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November 18, 2007


CR Sunday Interview: Josh Cotter

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*****

imageI first heard of Josh Cotter when his mini-comic Skyscrapers of the Midwest won the inaugural Isotope Mini-Comics Award. The first full issue from AdHouse Books didn't disappoint. Drawn largely from his experiences growing up outside of a small town in Missouri, that first issue of Skyscrapers featured almost unbearably up close and personal examinations of its two brother characters that penetrated the rural setting for a stab at the great universal truths of life as pathetically led by nearly all of us at one time or another. It also boasted a handsome anthropomorphic style, one of the few in comics that wasn't also flat in terms of its depictions but full and rounded. Add in a sprinkle of whimsy that plays with the wide open spaces and the wild imagination of some of the characters, and Skyscrapers has been one of the best debut comics series this decade. It's sad beyond imagining that the debut issue has struggled to find 1500 readers and that subsequent, more accomplished issues had an even smaller audience.

Josh Cotter and I met for this interview in what was, at least that day, the loudest coffeehouse in Chicago. We talked a week or so after the 2007 Comic-Con International (there's a reference to the Eisners that speaks to them being only days earlier). The fourth and final comic book issue of Skyscrapers of the Midwest has since been released. I liked talking to Josh; he seemed to have a very definite interview in mind. I hope what follows won't disappoint.

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TOM SPURGEON: I don't know anything about you beyond some vague generalities. What is the small town you grew up in?

JOSH COTTER: Barnard, Missouri. I didn't actually grew up in the town. Population of 234. It was in Northwest Missouri, north of St. Joseph. I don't know if you're familiar with the Pony Express, Jesse James, all that stuff. It's north of there about 30 miles. I grew up on a farm about three miles east of Barnard. Starting out my parents had a few acres and my family had a few hundred all together. My dad, he farmed soybeans and corn during the summer and was a math teacher during the school year. I went to the local schools. There were anywhere from 12 to 18 people in my class for the entire 12 years, from pre-school through senior year.

SPURGEON: And when did you start making art?

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COTTER: I started drawing when I was old enough to hold a crayon. I was one of those kids that just loved to scribble. My earliest drawings are still on the underside of my parents' coffee table. I was obsessed with Star Wars when I was two or three and I drew a lot of battle scenes underneath the coffee table. Lots of red and green crayons.

SPURGEON: Were they encouraging of your art?

COTTER: They were encouraging. For a small town they were pretty open minded as far as art went. When I decided to go to school for illustration they might have been a little skeptical -- and understandably so. But they were really supportive of me going for that, too, in the long run. If I wanted to draw, they always made sure I had paper and pencil. I was always drawing on something.

SPURGEON: Was comics a part of that?

COTTER: I always hear these interviews where people say [George] Herriman was an influence, but I didn't know who Herriman was. All I had was the Sunday funnies. My favorites were Bill Watterson, Charles Schulz... Gary Larson, when I was younger I didn't necessarily understand all of the humor but I loved Gary Larson. But mainly Calvin and Hobbes was the thing I was excited about when Sundays came around. The nearest grocery store was 20 miles away, so I didn't know I could buy comic books. When I went up there I wasn't allowed to buy stuff like that, anyway. Sunday was the only time I got my exposure to comics. My grandmother who lived a mile down the road -- she had a comic book of a drunk guy... Andy Capp! She had an Andy Capp book. I read that every time I went over there. I was obsessed with comics, but I never had the chance to get more of them.

We were very limited with what we had. We had a [Norman] Rockwell collection, a collection of World War II strips, and my Dad liked [M.C.] Escher so we had some Escher around. I liked album art and rock posters. In junior high my dad built a house where my great-grandparents used to live and we had an old shed in the back, and there were some old comic books from the '60s in there. They were Marvel, Strange Tales. That was the first time I ever read any Spider-Man vs. Sandman or anything like that. That sparked my interest; I'd never read anything like that before. I started getting an allowance for mowing the lawn, doing chores. The spinner rack at the grocery store caught my eye, and I bought Spider-Man #342 or something. I think Erik Larsen was drawing it.

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SPURGEON: You just made me feel 1000 years old.

COTTER: If I had been five or six in a big city I would have been buying them then. But where I was, except for making my own little strips -- I guess that's where drawing came from. I had no entertainment other than a little brother to torture. Drawing was my outlet, my escapism.

I was always the weird kid. I was always different. I didn't see being an illustrator as being weird. But even leaving town isn't something you do. I was always an outcast, because I was always drawing. I did get some social acceptance through drawing. I was the little fat kid in school, an easy target. When I drew people had a mild form of respect for me. It was a way to get attention from 'friends', and later on girls.

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SPURGEON: You went to school to become an illustrator. Were most of your classes geared towards that end?

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COTTER: For Missouri, except for the Art Institute in Kansas City, where I went it was a respected program. I wanted to draw. I knew studio art might not be a way to go to make a living. For some reason I thought illustration and comics was going to be. [laughs] I didn't know about comics. I didn't want to sell my soul for commercial art, I just wanted to draw for a living. I had the basic core classes, and then a few illustration classes.

SPURGEON: A lot of artists I know tell me they wish they could tweak their art school experience. Were you satisfied with your education?

COTTER: I was. When I went to high school, we had no supplies besides cheap tempera and typing paper. When I got to art school, using acrylics and oils and stuff, that's a whole new thing for me. My art teacher in high school kept me interested in it from the time I was a child. I have to give him credit for keeping me interested (and for doing the best with the limited budget he had). When I went to college, I didn't know what I wanted to do, I thought it might just lead to something else. I didn't have a gameplan.

SPURGEON: How much time was there between going school and doing comics?

COTTER: I got out of school... I got a job as a production artist doing design in Kansas City. I worked for a place that invented the bumper sticker, Gill Studios. They employed '50s-style management. It was miserable... they timed you if you went to the restroom. You clocked in and clocked out. Buzzers for this, buzzers for that. But they paid decent enough, so I stuck with it. In the meantime, I did freelance for local newspapers like the Kansas City Star, spot illustrations. I worked for Gill for about two years, and I built a client list from mostly alternative weekly newspapers.

SPURGEON: How did that work?

COTTER: It usually ended up being something political. You know how alt-weeklies focus on scandal? They'd send me an article. Some art directors said go for it, some gave me an idea of what they wanted. I did little cartoon panels. I enjoyed it, but after two or three years of it I was still in production and I started to go nuts there. I enjoyed illustration but I wanted to work with my own ideas.

I guess I should go back to when I was re-introduced to comics.

imageSPURGEON: I assume there was a point where you saw more comics.

COTTER: In high school I read Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, maybe some Image titles when they started out because I liked Erik Larsen and Jim Lee. But after a while the books began to repeat themselves. When I got to high school I started putting money towards what social life I had and gas just to get around. I still read the comics I already had; I just stopped buying new ones. I still read strips, I still read Calvin and Hobbes. I read a lot of stuff over and over again.

My junior year in college the movie Crumb came out. I saw it and I was like, "Wow." This guy's art is amazing, and even though I'd seen the images before here or there, I wasn't aware of who he was. I started to hunt down independent comics to find more of this stuff. I went to comic shops in KC; Comic Cavern was one that had a lot of those comics. I bought a few Complete Crumbs, [Dan] Clowes, the indie standards. I started reading as much of stuff that I could find. With the superhero books, the possibilities seemed to be limited, at least at the time, anyway. These books seemed to have so much more substance, they were a lot more personal, effective, and, to me, memorable. It's the same story everyone else has.

SPURGEON: Were you reacting to the art, primarily, or the narratives?

COTTER: Crumb's subject matter kind of shocked me in a way. A naive little farm boy. That family one from Zap #4 ["Joe Blow"], I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was always obsessed with art more than storytelling. Art struck me first. It was important that someone had good art before the stories. Once the art grabbed me, the stories could grab me. From there I went to Top Shelf and Drawn and Quarterly... I bought a lot of anthologies because I could try out a lot of new things. By the time I left college I had a new found appreciation for comics , but it still never occurred to me that you could do them yourself. I don't know if that was a lack of confidence or what. It just never occurred to me.

SPURGEON: Did Crumb become an influence?

COTTER: I enjoyed Crumb's writing, but with the underground comics, it seemed as if they were shooting for a very specific thing, trying to shock the straights. His storytelling didn't have as much of an influence on me. He's an excellent writer. His stuff isn't necessarily groundbreaking anymore, not that it needs to be, but what I've seen of his current artwork seems that much more incredible. The real-life drawing he does, it's beautiful.

SPURGEON: A lot of folks have remarked that Skyscrapers looks like early Crumb.

COTTER: When I was younger, I had the Alice in Wonderland books, the copper plate engraving like [John] Tenniel did, guys like that. I always liked pen and ink drawings, and maybe that's why Crumb spoke to me so much. It had that look. Lots of hatching has always appealed to me. Lots of line work. Lots of stuff going on. Crumb, because of the art, comics hadn't spoken to me in a while and suddenly something had kicked me in the side of the head. You can't deny your influences. I had other influences, too, of course... I wish I could give you more than just the run of the mill influence list, but I only had what was in front of me.

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SPURGEON: Is there anyone you liked that maybe others didn't, that you think is under appreciated?

COTTER: You mean influences or even contemporaries? I'd have to think about it. There are so many incredible cartoonists out there that don't get a chance. Every now and then, when I try the mainstream books, the art may be great but the story is still so standard. Story always seems to be second priority, but I still need story for it to work for me. It's still such a factory mentality. At the Eisners the other night it was like "I want to thank my letterer, my colorist, my inker..." The guys who do it all themselves, I think it's really cool. I'm not trying to put down the people who work in mainstream comics, but there are cartoonists who do everything, doing incredible work and receiving very little recognition. It just seems uneven. But who do I like... the AdHouse guys, Jamie Tanner, J. Chris Campbell and Jim Rugg, I think those guys are incredible illustrators and writers. Mike Dawson's new book is going to be excellent. Ivan Brunetti, Onsmith...

SPURGEON: Do you have writing influences?

COTTER: Since I didn't have comics around growing up, I read literature more than anything else. Movies have a pretty big influence on me, too. Books and movies and music. As far as writing goes, someone like [John] Steinbeck, his work moves me so much. I love [Franz] Kafka's writing. I love stuff that's non-linear. As far as movies go, I love David Lynch's movies, the Coen Brothers... when I first started wanted to make comics, I was doing freelance illustration and reading all of these comics. I was reading Chris Ware by that point. The writing and the art are both incredible. I wanted to create something where I could merge writing and art like that.

SPURGEON: It sounds like Chris Ware put it all together for you.

COTTER: I like some people's art and other people's writing, but there are other people who put it together well. Ware had everything where just page after page it wowed me. ACME Novelty Library was coming out book by book, and one of the first serial books I'd been excited about since I was a kid. I was that excited for the next book to come out. [Darren] Aronofsky's film Pi had come out, and his way of directing and editing made comics' way of constructing things made sense to me. The scenes in Requiem for a Dream where the characters are getting their fix, those really spoke to me.

I had never heard of mini-comics. A friend of mine made one a few years ago and gave it to me and I was like, "What is this?" [laughter]

I'm afraid this interview is going to make me look naive and ignorant.

SPURGEON: It's not so much what you're saying as it is the overalls and bare feet.

COTTER: I used to run around in my bare feet! We even had an outhouse for a while. I'm lucky I got away unscathed. That landscape in Skyscrapers, that is my home. Maybe I didn't get away unscathed, after all.

SPURGEON: So it looks like you have all the elements in place.

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COTTER: Everything was starting to click with movies and mini-comics. I started thinking I was sick of doing illustration, and if I was going to say something, what would I say? I was really miserable. I sat down and started writing a story, images came up, they became sequential, and I started making mini-comics. Three or four months later I had made my first issue of Fun #1. It was the name of cigarettes, and the ads in Skyscrapers are based on those minis. I don't know why I started with anthropomorphics. That was part of the underground, and old cartoons. I was obsessed with Looney Tunes, the Muppets, Sesame Street. Talking animals always worked for me because it gave you a separation point from the story. It helps with unlikeable protagonists.

The Fun book was about an animal that was miserable with his job, and trying to find a way out. It was before I'd read [George] Orwell or [Ray] Bradbury or anything else, but it had a 1984/Big Brother feel to it. Turns out they did a much better job.

SPURGEON: How long did you do it?

COTTER: I started in 2000. I did three issues and it took me three-four months between issues. In the end it was a 72-page thing I had. I was pretty proud of it at the time.

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SPURGEON: Was the feedback gratifying?

COTTER: One thing is I didn't know at the time is that there was a comic scene in Kansas City. There were some people locally, Hector Casanova e-mailed me and invited me to a meeting, they had the Kansas City Comics Creators Network going, and I realized there were dozens of creators in Kansas City. It made me realize I wasn't alone, and it was really exciting in a way. We had the CCN going, and I started hanging out with these other people, and I learned a lot about mini-comics, their possibilities.

I wouldn't want to show that comic (Fun) to anyone else now.

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SPURGEON: When do we get to you doing the Skyscrapers mini-comic for James Sime's contest?

COTTER: There were a couple of things before Skyscrapers happened. When I was doing Fun, I had it in local comic shops and sold about 50 comics of each. I was pretty excited about that. The Kansas City Star, when Spider-Man I came out, they had a feature where cartoonists did their take on Spider-Man. They were just about to publish the thing, and three days before it was going to run one of the guys they had lined up dropped out, and the Star called a local comic shop to see if there were any more local creators they could recommend. . Do you know Friendly Frank [Mangiaracina]?

SPURGEON: Everybody knows Friendly Frank.

COTTER: He recommended me, and I did this strip. They liked it and they asked if I'd be willing to do a weekly strip for them. I was exhilarated. This was the thing I was really infatuated with growing up. It was exciting. This mini-comic had turned into a strip. It gave some validity to what I was doing to my family and people back home who don't think art was a practical thing. I still wasn't rolling the dough; I still am not. So it was exciting, and everything started happening at once. I was doing the strip, and I was done with Fun. I felt like I'd made a lot of personal accomplishments at that point, and I was ready to build on top of that. I got the idea to do a one-person anthology, that's what the original Skyscrapers minis were like. I tend to go with what feels right, and with Skyscrapers I wanted to address childhood issues. Skyscrapers kind of started as a semi-therapeutic thing.

SPURGEON: Has it worked?

COTTER: Not really. [sighs]

SPURGEON: [laughs]

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COTTER: We can go on with that if you like. I made the mini-comics when I was working at a production house with bigger printers. When bumper stickers weren't being made, I'd throw my mini-comics out there. High production stuff. I was just learning, but Skyscrapers was the first thing I'd done I was really happy with. So when I saw the Isotope thing happening with APE, I decided I'd give it a shot. By this time it was 2002 or 2003. I sent it out, forgot about it, and then six months later I got an e-mail saying I had to come out.

SPURGEON: That's part of the contest, you agree to come out to accept the award in person if you win.

COTTER: Maybe there were ten people ahead of me that couldn't come out! It was my first convention. I never went to a Kansas City Convention, even. I had some vacation time. It was fantastic. Somewhere along the way Chris Pitzer got a hold of it. It was so exciting to see all these things clicking. I went to MoCCA with part two and met Chris Pitzer there. I was standing in line at Drawn & Quarterly, and I had a few copies on me. A few weeks later he e-mailed me.

SPURGEON: What it's like to work with Chris?

COTTER: He's totally trusting of what I do. That's a great thing about small-press publishing.

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SPURGEON: Skyscrapers is a very handsome comic book. Who is responsible for that?

COTTER: Chris has incredible production values, and we went back and forth on things like the paper. AdHouse loses money on me.

SPURGEON: One thing I think that people react to in Skyscrapers is this feverish intensity and intimacy between the brothers.

COTTER: I think particularly because of the isolation that my brother and I have a relationship that many other brothers don't. When there are only four people around, it's a different situation. The family may not always get along, but I'm very close to my family. My grandparents were only a mile down the road. My aunt and uncle were across the street. That's how I was brought up. All I wanted to do was leave. Here I am living in Chicago.

SPURGEON: Has working on the series given you a different perspective on your experiences growing up?

COTTER: I think it has. Writing about it, it's begun to form organically.

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SPURGEON: What is your family's reaction?

COTTER: They wonder if I'm OK sometimes.

SPURGEON: [laughs] Do they not recognize themselves in it?

COTTER: They know it's them. Before I did any writing about my family, I made sure they were comfortable with me doing that, or else I wouldn't have. My brother loves it. It's semi-autobiographical, but there's fiction in there, not just the sci-fi aspect. Getting kicked in the nuts by the girl I had a crush on is real, and then I build around it. I see what I can attach to it.

SPURGEON: Are you surprised by anything you see in Skyscrapers?

COTTER: I started it as a therapeutic thing in terms of the isolation I felt wherever I went. But doing comics has made me even more isolated. I've seen so many friendships and other relationships just fall away the last few years. I love doing comics, but everything suffers because of comics. I've become so obsessed working on comics, and it's such a solitary dispute. It's created more problems at time. I can't stop drawing, but the older I get the more into I get into something I'm doing the more things suffer.

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SPURGEON: Do you feel camaraderie with other cartoonists?

COTTER: Going out with Jim Rugg and Jamie Tanner, we can talk about our experiences. What do you do when your wife gets fed up with your being a cartoonist? It's just --

SPURGEON: Wait, wait. What do you do when your wife is fed up with you? Half the people reading this just sat up straighter.

COTTER: We never came to a conclusion.

SPURGEON: We should tell people Rugg has the answer.

COTTER: He may have. He started to say something, but we veered off into something else. We almost had it...

It's great when those discussions happen, but they only take place every three or four years. Other than e-mail.

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SPURGEON: Your career output to date has been old school in a way, with a serial title driving things and a few small assignments sprinkled here and there. Do you feel disassociated from some of your peers in terms of people going after book deals and big-time assignments?

COTTER: I do. I admire Jim Rugg for being able to straddle those worlds, and he's an incredible writer and artist who can do both. I don't think anyone's going to offer me Fantastic Four any time soon.

SPURGEON: It could be Fantastic Four of the Midwest, and they could all live on a farm.

COTTER: [laughs] I could go for that. But I'm happy with what I'm doing. The serial comics is the only thing I can do right now. I can't make a living at alternative comics right now. I'm still learning. I did three Fun mini-comics, two Skyscrapers mini-comics, and three full-length Skyscrapers. I still feel I'm sort of new at this. I think my writing can be stronger. I think my art can be stronger. One of the problems with Skyscrapers is that it took so long -- four years -- that at first I was growing and experiment but by book three I had to shrink away from growth just to keep the books consistent. That's why I've cut it off at four. I want to try different things, and a great thing about the Kansas City Star strips is that I can constantly experiment.

SPURGEON: So what's next?

COTTER: No staples. At MoCCA people would come to the table getting books for review, and people would say, "We don't want staples." Chris maybe printed up 1500 of this and we just sold out of #1. I hear people say that when there's a collection they might be interested in it. We're going to collect these four and put it out next year sometime. And then I'm putting Skyscrapers behind me. I've been experimenting with the strip, there have been some things going on in my life that have affected the way I'm writing now. It was hard as hell writing this fourth book, keeping it like the three others, because my brain is a totally different thing now.

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SPURGEON: How much strip work is there?

COTTER: I do one a week. I did it for about two years straight, five year all together. At first it was the standard 'make 'em laugh', which I've always enjoyed and which is why I've always enjoyed comic strips in the first place. About eight months ago my life did a 180 and things started falling apart, and the strip became very strange. I didn't feel like being funny anymore. I did throw some jokes in, but now it's more experimental. If I keep down this track... I'd have to show it to you. In the beginning it was joke-punchline, but now I'm using the form of comics and applying how I feel in the morning when I get up. The first thought that crosses my mind. I want to keep the literal qualities. I've always focused so much on my past, but now I want to figure out what I am. So I'd do a joke one week and the next week I don't feel like it. I'll e-mail you some of them. My head's in a strange place... I wish I could say more, but it'll probably be better if I don't. Now that I'm getting more of a feel for standard comics structure, and you have to understand the basics before you can mess with them, I feel like I've spent seven years understanding the basic structure, so now I can mess with it a little bit.

imageSPURGEON: Are there any worries about being completely non-commercially viable?

COTTER: I've been non-viable for seven years.

SPURGEON: Trust me, it can get worse.

COTTER: I don't make any money now, and I don't anticipate making any in the future.

SPURGEON: God bless you.

COTTER: I'm not one of those artists who feels they don't need money to be a true artist. Everybody's got to pay the bills, but I feel it's important to be true to myself or else the work will suffer. It's weird, one day I woke up and I thought, "I don't feel like making a joke." That day I got feedback and e-mail more than I had in months. Maybe people can sense I'm being more honest. I think I'm going in the right direction and if the right direction becomes my new standard, that's fine. I'm just taking stabs in the dark and hoping for the best.

*****

* cover to Skyscrapers of the Midwest #4
* photo of Josh Cotter by Whit Spurgeon
* sketch of Darth Vader from much-later sketchbook
* domestic scene from early issue of Skyscrapers of the Midwest
* illustration
* illustration (a Cotter family member)
* inset from same early issue of Skyscrapers of the Midwest
* illustration
* image from Fun mini-comic
* CCN illustration
* more from Fun
* page from Skyscrapers of the Midwest
* front and back cover to Skyscrapers of the Midwest #3
* two-panel sequence from Skyscrapers of the Midwest
* change in style sequence
* sketchbook page
* strips
* page from Skyscrapers of the Midwest #4
* photo by Chris Pitzer

*****

Skyscrapers of the Midwest #4, Josh Cotter, AdHouse Books, AUG073288 (Diamond), 56 pages, October 2007, $5

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