By Matt O’Keefe
There’s no one doing as pure a form of worldbuilding as indy fantasy comic Cartozia Tales. Not only does it have a map that it intends to explore every part of (unlike the majority of fantasy stories that leave most of their maps untouched), it has a rotating list of creators who take turns furthering the adventures of characters created by their peers. The world of the characters and Cartozia itself is expanded every issue with charming short stories by some very talented cartoonists. It fills a lot of voids in the mainstream comic book market today as a black-and-white fantasy that can be read by kids but doesn’t talk down to them. I interviewed the man running the show, Isaac Cates, to learn more about the inner workings of the fantastic, ambitious Cartozia Tales.
How did Cartozia Tales come together?
If you mean “where did the idea come from,” it was mostly developed from three sources:
1. An experimental world-building “jam” that I’d tried a few years earlier, using the same format where cartoonists move to a different part of the map in each issue. That was a really fun project, but it was sort of doomed because no one could give it priority.
2. A series of books that I really love, the Dungeon comics by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, that just always make me want to create a shared fantasy world every time I read them.
3. My sense that there aren’t nearly as many smart, engaging all-ages fantasy comics as there ought to be.
I figured that to make the “map-jam” idea work, to justify printing enough copies that I could afford to pay the contributors enough to get the stories off the back burner from time to time, we’d need a substantial audience — and kids (and grown-ups) who like magic and odd creatures are a pretty big audience of readers.
After I’d put those three things together in my head, I spent maybe a month trying to dissuade myself from doing it, because I knew it would involve a huge commitment of time from me. But I couldn’t let it go, because I kept thinking that it might turn out amazing. And, thank goodness, Cartozia Tales has been more awesome than I could have hoped.
How did you connect with the wonderful contributors to Cartozia Tales?
That’s actually a long and cool story. Gathering the group of core contributors — the people without which there would be no Cartozia Tales, because we’re inventing the world and its stories together — was sort of like the first act of Seven Samurai or Magnificent Seven. I recruited people I knew were good storytellers, with different but compatible drawing styles, most of whom hadn’t worked together before.
I’ve been friends with Sarah Becan for a long time, since meeting her and reading her comics at some SPX many years ago; I’ve known Shawn Cheng for even longer (he was a student of mine when he was in college, back in 2001); Mike Wenthe and I have been collaborating on comics for like thirteen years. Once they all said they wanted to do this thing, I was pretty sure I’d be able to gather a good group.
I’ve been exchanging weird formalist experimental comics with Tom Motley for almost as long as I’ve been making comics. Lupi McGinty and our secret eighth core cartoonist Caitlin Lehman are both people I met online during the “Animal Alphabet” Tumblr project, and they were both people that I really wanted to collaborate with based on what they’d done there. I knew Jen Vaughn from her CCS days (and from conventions). I tracked down Lucy Bellwood on someone else’s recommendation, and invited her in after reading a couple of her minicomics. And that completed the core group.
As for the guest artists and cover artists, it was mostly a matter of asking my most high-profile friends, like Dylan Horrocks and Jon Lewis, first — then letting their participation embolden me to ask people I don’t know quite as well. A lot of people said no, but a lot of other people were willing to pitch in, given that there’s a sort of mission for the project (smart comics for kids) and the page-count commitment isn’t very high.
It takes a lot of faith for someone to leave a character they created in another creator’s hands. Has that been hard for the writers and artists of this series, including yourself?
You know, I think we see it kind of the opposite way. I mean, we all have that faith in each other, I think, and mostly we are really eager to see what everyone else will do with our characters. I know I’ve been really blown away with the things the other cartoonists have done with Minnaig (the otter-girl) and Ibbacod (the heron-headed incantor), two characters that Mike Wenthe and I created together. I really love to see other cartoonists “recognize” or “get” the characters, and the other cartoonists help me understand the characters better.
Think of it like this: If you have cool toys, you want to share them with your friends. Maybe your toys are special to you, but if the person you’re sharing with is really your friend, then you have to trust them to play nice.
Can you walk me through the process of creating and sharing a character?
Here is the way we came up with Wick the Wind-Up man:
First, during the early planning stages for the first issue, Shawn Cheng suggested that there might be wind-up men in Cartozia:
Then I suggested that Mike Wenthe and I might use a wind-up man in among the characters we were including on the image that wound up on the back cover of the first issue. Some of the other characters in that image (Ottie the phibbit, Reshii, Blip, Lila, Tierce and Gandria) were from stories that we had already seen; we just needed a short creature to be in front.
These are my “thumbnails” (a doodle, really) for the image:
… and this is how the little wind-up man wound up looking in Mike’s completed inks, which I would color later.
Around the time we finished this image, Dylan Horrocks gave me an outline for his story in issue 1, which featured a wind-up man named Wick. Dylan didn’t have a design in mind for Wick yet, so I sent him the drawing Mike and I had done, and suggested he might do something like that.
That’s why Mike and Shawn get co-creator credits when Dylan introduces Wick in the first story, though Wick’s personality in that story is totally Dylan’s doing.
In the next issue, when Lupi McGinty drew Wick, she gave him what has become his signature catch-phrase, “Oh, Cogs!” …
Though it’s only in the moment when Kevin Cannon repeats the line that it really becomes a catchphrase:
… And a little later Mike and I added the detail that wind-up men, like some other robots, have storage compartments, though we don’t know yet what Wick is or isn’t carrying. (The drawing here is Caitlin Lehman from my thumbnails on a script Mike and I worked out together.)
Wick’s personality has been sort of gradually evolving as we’ve taken turns writing him, though most of it is in place when Dylan writes him: talky, oddly formal, willing to sacrifice everything for Taco (the servant girl who wound him up). I can guess now that he (and, probably, those other wind-up men) will have something to do with deposing Prince Malo and restoring the true prince of Neenorra to the throne, though of course when Dylan finished his first story there was no necessity that Wick and Taco would even appear again.
It’s a big part of the fun of working on this book: you add what you can to the creation of a character or a place or a story, then hand that work in progress to someone else who takes it a little farther, expands it a little more, makes it a little more complete.
I was talking to some people last week about the way Cartozia Tales gives you the same character drawn by a bunch of different hands, and I think it actually makes the character seem more real — as if there has to be some objective entity that all the different cartoonists are referring to, and you as reader are sort of triangulating the actual character through a series of versions.
You make it a goal to challenge kids instead of making content that’s easily digestible. I love that; the opposite seems like a big reason some all-ages comics don’t catch on.
Yeah. When I was a kid, I could always tell when a book or a show was simplified because it was pitched at kids, and it bothered me. I felt condescended to. I would always rather read something I don’t totally understand, instead of being pandered to, and I think a lot of kids enjoy the challenge of slightly complex reading.
At comics conventions, what I tell parents is that we use big words, but not bad words.
It’s actually pretty easy to tell interesting and compelling stories without getting into “adult” levels of violence or sexuality — you just have to make the stories about some other aspect of our emotional lives. Curiosity about the world, social acceptance, friendship, justice … none of those require gore or strong language or anything else a parent wouldn’t want to explain to his or her kids.
How wide-reaching was the Cartozia fanbase before the Kickstarter? After?
We had about a hundred subscribers before we launched the Kickstarter; now I think we have about five hundred, plus another hundred or so who have subscribed for PDF delivery.
That’s enough to keep us in the black for about one more issue, maybe two. But, fingers crossed, we’ll get enough new subscribers in the coming months to keep me from going into debt before we reach issue 10.
I didn’t realize this until preparing for this article because the release of Cartozia has seemed pretty dependable, but your original goal was to release all ten issues by September. Have you had any backlash for not being able to meet that goal?
There are like one or two backers who have complained, but I think everyone is still happy to get it at the pace we’ve been managing, which is about one book every two or three months. Some backers might like to get updates from me more often, but I bet there are even more who would prefer that I not fill their inbox with gradual updates.
When you gather up the first six issues, it’s definitely a good stack of reading (about 250 fairly dense pages). Plus there are the various bonus books. I was just at a convention, and people looking at the whole full table would ask me how long we’d been putting out Cartozia Tales; when I said “a little over a year,” they seemed pretty stunned.
What’s your audience like? Is there a lot of enthusiasm there?
I don’t get to see a lot of the audience in person, but I can tell you that the kids who subscribe are often seriously into the book, which is exactly what I had hoped. I mean, when I have met some of these kids they have just sort of gushed about their favorite characters, and the places on the map that we haven’t explored yet, and the things they’re wondering about upcoming issues.
Who’s your youngest reader? Oldest?
I know at least one five-year-old is really into it, because Mica Hendricks collaborated with her daughter on a really fun drawing of Minnaig and Wick for the back cover of issue 6.
I think we’ve got a lot of readers between ages seven and fifteen, but we’ve also got a lot of grown-up readers who are enjoying the book just as much. There are parents who read the book to kids who are too young to read; there are probably also some grandparents who enjoy the book on the same terms, but I haven’t heard from them yet.
Is there any one thing you want people to know about Cartozia other than the information that I’ll include in the opening paragraph?
One of the things I’m loving about it as the books grows is that Cartozia itself feels like a coherent world — full of strange things, as any fantasy world would be, but unified by tone and oddball imagination in a way I didn’t exactly anticipate. Everyone involved is imagining stuff in his or her own way, and there are a lot of different flavors of influence making up our world, but they all make sense together. Partly that’s because everyone is so generous about collaborating carefully with each other. It’s really like a shared world, and not like a world where each balkanized fiefdom runs by its own logic. I think it’s one of the most satisfying things about the experience of reading the book: you feel like you’re visiting someplace that’s personal and idiosyncratic, but it also belongs to a bunch of different people.
You can sample Cartozia comics and subscribe to the series at its online shop.