Talking Comics with Tim: Joshua Cotter
Every once and awhile an email interview evolves far beyond my basic questions. But never has an email interview grown into something as constructive, candid and insightful as this email interview with Joshua Cotter. Longtime readers of Talking Comics with Tim may remember my email interview with Cotter last year. Back then we discussed Skyscrapers of the Midwest as well as the (then upcoming) Driven by Lemons (a 13-page preview of which AdHouse offers here). Cotter was such a fun interview then I wanted to catch up with him again this year. I wanted to discuss Driven by Lemons some more (now having had a chance to take it all in). I sent Cotter my questions and waited. Soon he replied with the following. I was amazed that after pouring all of this effort into his initial reply he was also still willing to reply to my (compared to what he had to say) inadequate questions. I can’t agree with everything Cotter writes (nor do I think he expects or wants anyone to agree with him). Where I most disagree is his assessment of himself. He’s an acutely astute and informed observer of the human condition who does not give himself enough credit for his emotional and intellectual efforts to get to a better place, literally and figuratively.
Hey, Tim. I bet you weren’t expecting this. Below is something that came out of my brain this afternoon. I started answering the questions, but I’ve been writing for hours and wanted to send it to you, since it may take the interview in an entirely different direction than you intended. And if you’d rather just ignore the pre-question rambles, I’d completely understand. I can find an outlet for it somewhere… but like I said, I’m tired. Here goes…
Let me preface this by saying that the interview you sent to me was not the catalyst for what follows. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that after this interview I’m not going to be doing very many or any more. for multiple reasons… I think my books speak more clearly for what I’m trying to communicate to others than what I’m capable to do in a q & a format, or any format for that matter. I have a limited vocabulary and it’s never been easy for me to eloquently communicate my thoughts with written or (especially) verbal statements (re: the interview I did with The Comics Journal [interview done by Robot6’s own Sean T. Collins]), due to a number of mental blocks that I’ll be discussing further on (and basic farm boy ignorance). Honestly, I’m jaded with the whole ‘comics’ thing in general… the ‘industry’, the process, the purpose. I’m not certain what my future in the comics world will be, and I’m not entirely sure that I’m going to continue with comics. I’ve struggled over the past ten years with my work, more than anyone can know, and while I’m absolutely grateful and honestly, quite surprised, that people have and are reacting to my work, I simply just don’t know how much I have left in me. I’ve got stories, piles of character and book ideas, but I just don’t have the reserve of energy necessary to plow on much further. I realize that being thirty-three doesn’t exactly put me in any geriatric categories, but I’ve lost so much over the past decade due to my devotion to comics, I’m not really certain I have the will to sacrifice what little I have left over the decades to come.
I’m going to ramble a little bit before I go on to the questions. I won’t go into the full history of why I started doing comics, I’ve touched on that topic quite a bit in past interviews. I’ll just say that my mini-comics were simply exercises to improve my drawing and writing skills. I never intended or could conceive that they would become something more than what I could share with a small group of family and friends. Somehow my second mini-comic experiment went from exactly what it was meant to be to a 300-page hardbound monster. The ‘success’ (success being entirely relative) of Skyscrapers was something I could have never possibly anticipated… but it wasn’t really a ‘somehow’, I guess. People I didn’t know started reacting to my work and it was exciting. I started writing more, putting more out there, hungry for that positive reaction. It was like a drug… but under it all, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t think I ever knew what I was doing. I just wanted to write and draw, and since there seemed to be an audience for my output, I continued down that path. I started putting all of my being into it… people always came up to me at shows, or mentioned in interviews, or whatever… ‘I really like ‘this aspect’, ‘this story’, etc., but man, what a depressing book.’
The depressive aspect came from me putting myself into it. I put on a positive front when I’m at shows, in public… I don’t complain about my mental states any more than I complain about any daily headache. There’s no point. But in order to address the ‘depressive’ aspects of my writing, I feel it to now be necessary to talk a bit about my psychological reality. I was, and usually am constantly depressed. I can remember the first time depression hit me, when I was in the fourth grade, around the time in which ‘Skyscrapers’ was set. The moment when I went from being able to experience the purist of beauty and wonder the world has to offer to being filled and consumed by an absolute existential void. There wasn’t any one moment, not one specific impetus. Just a random quick flick of an internal switch and I’ve never been able to get myself back to ‘normal’.
I think there are a lot of misunderstandings concerning depression… people assume it’s situational, that it’s related to being sad or upset… granted, while external situations can certainly contribute to the problem, they’re hardly the source. One of the most frustrating things about depression is the fact that you never know exactly when and where it’s going to hit you. I’ve had what most would consider to be a happy and comfortable life. My parents were and are caring, loving people… I always had food on the table and shelter over my head. The success I’ve had with my books and art are what many artists strive for, to garner praise and respect from being true to yourself, maintaining honesty and integrity through the avoidance of spiritual and creative compromise. All of my life I’ve had every reason to be happy, so the depression, anxiety and manic compulsion I experience on a daily basis are all the more frustrating and infuriating because of the fact that they’re not rooted in any exterior source but from within. The realization that all of my known pain and suffering is coming from a psychological malfunction, and that no matter what I do or how hard I try to locate and correct the source of my trouble it will continue to eat away at my being… helplessness only compounds the difficulties. What do you do with yourself when you are your own worst enemy?
My books are depressing because I’m a depressed person. Of course I realize I’m not the only one out there. In fact, there have been many studies over the years suggesting and attempting to confirm a link between creativity and mental illness. I can’t personally prove there to be a link, but I’ve become friends with enough cartoonists and artists over the past few years to safely say that the socially conceived notion of the ‘damaged’ artist is founded in reality and not in simple pop culture fancy. Why are so many indie comics depressing? Because all we can do is write what we know. Then why do we bother writing at all… spreading the pain? I don’t know. Why does anyone create? If existence is truly a dark expanding void, why bother? If the sun is going to consume all and humanity may as well have never been, why bother? Because we’re here now. Because we have to find a way to get through the day, to define exactly what it is we’re doing from day to day, to figure out why we’re doing it… and maybe through reproduction and distribution of these explorations we’ll find others going down similar paths, with similar ideologies, and then we won’t be so alone, and the void won’t seem to be so ominous. I read and hear so much criticism in regards to indie comics, how we’re all a bunch of sad-bastard cry-babies with bruised egos, bearing chips on shoulders. There’s a general misunderstanding when it comes to comics… it’s such a broad, blanketing term. while there have been many individuals over the past century who have tried to bring a literary respectability to the medium, all sequential work is still considered by most to be under the one generic denomination of ‘comics’. if one were to equate ‘As I Lay Dying’ (the 1930 novel by William Faulkner) to any random romance paperback with a Fabio-esque fellow on the cover, more than a few eyebrows would rise to mid forehead, so what does ‘The ACME Novelty Library’ have to do with ‘Spider-Man’? Is there really that much of a difference between Steinbeck and Stephanie Meyer? They’re both using words, after all.
I have an appreciation for escapism. We all need some means to escape because this world can be a pretty shitty place at times, whether we’re mentally ill or not. I grew up reading ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘X-Men’, and I understand what function they serve. I’m not trying to say that escapism is a bad thing. What I am trying to say is that people should be a little more cautious and take care in differentiating between what is meant to be entertainment and what is meant to serve as an outlet for an individual’s personal, artistic expression. There will never be a definite dividing line between what is art and what is entertainment when it comes to any medium, and I truly believe that some of the best work comes from those who try to find and walk what they perceive to be the fine line between the two. But if you’re coming over to the indie side of the fence to find some entertainment, you best be ready to get kicked in the teeth a few times while you’re looking for your jollies. Reality is depressing and in any attempt to stare it down dead in the face, even the strongest of us are going to be made to whine a little bit. Do indie comics seem depressing and whiny to you? Don’t fucking read them.
I write and draw “comics” in an attempt to figure out who I am and what purpose there may be to my existence. It just happens to be the means of personal artistic expression my little pink brain selected. In an attempt to write and draw more sincerely and objectively about my topics, I’ve gotten lost a few times, and whenever I try to get back to who I thought I was, I always end up in a different place, a few steps to one side or the other from where I used to be. In one instance of exploration, I returned to find that “irreconcilable differences had caused the irretrievable breakdown of my marriage, and that efforts at reconciliation had failed as would any future attempts at reconciliation which would be impracticable and not in the best interest of my family”. Upon return from another journey I found myself in a hospital bed, confused, surrounded by the screeching, desperate chaos of the Cook County Hospital blue ward, doctors floating around with clipboards and stacks of paper, handing out diagnoses while wittingly avoiding eye contact. My “wife” was there, but she wasn’t my wife any more, just a concept. In her place I was given a label, bipolar II. One doctor, two doctor, three doctor, all doctors agreed. I embraced my diagnosis, I took the pills they gave me, and I swam in a strange grey sweat for months. I was soon living alone, just me, my disease, my pills… i started bringing alcohol into the mix and lost a couple more years of my life. A few breakdowns later, I sobered up and started working on ‘Driven by Lemons’ in an attempt, once again, to make sense of what just happened to me.
My books have given me some clarity and some answers in life, but they’ve brought up just as many, if not more, questions. I’ve written two books that people seem to enjoy, books that seem to affect others on a personal level. But why do I really do what I do? Why do I keep writing and drawing? Am I truly achieving anything? Am I making my life any easier? Would others be better off if I wasn’t tempting them with my cathartic bile? I feel like a lot of what I’ve produced is linked to the very roots of my mental illness, ideas and needs sprouting from a faulty system of serotonin reuptake. It’s been four years since my diagnosis, since I began a strict regimen of blue, orange and white lumps of chemical bliss, and two years since i quit drinking… so what have I learned? I know less about myself and the world around me than ever before. The rock of confident, immortal certainty embraced in my early to mid-twenties has entirely eroded away. I’m simply floating in this void of existence, without any immediately evident means of acquiring footing. I can look around and see the people i care about and love, but ultimately we can’t do anything for one another… we can embrace each other, hold on for life, but it will only keep us from learning to float on our own. And that’s what I keep coming back to… this isolated existence, floating on whether it be in relation to the existence of others or not. After years of ups, downs and all of the distractions in between, maybe the point I’ve been working towards all along can be found in this isolation. If the only certainty in life is that we ultimately live and die alone, can that concept be completely negative? If all of being is a sequence of peaks and troughs, can’t there be peaks within what is commonly perceived as a concept born of the trough?
Existentialism is often perceived by the people in general as a negative school of thought, but I think it’s a little pessimistic of the optimists to think that way. What’s so bad about acknowledging the base, animal purpose of our existence? If we can locate and come to terms with that base, then maybe we won’t have to float anymore, and maybe we won’t be so easily guided into the ‘pastures of another’s choosing’. Maybe we won’t have to depend on the (what has become commonplace) excessive consumption and distractions of modern media to get us from one day to the next. Maybe once we find our footing we’ll realize what it is to take responsibility for our own decisions and actions, and once we’ve each mastered the art of navigation through life individually, there will no longer be a need to interfere and control the decisions and actions of those around us. Maybe that’s where harmony and ‘happiness’ can finally be found, in the simple act of being self-aware. Are any of us truly ‘happy’ or comfortable with the path the human race is so eagerly hurtling down? What are we hurrying off to, anyway? To what end? So far our achievements in comfort and convenience have only brought us to a new, heightened level of misery. Some reconsideration of what we’re doing before we lose touch with our basic animal function in relation to the blue and green enviornment in which we live and what we would really like to leave behind as the definite human legacy.
I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not intelligent enough to be an intellectual, and not self-righteous enough to be a priest. My glass isn’t half full or half empty… I’m not even certain there is a glass. I am what’s been designated as human and, with age, I’m finding that a human’s function of perception and ability to clearly process what is happening to us in relation to the external world is incredibly limited. We can keep making comics, movies, commercials, games and lattes, but nothing is going to keep the universe from expanding, folding in on itself, or whatever else it happens to be doing. Within my limitations, I perceive that I’m here, you’re here, and we’re all here together on this rock that is doing something in a larger something that we will never be able to wholly grasp, despite our greatest efforts. In the grand scheme of things, nothing we’ve done or will do can affect what’s going on in the bigger picture… a mosquito isn’t going to draw blood from a bowling ball, and the bowling alley isn’t sweating it either. If we can just take some responsibility for our own lives and learn to communicate openly with each other without anger and the typical, narrow partisan (I’m pretty sure there’s not a party, folks) epithets, maybe we can do something good and enjoy ourselves while we do exist.
What am I going to do next? I thought I was going to do a book entitled “Nod Away” that was to touch on all of the stuff I’ve just been going on about. Now I’m not sure. I may just do some painting, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watch some cartoons. If I can get back in touch with the sense of reason and purpose that got me started making comics in the first place, maybe I’ll make more comics. For now I’m going to try to find my footing and learn how to walk. All of this floating makes me feel pukey…
And now we delve into the actual questions I asked Cotter. It’s an understatement to write that I am grateful for Cotter’s time and effort. I enjoy his work and hope that he can find his footing and continue to work in comics. But if his pursuits take him somewhere away from comics, I’ll be equally curious to see what the next stage is for him, creatively or otherwise.
Tim O’Shea: Did you always intend to name the sections of the stories, or was something you chose to do after you finished the sketchbook?
Joshua Cotter: I knew I wanted to split ‘Lemons’ up into different sections with their own form of “structure”. And, since I knew I was ultimately going to be publishing the experiment as a book, I left a page blank before each section so I could label them as ‘chapters’ later on.
O’Shea: How did you come up with some of the names for the sections, for example what is the significance of Scope Creep?
Cotter: The girl I was dating while making Lemons did a lot of project management stuff, architectural interior design, etc.. I heard her use the term a couple of times and liked how it sounded phonetically. I researched the meaning (scope creep is a term used in commercial project management to describe uncontrolled changes in the project’s overall scope), and it just happened to relate to what I was doing in ”Lemons’. But instead of it being a negative aspect of the project, I was using scope creep as a part of the actual creative process. ‘Migraneur’ is in reference to my headaches, whether they be traditional or psychological. Again, not complaining. I’ve accepted that they’re a part of who I am, and it’s up to me to learn to live with them and ensure they don’t become a dominant force in life. While I definitely do not want to become known as the ‘bipolar-headache guy that does comics’, they are a part of who I am, and in turn they’ll always be a part of my writing…
O’Shea: How long did it take you to execute the complexity and chaos of pages 26-31 (In search of peaks)?
Cotter: A few weeks. I had a nervous breakdown right before I started work on the ‘in search of peaks’ section. I had to take a leave of absence from my job and I stayed in my apartment for almost two straight months, only leaving to buy some groceries every now and then. It may sound morbid, but I was kind of lucky that I had a breakdown when I was approaching the section of the book in which I wanted to illustrate a breakdown. Maybe attempting to put myself back in that frame of mind brought on what I was trying to communicate? Regardless, that section is the best visual representation I could come up with to communicate what it’s like to go through a manic depressive episode. Oh… it took me two months, with a lot of off and on.
O’Shea: In various sections of the project, particularly with Patient 35, you utilize black panels interspersed throughout the narrative. What were you trying to convey or achieve with those boxes (and were there different
purposes for the different boxes)?
Cotter: Basically their purpose is to illustrate the lapse of time. Sometimes I did actual objective drawings first and then brushed a black layer over the drawings… to represent the memories that get lost in the mix. We can remember a lot of our past, but there are many so hours we’ll never remember because we were just doing every day stuff. For example, I probably wouldn’t remember typing up these answers a month from now, but since I just consciously acknowledged this moment, it’s being filed away for my future enjoyment. I’ll remember typing this when I’m test-driving a new ‘tennis-balled’ walker forty years from now.
O’Shea: In the “You Got the Power” portion of the book, you black out text (ala Freedom of Information Act declassified style), which reminded me of when Anders Nilsen did something similar in Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes? Were you revising dialogue on the fly there, or what was the aim there?
Cotter: I wrote the section in it’s entirety and then went back through and blacked the words out. The sensation I get from destroying something I’ve created is mildly euphoric. William S. Burroughs used to type out sentences and paragraphs, cut them up and form new combinations with the pieces. I wanted to leave the pieces where they were and form new combinations through the process of elimination.
O’Shea: What influenced your decisions to use watercolor or other mediums with certain pages–also what would motivate you to color certain pages (and not others)?
Cotter: It was entirely intuitive. I knew the section where the rabbit’s getting his mental innards ripped out needed to have a texturally violent ending with highly saturated complimentary colors. It just made sense to get the watercolor tubes out and start smearing the paint around. The bed scenes needed to have the static simplicity of black and white line art to serve as a base to spring off of when I needed to illustrate the fluctuation of the character’s mental condition during his stay.
O’Shea: Were there any scenes that you initially wanted to revise in Lemons, but could not–due to the skecthbook nature–and now that you look back at it, do they work even better for you (upon reflection) making you glad you did not revise it?
Cotter: No. One of my rules was ‘no revisions’. Once it was down, it was down. No photoshop, no tearing out and replacing pages. I always make rules for myself when I’m writing, set my own weird deadlines and standards to go by. Guess it’s part of my working process.
O’Shea: In Sean T. Collins’ review of Driven by Lemons, he wrote: “And a creepy cameo by the mad god Dionysus, quoting the soundtrack from the animated Transformers movie, rings out as a reminder of madness after all is said and done like that dissonant shot of the cab’s rear view mirror at the end of Taxi Driver.”
Is he correct in thinking you were referencing the animated Transformers movie. And how did Dionysus work his way into the project?
Cotter: Dionysus was ‘the Greek god of wine, and the god who inspires ritual madness and ecstasy’ (per Wikipedia). His business was the initial impetus for ‘lemons’. And, yep. It’s referencing the Transformers movie. Dionysus can definitely take you on a ride, but there’s no guarantee you’ll
understand what the hell is happening to you. Kind of like the boat in chocolate river scene in ‘willy wonka…’
O’Shea: Has the narrative experimentation you explored in Driven by Lemons had a bearing on how you approach your next project?
Cotter: [See the] above rant [for that answer.]
O’Shea: Have you ever talked about your depression with fellow creators? I know you’re not alone in this struggle and your perspective assuredly will help others. In reading your essay, I was reminded of when the late William Styron went public with his battle with depression (with his 1989 book Darkness Visible)
Cotter: A lot of the friends I’ve made over the years were and are depressed cartoonists… It’s uncanny how many. I’ve noticed that many of us live the same way, too… lots of comfortable clutter, surrounded by piles of books, art supplies and records. I have an obsession with Tetris. Still. Anybody else out there?