In 2010, Joshua Cotter’s apartment caught fire after his downstairs neighbors accidentally set theirs ablaze.
Lacking a permanent home in the expensive metropolis of Chicago, the cartoonist decided to move back to the rural part of northwestern Missouri where he grew up.
He’d build a house, save up some money and eventually resume his big-city career. Then Cotter learned his wife, Momoko Usami, was pregnant. So the two settled into a stable, small-town routine in Barnard, Mo., 70 miles north of Kansas City.
The move also provided the opportunity to work unencumbered for years perfecting his latest graphic novel.
The result is “Nod Away,” Cotter’s acclaimed new sci-fi epic that represents his first publication since 2009. The book made New York magazine’s list of “The Best Comics of 2016 (So Far).” Paste Magazine describes it as “dreamy, packed with interesting ideas and suffused with the same quiet-but-felt emotions as his debut.”
The 240-page tome, published by Seattle’s Fantagraphics, marks his first piece in a planned seven-volume series.
“Creating comics is all I think about, beyond family and basic survival,” Cotter says. “Passion is one way to say it; compulsion is another.”
Set in the near future, “Nod Away” intertwines the crew of a deep-space transport, a telepathic version of the internet called “innernet” and a silent man journeying through the desert. How all this connects remains up to one’s interpretation.
“I don’t like to spoon-feed the reader,” says Cotter, who appears as a featured guest at this weekend’s Kansas City Comic Con. “Anything I read or watch that appeals to me the most is the work that makes the reader meet the author or director halfway. The reason I like (Stanley) Kubrick, for example, is he doesn’t explain everything. He doesn’t say, ‘This is happening. Now this is happening.’ ‘Nod Away’ draws the reader into the world and makes them become a part of it.”
The 38-year-old artist first seized on the idea for the project after perusing an article examining how scientists might transfer human consciousness — whatever the “self” is — into an external hard drive.
“I thought if that were possible, it would be equitable to binary data. It’s playing with the idea that we are all organic hard drives,” he says. “Even though we have yet to discover what consciousness really is, the concept is me positing my own suggestion what it could be.”
So what would be the advantage of this technical development for society?
“I don’t think it would benefit society. I think it’s the search for immortality,” he says. “We all have difficulty accepting the fact that our bodies are mortal.”
As he proved in his 2008 breakthrough “Skyscrapers of the Midwest” — a chronicle of dismal childhoods juxtaposed with buoyant fantasies that was actually adapted into a stage play — Cotter leaves a lot of the work up to the reader. His detailed, enigmatic drawings perfectly complement his byzantine, thought-provoking narratives.
Obviously, this is all building toward something …
“A lot of the ambiguity that accompanies the first volume of ‘Nod Away’ is due to the fact there is so much left to go,” he says.
Despite his cerebral subject material and rather sequestered lifestyle, Cotter very much enjoys interacting with fans. That’s why he’s looking forward to this year’s Kansas City Comic Con — especially since he has new material to discuss.
“With any con, particularly when you’re a smaller name, it’s important to maintain a presence with your readers. To make some kind of physical connection with them. To talk with them behind a table. The reader really appreciates that,” Cotter says.
He explains word of mouth is vital when it comes to surviving in the industry.
“The thing with comics is there’s not a lot of money or marketing behind it,” he says. “You have to do a lot of the legwork yourself. Conventions are the best way to do that.”
Cotter says that with every show he attends, there are people who just happen by and discover his work by chance.
“Josh is something of a cartoonist’s cartoonist; his talent is self-evident to anyone who understands how difficult comics are to make,” says Eric Reynolds, an associate publisher at Fantagraphics.
“His writing is heartfelt, rich with ideas and imagination, and he’s a natural-born storyteller and world-builder. His cartooning is in perfect harmony with his vision. … He’s the real deal — I think he can’t not tell stories through comics.”
Born in Maryville, Mo., Cotter had little exposure to comics growing up. But he was fascinated with the exaggerated graphics in Mad Magazine and the bracketed engravings that embellished his copy of “Alice in Wonderland.”
He attended the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in commercial art and illustration. After establishing himself in the KC scene (including a weekly strip in The Kansas City Star), he eventually taught the craft as an adjunct at his alma mater.
“I get a lot of comparisons to Robert Crumb or Tony Millionaire,” Cotter says. “I think that’s also because those are the ones who do crosshatching that people are familiar with. While I like and admire both artists, they aren’t necessarily my primary influences.”
Instead, he cites artists such as Jack Davis, Will Elder and Basil Wolverton as inspirations.
In 2006, he headed to Chicago. While employed at Lillstreet Art Center, he met Usami, a native of Kobe, Japan. The talented ceramicist had recently become the resident artist there, and the two worked in the venue’s gallery.
“One of the reasons my wife and I moved back is we could afford to have a house and live off what little we do make from our art,” he says of their 2010 return to Barnard.
In addition to his graphic novels, Cotter sells pages and other original artwork to supplement his income. Usami markets her “whimsical, functional and sculptural ceramics.”
They’re also the parents of two young children being raised bilingually. Cotter admits he can understand some Japanese but considers himself missing “the correct wiring or capacity for language” to speak it fluently.
“We live modestly, but we’re happy,” he says. “We’re living the artist’s dream.”
Cotter says he’s about 20 pages into inking and a third of the way penciling the second volume of “Nod Away.” He expects the entire project to run 1,800 pages when finished.
“Making comics is not only something I’m passionate about, it fulfills me as a person,” Cotter says. “Without it, I’m kind of directionless in life. If I didn’t have comics, I really don’t know what I’d do.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Kansas City’s “hometown comic convention” promises three days of all-ages entertainment, showcasing celebrities, creators, vendors, panels and cosplay. An after-party concert featuring MC Chris takes place Saturday night at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland.
The roster of media guests includes:
▪ Carrie Henn (“Aliens”)
▪ Brian Herring (“Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens”)
▪ Jeremy Howard (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows”)
▪ Margaret Kerry (artist model for Tinker Bell)
▪ Nichelle Nichols (“Star Trek”)
▪ Fred Ottman (WWE legend aka Tugboat and Typhoon)
▪ John Schneider (“The Dukes of Hazzard”)
▪ Peter Shinkoda (“Daredevil”)
▪ Ksenia Solo (“Orphan Black”) — Saturday and Sunday only
▪ Aaron Stanford (“X-Men 2”)
▪ Billy Dee Williams (“The Empire Strikes Back”)
▪ Fred Williamson (“From Dusk Till Dawn”)
▪ Tom Wopat (“The Dukes of Hazzard”)
Dozens of other comic creators, artists, writers and more will attend.
The event runs 1-7 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday at Bartle Hall, 301 W. 13th St. Tickets are $60 for a three-day pass; $25 for Friday only; $35 for Saturday only; $30 for Sunday only; ages 11-16 are $20 for a three-day pass; ages 10 and younger are free. For more info, go to KansasCity-ComicCon.com.