By Laurel Maury
June 8, 2008
Joshua W. Cotter
AdHouse Books: 282 pp., $19.95
"Skyscrapers of the Midwest," long awaited by fans on the indie comic circuit, is a collection of floppies (comic-speak for comic books) that Joshua W. Cotter eked out over several years.
Many of these stories are vignettes, some of one or two pages, such as a wordless sequence in which a robot lands its space ship, then declares its love for a rabbit and a flower. A nuclear bomb explodes in the distance and the robot leaves. The episodic nature of the stories and the repeated images -- farms, robots from a boy's dreams, the death of his favorite cat (and the reincarnation of her kittens as jet-pack-wearing angels), the cicada that may be sin or a migraine, and the boy imagining himself as a cat, a robot and a skeleton -- are mesmerizing. They create the spots of time for remembering a childhood that Wordsworth so prized. This mixture of dream and reality, kinder than Annie Proulx, with more faith in the universe than the excellent Jeff Lemire (author of the "Essex County" graphic novels), is a small masterpiece.
Many lonely young people turned to comics in the 1970s and '80s, not only for the stories, but also for the crazy, addlepated ads in the back: horoscopes, gag gifts and strange advice on nutrition. Cotter re-creates these on his own terms. An odd repeated image, something like a sperm or amoeba, is defined only once -- in an old, comic book-style chart of merit badges -- yet it's the key to understanding a grandmother, who may be only a ghost.
Kevin, the protagonist, is a fat boy in glasses who escapes into fantasy. As the robot, he imagines himself at the center of an alternate creation myth that begins with a lantern and ends with Kevin being thrown into his Middle American farmland existence. In one eerie scene, Kevin, re-imagined as the robot writ bedraggled and small, is visited by the solemn kitten angels. "Do not resist," they say. "This is for your better good. A life unseen is without purpose. Of no significance."
One of the beauties of this book is the way it mixes a humanist approach to childhood with Christian fundamentalism. When Kevin accepts Jesus as his savior and is submerged in a baptism, he meets his fears in the form of monsters resembling a discarded toy. "Lying to Christ!! Just doing it because his friends are," they bellow. Literary types often see conservative Christians as monolithic and single-minded, but how could they be? -- it's a view without breadth. Cotter's book is utterly gracious to all. It abandons reality in favor of truth, and the effect is cosmic. *
Laurel Maury is a New York-based writer and critic.
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