Skyscrapers of the Midwest #2 | Review + Interview

[This post was originally published at on 6/8/2005, and retrieved from The Wayback Machine on 7/14/21. Cover image was added on 9/7/22.]

A cynical, emotionally resonant tour de force of poetic impressionism whose overall effect is simultaneously heart-wrenching and thought-provoking.

Available: 2005-06-08
Publisher: AdHouse Books
Price: $5.00
Writer/Artist: Joshua W. Cotter


Skyscrapers of the Midwest #2I first came across Joshua W. Cotter’s sublime Skyscrapers of the Midwest back in January while scouring the indie racks for something new and different. I was intrigued by the first issue’s cover featuring a skeletal farmer armed with a shotgun and his little robot helpers, as well as its brazen $5 price tag for a hefty 56 pages of black-and-white story on quality off-white paper stock. It felt more like an inexpensive graphic novella than an overpriced comic book at first, and after my third reading of the varied collection of short and really short stories, it simply felt like a bargain. A varied collection of short and really short stories primarily featuring young anthropomorphic cats experiencing some of the worst moments of childhood – the kid not picked for a game of kickball; something’s wrong with grandma; the dark side of day camp – Cotter beautifully communicated the raw emotion and vivid imagination of childhood, both in his words and his woodcut-style art. “The Flight of El Jefe” was probably the strongest story, a tale of the opposite extremes of childhood where the pull of imagination and the push of social acceptance collide.

While I was greatly anticipating the second issue, I was also concerned that Cotter might have caught the proverbial lightning in a bottle and would be unable to duplicate the magic a second time. The sophomore slump, if you will. Turns out my concerns were unfounded, however, as Skyscrapers of the Midwest #2 is arguably even better than the award-winning first issue.

Whereas the first issue was more of an anthology of loosely related stories, this issue – a super-sized 64-page value meal – is a more ambitious, multi-threaded, Altmanesque tale with a strong spiritual undercurrent. Subtitled “A Beacon in an Otherwise Dark World,” Cotter deftly weaves together three separate narratives for a cynical, emotionally resonant tour de force of poetic impressionism. The two primary stories being told are those of a young boy on the verge of a baptism he’s not completely sure about, and an abusive relationship between two self-loathing people headed for an ugly collision. The third story, the metaphorical link between the other two, is a surreal look at God and his involvement in human affairs that is as open to interpretation as the Bible itself. What they all have in common is Cotter’s remarkable ability to communicate emotion and atmosphere via pictures, with and without words, and its overall effect is simultaneously heart-wrenching and thought-provoking.

His cat people are disturbingly human, both in the emotional baggage he burdens them with and their visual representation, countering the emotional distance the use of anthropomorphic characters usually provides. Their deceptively simple faces are amazingly expressive, whether in drunken rage or youthful wonder, and his understanding of body language and eye for detail enables him to be concise with his dialogue, forcing the eye to linger on each panel a second or two longer to take in its full meaning. Cotter also experiments with the format, presenting his story in short vignettes that includes a wonderful transition between the two primary stories via a series of mock comic strips called the Sunday Funnies and a couple of fake ads that relate indirectly to the stories being told. There’s also a letters page that leads off the issue, featuring “Yer Pal Skinny Kenny,” that perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come.

Skyscrapers of the Midwest is one of the most unique, but totally relatable, comic books being published today; an engaging blend of poetic and artistic genius that manages to never come off as pretentious or condescending. Throw your pull list for a loop with something different and check it out.


Buzzscope checked in with Joshua W. Cotter to get the lowdown on the latest issue of his award-winning series.

Buzzscope: Cat people, skeletons, robots…what exactly is Skyscrapers of the Midwest about?

Joshua W. Cotter: My back cover blurb could be “Skyscrapers is an autobiographical/semi-autobiographical work about growing up in the middle of nowhere with little more than an underdeveloped, naive mind and an obnoxious little brother to assist our protagonist with breaking up the monotony of a banal, country existence.” As a mode of expression, I use comics to sift through all of the brain muck a person can acquire over time, while attempting to mildly entertain others along the way. Skyscrapers is mostly about my childhood (with some social commentary thrown in here and there)… if a person is to make any progress in making sense of who he or she is, I suppose they would have to start with the beginning, which for most of us is the elementary school playground. As far as cat people, skeletons and robots go, it was kind of an unconscious decision to use anthropomorphic characters in my stories. I suppose it comes from childhood influences; Looney Tunes, Aesop’s Fables, Golden Books, the Sunday funnies (Snoopy, Hobbes…,), etc. Plus, I think the use of anthropomorphic characters helps take the edge off of the stories in my books. If there were human characters instead of robots in the “Nobody Likes Me…” story from the first book, the dynamic would be totally different, possibly making it seem exploitative… I guess it might come across like that anyway.

BuzzscopeSkyscrapers was originally a series of mini-comics for which you won the 2004 Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics, correct? (Congratulations!) How did you end up publishing it with AdHouse?

Joshua W. Cotter: The first mini (the first half of Skyscrapers #1 from AdHouse) was the one that actually won the Isotope award. After receiving the Isotope, I put together the second mini and took it to Mocca 2004 where I handed out a few dozen copies. A couple of weeks later, Chris emailed me and asked me if I’d be interested in releasing some stuff through AdHouse. I really wasn’t really familiar with what he published (I’m not too familiar with many publishers/cartoonists, for that matter. There’s just too much out there for me to keep up with), so I picked up Project: Telstar. I immediately knew I wanted to work with him.

Buzzscope: Where the first issue was a varied collection of short and really short stories dealing with some of the worst moments of childhood, this issue is a more of a multi-threaded, Altmanesque tale with a religious, or spiritual perhaps, undercurrent. Why the change, and is this going to be the norm for the series?

Joshua W. Cotter: The first AdHouse book was a collection of the first two minis, which in turn were collections of short story ideas (that were all loosely related) that I had put together. We had decided to make the second AdHouse book the same length of the first book (and it actually ended up being longer due to my lack of restraint), so I saw an opportunity to do a longer narrative, something that I don’t think I could have pulled off as well in 28 pages (not that I’m sure I pulled it off in 64, but I did my best). As far as subject matter goes, religion is just one of the subjects I wanted to deal with… and if I wanted to do a longer story, there was a need for there to be an underlying theme. I did my best to write about the idea without getting preachy about it, more of exploring the emotional/psychological side of religion. And it’s not all about religion… hopefully people looking for a short story collection won’t be too disappointed… doing a longer narrative in the guise of a short story collection is just something I’ve been wanting to do. A kind of natural progression from what I’ve been doing, I think. It felt right, anyway.

Buzzscope: While you work with very relatable themes, your choice of characters is unique and your perspective could be described as dark, perhaps even cynical. What inspires you? And who do you envision as the primary audience for SotM?

Joshua W. Cotter: I’ve always been a cynic. I don’t know if I’m pessimistic or realistic, but as hard as I’ve tried, I’m not an optimist. I’m hoping someday maybe something will click in my head and I’ll be able to quit looking at the world this way… Until then, however, I imagine my subject matter will stay pretty dark. As far as where my cynicism comes from, I don’t know. I had a really good childhood. I had a stable life at home, with loving parents and grandparents, shelter over my head and plenty of action figures. Ever since I was child, though, I’ve been angry about something and I can’t put my finger on what it is. I was the fat kid in school, and I was victim to my share of name-calling, but I’m absolutely certain some of the children I went to school with grew up in conditions that most of us wouldn’t, couldn’t ever recover from, and they came out as smiling, well-adjusted members of society. Maybe it’s the chemicals in my head, I don’t know. Where inspiration comes from, I’m not really sure. I really enjoy drawing (inking more than pencilling). It keeps me coming back to my little ‘studio’ corner day after day. I think my main inspiration is knowing that I don’t have a whole lot of time here, and if I don’t make some kind of ‘mark’, then I may as well have never existed. If I’m not doing something, trying in some way to create or make some kind of contribution to society, then I’m just taking up space and wasting precious natural resources. Again, not a very optimistic view of my inspirations, but my impending mortality is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Especially now that I can’t have caffeine anymore. I try not to envision an audience when I work… I don’t know if I’d be able to get anything accomplished if I consciously accepted the fact that someone besides my family and wife were going to read my book. It’s a deer in the headlights kind of thing. When I make a book, I try to create something that I’d be interested in reading if I saw it on the shelf of a local comix shop. After that, it’s out of my hands. I hope I’m creating something that other people can enjoy on a visual level and relate to on a personal level. I’d think that there would be a few people out there somewhere who hated kickball.

Buzzscope: How would you define your art style? I have no vocabulary when it comes to art and described it once as “woodcut-style.” Help me out!

Joshua W. Cotter: Hatchy? Old-timey? The technique I use is called hatching, and I use some cross-hatching too, but as far as my style goes, what I do is still cartooning. I use hatching to create tone and value (rather than use Photoshop or a similar program), but if you take away the thousands of little chicken scratches, all you have left is your basic cartoon. When I was younger I was always fascinated by old-style illustrations and prints by the likes of John Tenniel, E.H. Shepard, etc. The possibility of creating value and energy just by marking a substrate repeatedly in some sort of tight pattern really appealed to me. It doesn’t do much for the health of one’s hands, but I like the end result.

Buzzscope: What’s next for SotM? How frequently will you be producing it?

Joshua W. Cotter: I hope to do a couple more Skyscrapers, maybe four in all for AdHouse, and then maybe move on to a different project. I’ve got a lot of ideas for things that wouldn’t work in a children’s world that I’m eager to get on paper. Chris would like to do one issue a year… and the way things are going that will probably be the most I’ll be able to produce. Creating comics is what I really enjoy doing, but right now I’m still at the ‘hobby’ level of things, and have to seek employment in the real world from time to time. I’m going to be teaching some illustration and design courses at a local university next year, so maybe I can get the students to help me with the next one for extra credit or something. Factory style.

Joshua W. Cotter says: “i was born in the late seventies to a math teacher and a secretary. i started drawing at an early age on the underside of the coffee table in the living room (star wars space battle scenes). i now live with my wife, anna, in a small town just east of kansas city where i scrape by as a freelance illustrator and cartoonist.” Check him out at

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