Isaac Cates: Can Cartozia be the next fantasy Harry Potter?

A comics interview article by: Keith Silva

In a better world, Cartozia Tales would be the next Harry Potter. It's a fantasy comic that welcomes readers of all ages, and features cartoonists with wide-ranging styles and imaginations. It's a killer-app kind of idea, but right now its life depends on it finding a few hundred more readers in a matter of weeks. 

If you've ever built a pillow fort, tied a towel around your neck for a cape, or played out dramas and comedies in worlds of your own imagining, you are quite welcome in Cartozia.

Cartozia Tales' architect and editor, Isaac Cates, assembles a dream team of indie comic book creators, the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees: cartoonists who graft whimsy with adventure to create characters you want to be and places you'll want to live, except maybe Upside-Town. 

Cates wants to empower readers to imagine far beyond licensed properties, to go on adventures themselves, to get inspiration and draw from what the talented women and men behind this book have begun to imagine.

Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: What is Cartozia Tales?

Isaac Cates: Cartozia Tales is an all-ages fantasy anthology, with nine short stories and a few extras in every issue, where everything is set in the same world. There's a regular crew of contributors who appear in every issue, but we move around on the map, taking sector or areas more or less at random, and share characters and settings as the map allows us to. The world of Cartozia is gradually being invented or discovered or described by the cartoonists (and our guest artists) as we work on it, and as the stories unfold.

The idea for Cartozia Tales sort of coalesced around a few observations: one, that I didn't have time to make long comics by myself, but I could reliably draw a few panels a week if I put in some late nights, and if I could find more people who had that much time available, I could maybe assemble an anthology that came out on a regular basis; two, that there was a need, in the market, for engaging and original kids' comics; three, that Kickstarter and a subscription model could generate enough money up front to pay the artists for their contributions, allowing them to work on the book without losing money. (When a freelancer draws a comic without getting paid, he or she is losing money that could be earned doing other work.)  Those all sound like pretty dry ingredients for inspiration, but as soon as I started thinking about putting a team together I found the idea had its hooks into me. 

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CB: Maps and cartography are central to the (ahem) geography of the first issue of Cartozia Tales. How do maps and mapping inform this series?  

Cates: One of the things that spurred Cartozia Tales is an essay Dylan Horrocks wrote more than ten years ago that's about narrative and games and video games and role playing games and comics and a bunch of other things, it's called The Perfect Planet. When you read through a Dungeons & Dragons module you're reading about a whole bunch of potential narratives that might happen in this space. If you were to set a novel in that same space only one of those potential narratives could happen. Maps have this interesting quality of representing more narrative potential than can be realized in a novel. It's something I try to talk about inside front cover of the first issue. If you read a novel, you're just following one line across the map. You're following one set of characters as they move from one place to another and you see that part of the world that they see, but if you have a map in front of you, you've got an infinite amount of terrain. Every possible turn could lead you in a slightly different direction.

At some point when I was in graduate school I started thinking about how could you still work in a narrative form, in a storytelling form, but get more of that world-building density. One way to do it would be to have stories running in parallel (like in an anthology) and have characters who may or may not have their destinies intersect with each other, but who all live under the same sun and under the same rules of magic and with the same large-scale or world-shaking events.

CB: Did you ever consider writing and drawing Cartozia Tales on your own or working with only one or two other artists/collaborators? 

Cates: I've always been interested in collaboration among cartoonists. Maybe it's because I did a lot of theater in high school and college, or maybe it's because I have this long-standing interest in games that ask the players to imagine a world together. Or maybe it's just because I was really aware of my shortcomings as an artist when I started drawing comics, and I could see that I'd make better work if I were working with someone else.

It never would have occurred to me to do this with a single artist. For starters, if I were going to do this with a single artist it would be me. I'm drawing some of the stories in the book, or participating in the drawing. It's actually me and my buddy Mike [Wenthe] as a team, but the way we collaborate it's not like I'm the writer and he's the penciler or something like that.

Part of the idea is getting multiple cartoonists's perspectives and multiple cartoonists's styles and multiple cartoonists's preoccupations to play out. So the things that interest me and Mike are different from the things that interest Jen [Vaughn] or interest Lucy [Bellwood], but the idea is that all those things are at play in the world and in fact all those things are at play in the characters individual stories. For example, Sylvia is a character (created by Jen) who spends time dealing with the kinds of problems Jen would throw at her. Right after that, she gets the kind of problems Mike and I would throw at her.

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CB: How did you come up with this shared approach?

IC: In a way it's like exquisite corpse. [Silva: I'm not familiar with that] It started off as a drawing game, but a lot of people play it as a writing game. As a drawing game, one artist would draw the head of some kind of creature or person, character and then fold the paper so all you could see was the lines of the neck coming down and the next person would draw a torso, but leave off at the waist so you would get this hodgepodge pastiche, who knows what it is, right? Our page passing or chapter passing is done in the light of day that makes for much better stories, maybe a little less fun, especially as we get toward the end and have to draw these stories to conclusions, but it's much more deliberate than something like exquisite corpse. We really are trying to see what's the natural direction of the story. Sometimes we do it by talking to our collaborators about what they've been up to or what they're thinking and sometimes we do it by trying to read carefully.

CB: It seems like you want this to be more than a comic book; like you're making a deliberate effort to create a sort of low-tech interactive game as well, Am I on the right track?

IC: Yeah! I want it to be low-tech and interactive. There's a feature on the inside back cover of the first issue where we've got a couple of weird creatures, magical creatures that the narrator character, Shreya, is pointing out and in the last panel of the strip she says, ''and this is the weirdest thing I've ever seen'' and it's blank. The idea is that you draw in that space, scan it and send it to us and we're going to build a little fan art gallery on the website. I love that kind of thing. Letters pages are one of my favorite things in comic books. As it turns out there's like three stories in the second issue that involve this creature called a 'Mask Bear,' which is more or less what it sounds like. Each one of these bears builds its own mask (somehow) and the masks are enchanted. Mask Bears prefer not to socialize with people and in some parts of the map they're genuinely hostile. If you find a Mask Bear mask you don't know what it will do until you put it on. In the second issue, I drew instructions for making your own Mask Bear mask and what you need in order to make one. Part of the aesthetic here is no two Mask Bear masks are alike [in Cartozia] and each mask someone creates will be unique as well. You play at making stuff.

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CB: Where does this maker mentality come from?

IC: I think I'm thinking about the things I would have found fun when I as a kid. I grew up in the '70s, born in '71 and we did not have, at least in my house, a lot of programmed fun. There were not a lot of hours when you could watch TV because most of TV wasn't for kids. We did not have video games yet. So I spent a lot of time reading and my siblings and I spent a lot of time making crafts and going on weird adventures. We had a whole room of our house that was devoted to scissors and construction paper and glue and random little things you could stick together to make a toy or whatever and it was always a huge mess. I like the idea of building your own fun and I also like the idea of kids engaging with a story beyond just the events of the story. Kids don't love Greek mythology because they love the individual stories. They love the idea of a world where there is a Cyclopes and a Medusa and Pegasus and the Kraken and all this other stuff. And imagining what might happen around this corner or that corner. That's the kind of thing we're trying to do: make a world that feels rich enough that you know there's stuff that's not being told to you even though you can follow the stories.

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CB: There seems to be a void nowadays for original all-ages comic books. Is Cartozia Tales an effort to fill that gap?

IC: Over the course of our reading lives, the target readership for superhero comics has gone through a drastic demographic shift in that it has stayed the same. The people who were reading comics when you and I were ten-years-old are the same people who are reading comics now and the new ten-year-olds are not (mostly) the people DC and Marvel are trying to sell to. I read Jack Kirby's Kamandi when I was eight or nine years old and those comics really burned themselves into my brain I read them so much. That formed my idea of what normal comics were supposed to be like. I don't think Kirby was writing for kids, but he was writing in a way that no adult would find objectionable if a kid picked it up. It was only in retrospect, looking at those comics as an adult, that I realized there are some saucy things in those comics.

Our approach in Cartozia Tales is we try to tell stories that people will find engaging. It's actually not hard to pitch a story at all ages as long as you're not overly concerned about keeping things below a certain reading level. We try to create characters that have interesting and complex motivations and backstories. We try to put them into situations where they have to do something difficult or where they're trying to achieve something that they may not be able to achieve. We create a world that's full of interesting wrinkles and has things that you don't fully understand until they're explained to you later. I think the cartoonists who are making Cartozia Tales respond to this kind of storytelling. We can also tell these kinds of stories without anybody's arm getting ripped off or have to have blood spurting out all over.

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CB: What sort of feedback are you getting from older readers about Cartozia Tales?

IC: I heard some very good anecdotal stuff about kids getting engaged with the first issue, but some of the most positive stuff I've heard so far is from other cartoonists and from adults who have read it and said, 'this is really great!' I'm hoping the stuff that appeals to the kids in terms of narrative and in terms of world-building also appeals to adults and not in a weird nostalgia for the-stories-I-loved-as-a-kid kind of way. If you tell a story that's got the right kind of motivation and crisis and complexity of character, kids are going to respond to it. If you tell a story with a certain amount of resonance and a certain amount of thought in terms of the themes that are at play, adults will respond to it in a slightly different way. I don't think of Cartozia Tales as a 'kid's comic.' I think of it as a comic that's designed to be good in kid's hands, it's a subtle distinction, but it's what I believe Cartozia Tales is about.

CB: Why did you decide to produce Cartozia Tales using Kickstarter?

IC: I don't think I could have afforded to bring Cartozia Tales out without having some kind of event where I really try to gather up hundreds of readers. Before we went up on Kickstarter, we had a little bit fewer than one hundred subscribers already and that was enough to pay the artist's fees, but not enough to pay the press. If I were doing this under standard pre-Kickstarter business models, I would have to invest ten or fifteen thousand dollars and then hope by the time we got to the tenth issue there were some people who were willing to pick up not just the most recent books, but buy the back issues I’d already paid for and that feels more risky, to me, than putting it up on Kickstarter because I would have to invest money whether or not I had readers. I want this to be a book. I like the physical book. I care about the paper stock we're using. I really feel like there are things about having the physical book in your hands and feeling the weight of it and feeling the texture of the paper that change the way you receive it. When I was little what I wanted was a book in my hands, you know?

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CB: Is Cartozia Tales something that could only work as a grass-roots, indie, DIY kind of way?

IC: That hadn't really occurred to me, but in a way you're right. The cartoonists I spend time with are all indie cartoonists. If you're talking about the kind of people that aspire to do the kind of work that First Second or Drawn and Quarterly or Fantagraphics publishes; the path to publication in that field right now starts with this do-it-yourself, take it to Kinkos and staple it kind of exercise. I don't think I would have had the idea to do this as a comic if I hadn't known a lot of people in the indie comics community. I'm working with a press, so, I'm paying somebody else to fold and staple it and I'm starting to deal with some of the larger concerns of shipping, but it still feels handmade. Part of the reason why Cartozia Tales feels that way is because everybody involved with it is used to making these handmade things. It relies on that attitude that 'if there's a comic you want to see in the world and it doesn't exist, you should make it.' And that really does motivate 95% of the people who go to Small Press Expo or Autoptic or MoCCA and exhibit their work. The thing that's driving them is 'I want to make these things' and the way to make them is to take them down to the Xerox place and put a staple in them or to upload them to tumbler and call it a webcomic. Cartozia Tales totally does depend on an indie mindset.

In a Zork-like fashion: Would you like to visit Cartozia? Or would you like to pay a visit to Cartozia Tales campaign on Kickstarter?

Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin. And yes he has worn a beach towel as a cape. There's this: @keithpmsilva and also this: Interested in Sophisticated Fun?

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