, whatever. They’re all incredibly talented artists, and I’m happy we could find a way to keep up the old collective-comics habit. Sappy? I don’t post nearly as much as I used to, but i do put up pages from my current project (Driven by Lemons) on there from time to time.