Isolation, Depression & Goo Monsters: Joshua Cotter on Nod Away

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Isolation, Depression & Goo Monsters: Joshua Cotter on Nod Away

It’s been eight years since Joshua Cotter published Skyscrapers of the Midwest, a sad and touching examination of childhood that’s also his last long-form fictional narrative. This Tuesday brings the first of his seven planned volumes of Nod Away, a complex and beautiful sci-fi epic. The book alternates between a narrative of scientists working on a space station to tweak a biologically wired “Innernet” and back to nearly wordless scenes of a man traveling by himself through the desert, toward an unclear goal. Dreamy, packed with interesting ideas and suffused with the same quiet-but-felt emotions as his debut, Nod Away fills a void that makes Cotter’s previous absence all the more evident. The cartoonist exchanged a series of emails with Paste discussing his ambitious new work (many spoilers ahead).

Paste: I’ve seen some of your thumbnails for page/panel layout, and the level of detail freaks me out. How much did you have ready going into this story? In other words: you seem like a planner. Talk to me about that.
Joshua Cotter: I started organizing notes and writing Nod Away after completing the collected Skyscrapers in 2008. I wrote for a couple years, got derailed for a couple more, and then once I got back on track in 2012, I wrote for another year or so before I started drawing anything. Initially it was just pulling together all of these disparate ideas I had while working on Skyscrapers and figuring out what direction I wanted to go in. Once a story started to form I did a lot of writing and rewriting, then dialogue writing and rewriting, and then thumbnails and a few character sketches. Before I actually started drawing volume one I’d say I planned for four years or so. At seven volumes, it’s going to be a large book, so I wanted to make sure I had all of the plot points and a satisfactory ending in place before I got started. So, yes. I’m a planner.

Nod Away Cover Art by Joshua Cotter

Paste: I know that you put up some of this book online serially, at Study Group Comics, but a big chunk of it is also new to the print format. Why split it? What parts are new? Did you draw everything sequentially and then parse out what went up online, or did you go back and add things? Did the comments affect anything about the story?
Cotter: When Zack Soto approached me about posting on Study Group, I wasn’t sure what to give them. I’m not much of an “online comics” person (nothing against online comics, I just don’t read much online personally). The final object means a lot more to me. I guess I decided on thinking of the Study Group posts as a “preview,” of sorts.

There are two stories in Nod Away, and since I was already working on the first story when I started talking with Zack, I decided to post those pages and see where things went from there. I ended up letting the first story run online until the last dozen pages or so, as not to ruin the ending for readers of the physical copy. I didn’t draw volume one sequentially; I wanted the different sections (the space station story, the desert story and the abstract sequences) to each have their own distinct feel so I worked on them at separate times. I try not to pay much attention to the comments section. I appreciate having an audience for my work, but if you pay too much attention to it, feedback (whether positive or negative) can become overwhelming and end up negatively affecting your output.

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Nod Away Interior Art by Joshua Cotter

Paste: Can you talk to me a little about your drawing process and the media you use? Is it a super-dumb question to ask if you really use blue pencils [because of the cover design of the book]?
Cotter: I do use blue line. I don’t think that’s super-dumb at all. I use it because when it comes time to clean up my pages in Photoshop, I don’t have to spend an hour on each page digitally removing all of the graphite marks I couldn’t get rid of while erasing. With blue line I don’t have to erase at all. I just scan the pages in as full color and drop the blues out, if that’s something readers want to hear. Anyway, I draw on 9” x 12” Strathmore 400 series smooth surface bristol using blue lead in a .5mm Alvin Draft/Matic, and then ink with Tachikawa T-77s and T-99s nibs. I pencil each section in its entirety before I start inking in case I need to go back and add anything or make any changes.

After using blue line for a while I started to like how it looked aesthetically, and decided to use it for the cover illustrations. I feel it has an ethereal quality to it.

Paste: What about character design, which I see as a real strength of yours, especially with this book?
Cotter: Thanks for saying so. I put a lot more thought into character design in this one. Skyscrapers was just a bunch of geometric, round-headed cat people and I wanted to move past that. I tried to keep in mind that I wanted the characters to be recognizable in a silhouette test. Sometimes the characters came to mind fully formed (Melody, Dr. Serious). Sometimes, if I had difficulty coming up with a character’s look, I’d try to think of who from real life I’d like to “play” that character (in a movie or whatever) and loosely base their physical characteristics on that person (Iota, Black Angus).

Paste: So is that Mike Dawson making a cameo in the book?
Cotter: Yeah, that’s Mike. Also an attempt at Jim Rugg as the Unipol cop. I have to populate the world, so I figure I may as well use friends. Even if I’m not very good with likeness.

Paste: Are you a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan or what?
Cotter: No. I think Lovecraft had some good ideas, but I personally don’t care for his writing. His overuse of the adjective “hideous” drives me nuts, and he rarely helps the reader understand whatever he happens to be presenting as “hideous”… He builds up to it in the story and then steps back with a “it was far too hideous to describe, so I’ll move on.” I’m sure it was to leave it up to the imagination of his readers, but it doesn’t work for me. I also take issue with his racism. But I digress. People love Lovecraft. To each his own.

While there is a creature in volume one that emerges from a portal, I did not have Lovecraft in mind when I wrote that part. There is a story behind its emergence that will be revealed in a later volume. The only [Alan] Moore I’ve read is Watchmen. The influence would probably be the any number of movies where things go horribly wrong, usually due to the human element.

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Nod Away Interior Art by Joshua Cotter

Paste: There’s this kind of creeping horror at work in the book that seems to be at least a mini-trend in indie comics (Josh Simmons, Jesse Jacobs, Emily Carroll). Any theories as to why? Did you all grow up watching Tales from the Crypt?
Cotter: I can’t speak for other indie cartoonists, but I would theorize that it’s the underlying horror that I sense in day-to-day life. The ubiquity of negativity. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. It’s pretty evident that something is wrong in our country, with the steady rise of gun violence. Violence in general, the hatred and anger. Maybe it’s partially due to the intentional divisiveness created by people in positions of power. Attempting to eliminate gray areas, politically, culturally. This versus that. Anyway, I think sometimes it would be easier if whatever it is I’m sensing would manifest physically instead of remaining so ambiguous. A flesh creature emerging from a gate, all consuming.

Paste: Do you think it’s really that things have gotten worse in the world? Or does it just feel like it? The latter is certainly true. Maybe it’s just a narrow frame of reference. If you compare how life is now to life in the 19th century, life expectancy is higher, murder rates are lower, there’s a lot more food, etc. Or is it that things seem to be moving in the wrong direction (climate change being the biggest example)?
Cotter: I don’t think things have gotten worse, but I do believe the internet makes it seem that way. You’re right, we’re doing a lot better than we were a century ago. Horrible things have always happened, it’s just that now it can all be filmed with a phone and posted on Facebook or Twitter… There’s an unprecedented immediacy to it.

We need to be confronted with difficult issues, race issues, gender inequality, the violence inherent in our makeup as a species. We have a tendency to want to keep our heads in the sand, but now we’re being forced to face and acknowledge the wrong we’re capable of inflicting on one another, over and over again. It’ll take some getting used to, but ultimately it’s a good thing. We need to face this stuff. We need to do better. It’s just going to take a while for our minds to figure out a way to process it, and then hopefully we can start properly righting our wrongs, instead of just arguing about it.

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Nod Away Interior Art by Joshua Cotter

Paste: This book seems specifically interested in intersections of biology and technology, both visually (bundles of cables = bundles of nerves/muscle fibers or maybe intestines?) and thematically (horrible goo monster coming through the space gate; Eva being the basis for the Innernet). Yes? No?
Cotter: Yes. Analogies drawn between flesh and machine. I was rewatching some Cronenberg recently and it occurred to me what an influence his work has had on me. There’s even an upcoming plot point that I unconsciously swiped from Scanners. But, yes. Biology and technology. More accurately, humans and technology. And consciousness.

I’m not a neo-luddite or anything, I find our relationship with technology to be an endless source of fascination. What’s most interesting to me is that although most of us now have nearly all of mankind’s collective knowledge at our disposal, we still can’t figure out how to do much good with it. We spend hours on social media getting into passionate arguments over daily minutia. We’re in direct physical proximity to each other on sidewalks, trains, family dinners, etc. and we almost always fail (or refuse) to acknowledge the presence of one another, opting instead for, say, texting a friend to make plans so we can meet up and proceed to ignore one another in favor of texting the people we were just in the same room with. I’m hoping we’re behaving this way because it’s all so relatively new. Like infants suddenly in the face of abstract existence, a sensory overload we don’t know how to properly process it yet.

Paste: Is it weird that I’m surprised you’re on Twitter?
Cotter: It’s weird that I’m on Twitter. I basically got on there to follow a couple of friends and occasionally talk about Debbie Gibson and other important topics.

Paste: It seems to me that the experience of reading the book, trying to put together all its pieces of incomplete information, is not dissimilar to what looking for something on the Internet feels like. Like that old story about the blind men trying to describe the elephant. There might be a more definitive reality out there, but our perception of it is like the tangles that trail off your panels near the end of the book. I guess Plato had stuff to say about that too.
Cotter: That’s pretty perceptive. A big theme of the series will concern our inability to see the “big picture.” No matter how much we try, the human mind is just far too limited to comprehend what’s really going on. Limits in perception, limits in ability to process. Intellectual limitations. It’s frustrating to think we’ll never get to a point of total comprehension, at least in our lifetime. But it’s still fun to posit. The story will be told in a non-linear fashion, and while each volume will present bits and pieces of the story, my intention is to have a cohesive whole by the time the reader reaches the end. Maybe that’s how it is in real life… Individually we don’t have the answers, but if you were able to step back and observe what all sentient beings know and experience and were able to process such a large quantity of information, you’d finally get it. But probably not.

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Nod Away Interior Art by Joshua Cotter

Paste: Our scientist characters, who you’d think are supposed to be more objective and reality-based, seem to spend a really large chunk of their time in altered states: drunk, high, sleep-deprived. Is that just a way of introducing fuzziness or is it something else?
Cotter: It’s just a way of portraying them as human, I suppose. My guess is if you were cooped up on a space station for months or years on end, the desire to escape would eventually come into play. Escapism is a big part of the human experience, evident in our love of movies, books, alcohol and drug consumption, the aforementioned smart phone. While the scientists in the current ISS probably aren’t getting liquored up on a daily basis, I’m sure the thought crosses their minds every now and then. I decided to give the scientists in ISS 2 access to the stuff. You end up with something like a college dorm.

Paste: Have you written all seven volumes yet? How much does your arm hurt?
Cotter: An analogy I’ve been using is if you think of the series as a connect-the-dots drawing, I know where all of the dots are. Since I knew I would be spending a good chunk of my life working on this, I wanted to make sure the story was heading somewhere, and that it would hold together in the end, but I wanted to leave room for changes in the story here and there if anything occurred to me along the way. I also took my tendency to get bored working on one project for too long into consideration, so each volume will feature a different protagonist, each telling the story from a different time and perspective, with varying degrees of perception.

My arm is okay, but my back is a mess.

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Nod Away Interior Art by Joshua Cotter

Paste: Why do you live in rural Missouri? Do you feel like your environment affects your comics?
Cotter: My wife and I lived in Chicago for a few years and it was getting to the point where I wasn’t able to accomplish much with comics. I had to work a full time job to pay for my apartment, and comics had to be done in whatever spare time I could find. I was getting older and found I had less and less energy for both work and comics, so I reprioritized. I grew up in northwest Missouri and knew it was a place where we could afford to be artists full time, so we moved back, built a house on some family land and got back to work. My environment can affect my comics in a number of ways. The best effect currently would be that I was able to finish a 240-page book in two and a half years versus the five-plus it would have taken me in Chicago. Also, like with Skyscrapers, parts of future volumes of Nod Away will take place in northwest Missouri, so I’ll be able to draw inspiration from my surroundings, rather than the photo reference I’ve had to use in the past.

Paste: I know you’ve talked/written a fair bit about how depression shapes your work. It seems like there’s a real effort toward mindfulness that comes through in your work, like in the way you carefully draw and shade each rock in the desert landscapes, as opposed to the hyper-ruminative thinking that’s often characteristic of depression and the scattered thought process the Internet encourages. But maybe I’m reading too much into it.
Cotter: If depression has given me anything positive in my life, it’s perspective. When you’ve hit the absolute bottom emotionally and mentally, there are only two ways you can go. I’m fortunate that even at my lowest, I’ve always somehow kept in touch with the will to live. Barely, at times, but still in touch. That will keeps you looking up from the depths of depression and, through contrast, helps you to develop a better understanding of the essence of life. It helps you to eventually work your way back out and communicate to others that life isn’t just the pursuit of happiness, but the whole range; beauty, ugliness, wonder, violence, mundane moments and objects…it all comes together to create the human experience as a whole. I feel I have a responsibility as an artist to impart the experience unique to the depressive, to carefully shade each rock and communicate the vital qualities that seemingly meaningless objects hold to the reader, because it’s all part of the whole. Life is fragile and fleeting. I just want to do the best I’m capable of while I’m here.

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Nod Away Interior Art by Joshua Cotter

Paste: Despite the feeling that the whole book is going to end in disaster, there are moments of levity, like with the characters’ names (Okonomi Yaki, Lance Iota), which play around with language. Can you just not help yourself with puns? Is this a Pynchon influence creeping in? Does it just need lightening up?
Cotter: I really don’t like naming characters, for whatever reason. Besides Nova Stealth, Skinny Kenny and a couple others in Skyscrapers, this is the first time I’ve really felt the need to christen them. I decided it was necessary since it’s going to be a long book. I figured I may as well have fun with it so I turned to the alliteratives and puns common in comics. And, yeah, the series is going to get pretty dark at times, so I felt a little levity couldn’t hurt.

Paste: The title: You never explicitly discuss it within the confines of at least this first volume. Sleep and space are two themes that are often intertwined. Why do you think that is, and how did you intend the title to be taken?
Cotter: The meaning of the title of the series is something I’d rather not define. I have my own reasons for naming it Nod Away, but I don’t want to take away from any individual interpretation. It does, in part, allude to what happens at the end of the first volume, but eventually will come to have other meanings as well. I feel that if the author says, “this is what this means,” it will come across as the final word on the topic and ultimately alter the reader’s overall experience. Part of the fun is trying to get the audience to meet you halfway.

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