Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Skyscrapers of the Midwest
Skyscrapers of the Midwest
by Josh Cotter
AdHouse Books, 2008
Hillary Brown: If someone told me a work of art was intensely, miserably sad (but also genius), I would generally run in the other direction. Life is sad enough, what with people being run over by cars in Athens and dying in cyclones in Burma and earthquakes in China and so on and so forth. You pretty much have to suppress awareness of that incredible, horrible sadness that's going on all around you all the time just to be able to function from minute to minute. And yet, Josh Cotter's Skyscrapers of the Midwest is exactly that intensely, miserably sad, and you should read it, even if you are like me and want to ignore the fact that the world tips in favor of suckiness almost all the time. I started out reading the individual issues (courtesy Mr. Ryan Lewis) before I bought the hardcover, and, unlike the book, they don't give you any clue of what's to come. You're just thrown in the middle of anthropomorphic cats and robots and rural settings, and it's not necessarily clear that there's an overarching narrative. You get to figure that out, and, as you figure it out, you become aware of its ordinariness and also its awfulness at the same time. I hate to play the Chris Ware card, but Cotter's got a lot in common with him, down to a brilliant use of visual symbolism without explanation, letting the reader figure out what something means or might mean. I think it's the best thing I've read in a long time
Garrett Martin: It made me think of Ware, too, both visually and because it also made me bawl my eyes out on an airplane (weird coincidence). I don't think Skyscrapers is as overwhelmingly depressing as Jimmy Corrigan, though. The younger brother keeps Skyscrapers from becoming too monolithic in its misery. There's also more hope in this book, if only because the protagonist is still a kid and many of his most pressing problems probably won't last too much longer. He at least has a good home life, unlike Corrigan. And yeah, maturity and adulthood bring a whole new set of problems with them, almost all of them more serious than what bums this kid out, but they also bring the strength and experience to deal with problems in a more forth-right and mature manner.
But anyway, yes, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is a fantastic book. Cotter debuts with an immediately distinctive voice, despite dealing with similar subject matter and using some of the same techniques as many other somewhat autobiographical comics. Most comics aren't structured so perfectly, though, or filled with such rich symbolism, symbolism that remains poignant while still being clear enough for total dumbasses like me to grasp. And though it is utterly suffused with sadness and grief, the book doesn't use them for cheap emotion or easy familiarity. Skyscrapers also features some of the most indelible comic images I've ever seen, from the robotic angel cats to the discarded backpack drowning the main character in guilt. It's a rare comic that perfectly combines image with story in a literary way, and Skyscrapers succeeds more than anything else I've read this year. It's a perfect example of what I was trying to say about comics in our Runaways post; Skyscrapers could exist in other media, but it would be fundamentally different and far less powerful. But I don't want to derail this back onto that track.
HB: You're right that it's not as overwhelmingly depressing as Ware. It's just that, in the bits where it is, it's just as forcefully so. But, yes, there's hope, which is good, and there is some big-time coziness, which contributes to the sadness to some extent but also compensates for it. Man, it makes me wish my grandma had been nice like that. Not that she didn't teach me valuable stuff, but not so much with the hugs and pies and kitties and all that.
One thing I was thinking about with regard to the book is this article by James Wood on theodicy, which I read a week or so ago. Basically, you can see Skyscrapers as an attempt to deal with the problem of theodicy, and the importance to the book of this struggle with faith may be one of the things that gives it such depth. I'm not sure what the final answer is that it suggests--whether there's a god or no--but it's a concern, a matter to which one must devote thought. You know, you can't really be a good person unless you spend some time thinking about whether or not you're a good person and what "good person" means and who defines that and so on.
I also think you're right about the visual power. There are both things that happen and things that are drawn that I'm going to have a very hard time digging out of my head, nor am I sure I want to, although some of them create a truly terrible feeling in the pit of the stomach. I will say that I think it loses a tiny bit of steam toward the end (or maybe 3/4 through), but that's more of an impression than an evidence-based conclusion, and it may just be that it's impossible to maintain the emotional fever pitch the book hits at its high points.
GM: I'm glad I didn't have a German grandma.
The struggle with faith is central to Skyscrapers, obviously, but I don't know if Cotter really provides a "final answer". If anything, the last scene, with the snow slowly covering the footprints 'til there's no sign the kids were even there, seems to say that, from a cosmic view, the individual doesn't really matter. That doesn't negate the significance of the preceeding 275 pages, or so, but it makes me think that, if Cotter does believe, his God's something of a watchmaker (and I wonder how the rise of cellphones will effect that analogy). You could also say the scenes where Kevin, the main character, imagines himself as his own giant robot god reflect a "we're all our own god now" view, which actually works alongside the watchmaker biz - if God isn't here for me, then I'll be here for myself, etc. (And yeah, that could come close to Anton Lavey's form of Satanism, but c'mon, that isn't the direction Cotter is headed) But again, like you mention, I don't think Cotter is trying to espouse any sort of approach to faith, but instead is interested in how one decides upon and grapples with that faith.
So are you surprised by this book? From some of your prior emails I felt like you were maybe hesitant to read Skyscrapers, either because it didn't look good to you or because you didn't want to shell out the twenty bucks. I've been looking forward to this collection for months, having read a number of ecstatic reviews of the individual issues, and even I'm taken aback by how beautiful and thought-provoking it is. Returning yet again to Ware, Skyscrapers has stuck in my mind more than any comic since Corrigan (and maybe a couple of Huizenga stories, like "Jeepers Jacob" and "Pulverize"). Also, I can definitely see how reading the single issues doesn't prepare you for how thematically unified the completed work is. I wonder if Cotter knew all along that some of those symbols and themes would recur or if it's something he worked out as he went along.
HB: Yes, I was massively surprised, although it's not as though I haven't enjoyed Cotter's previous stuff (in The Trouble Revolution and on the Kindercore site) or thought it was smart. I just didn't do any research at all, so I had no idea what I was in for. It's not as though I'd read a bunch of things saying "wow, it's great but it's a little on the sad side" and veered away. I was merely being lazy, which is a bad excuse. Don't be lazy, readers.
My guess is that Cotter knew, to some extent, what he was going for with his symbols from the beginning, but they only grew and deepened in meaning and import as he wrote and drew. That's what happens with good stuff. People think symbols are a simple system of equations, but that's not how they work, and it's not how allegory works. It's a flower, not a box.