Why? What is it that got my off my duff and into the game?
Well, Cartozia Tales is very cool comic. In fact it’s a comic jammed full of different comics, brought to you by a crew of diverse yet like-minded cartoonists who together are bent on creating a shared fantasy world, Cartozia, to set all of their stories in. Actually, they’re bent on creating the stories collaboratively too: starting stories for each other to carry on, and carrying on stories started by each other. These cartoonists are designing characters for one another, launching quests for one another, and resolving cliffhangers for one another. In other words, Cartozia Tales is a genuine collaboration at every level. The result is a story-world populated by sweet and interesting characters, funky flora and fauna, enticingly weird locales, and odd, brain-tickling concepts—an all-around imaginative playground.
To be precise, Cartozia Tales is a brand-new, ongoing fantasy comic book for all ages, scheduled to come out every month and a half or so, edited and published by cartoonist and teacher Isaac Cates and featuring a core crew of eight contributors plus at least two guest artists in each issue. Cartozia is a jointly created world only now in the process of being dreamed up collaboratively by all the artists, according to a particular set of rules: each issue scatters the artists to different parts of the Cartozia world map, there either to carry on adventures launched by other artists in previous issues and/or add something new to that part of the world. Cates and company have divided Cartozia into a tic-tac-toe grid, and each issue finds the creators moved to a new part of the grid. While working with characters, locales, and concepts established by their colleagues, each creator or creative team gets to tell its own story or chapter, typically 4 pages in length, and gets to leave a fresh set of challenges for whoever comes after them in that spot.
Basically, Cartozia Tales is a comic, a high fantasy, and a game all at once. It’s like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign made up of endlessly shuffling modules in different locales—and it’s just as open to player input, just as unpredictable, and just as interactive as a good D&D game played by a bunch of friends. It’s a bit like a version of the old game Consequences, or what the Surrealists liked to call (it’s an off-putting name, but no worries) an exquisite corpse: a round-robin process of creation in which stories or images are passed from hand to hand and completed in a spirit of playful competition and challenge, according to each individual player’s imagination and sense of mischief. However, unlike players in an exquisite corpse, the collaborators in Cartozia Tales will be carefully reading and deliberately building on their predecessors’ work.
Cartozia’s website bills the series as an indy comics anthology, an all-ages magazine, and a shared fantasy world. That sounds right on all counts. Mastermind Isaac Cates is a dab hand at this kind of rule-governed but playful collaborative project: he and his longtime friend and colleague Mike Wenthe, along with occasional guest artists, have produced eight issues to date of a minicomic series with the laughably understated title Satisfactory Comics (2001-), each issue of which looks and feels different, and many of which are based on specific rules or “constraints” designed to up the level of challenge and force creative problem-solving. Isaac and Mike’s work consciously focuses on the themes of collaboration, joint authorship, constraint-based creativity, and the happy surprises that can come from creating together and ceding parts of the creative process to others. You’ve heard of creative teams in comics? Well, Isaac and Mike have been dedicated to exploring that idea. It’s good to see them collaborating again, in the pages of Cartozia Tales.
I want to sidetrack from Cartozia Tales for a moment to tell you a bit more about the past work of the Cates and Wenthe team, because I think that will tell you something important about the spirit behind Cartozia itself. Of particular relevance here would be two past projects, the first being the one-shot minicomic Mapjam (2007), in which Isaac, Mike, and others pioneered Cartozia‘s collaborative map-grid approach to fantasy worldmaking (see what contributor Tom Motley has to say about it). The second would be the Cates/Wenthe fantasy story titled Stepan Crick and the Chart of the Possible, also known as Satisfactory Comics #8, which Mike and Isaac produced in 2007-2008. That’s a story about, guess what? A map.
The 10 pages of Stepan Crick are based upon specific constraints solicited from friends and colleagues, and the final result was published as ten full-color postcards (Isaac has long been involved in mail art). Originally intended for the indy fantasy anthology Elfworld, Stepan Crick became the best and boldest issue of Satisfactory Comics, combining interests in fantasy, constrained comics storytelling, and community. But Isaac and Mike have spearheaded other ambitious miniccomics projects as well—the free-spirited Elm City Jams (c. 2003-2004) come to mind—and their whole Satisfactory Comics run is notable for convivial jams, ideas solicited from friends, and formal experiments such as a comics sestina (#6), comics on tiny cards that can be shuffled (ditto), or a multi-path/choose-your-own-adventure comic (#7). For just about every issue Isaac and Mike asked their friends and colleagues to provide “seeds” or springboards for their experiments, thus opening their artistic games to a larger community, and it’s precisely that spirit of communal interaction and creation that sets Cartozia Tales apart.
Now Isaac and Mike have joined with cartoonists Sarah Becan, Lucy Bellwood, Shawn Cheng, Lupi McGinty, Tom Motley (again!), and Jen Vaughn—a transcontinental crew—as well as guest artists like Dylan Horrocks, Jon Lewis, and James Kochalka, to dream up and produce Cartozia Tales. As a collaborative anthology-cum-fantasy game, Cartozia celebrates imaginary geography and world-building: exploring, mapmaking, and creative improvising within a broad set of constraints. Each issue has at least nine 3 to 4-page comics chapters, plus brief one-page strips, pinups, actual maps, and interactive elements such as paper dolls and instructions for craft projects. Gorgeous covers (#1’s front cover is by Leah Palmer Preiss, #2’s by Brittney Sabo), handsome, sturdy paper, and high production values complete the package.
The giddy creativity on view in Cartozia Tales is startling: there are some wild, wild notions in play here. At the same time, Cartozia is clearly meant to be a child- and parent-friendly project; in essence, it’s a children’s comic for both kids and grownups. Refreshingly, the creators avoid treacly sentiment and phony solicitude for children’s well-being, preferring to offer instead loopy, freewheeling creativity, a shared sense of play, a taste for mild mischief, and genuine feeling. The results so far—two issues to date—are impressive.
Now, I’m the last person who should be reviewing Cartozia Tales, because I can’t be remotely objective about it. Isaac Cates is a longtime friend and colleague of mine (I confess, I was one of those who contributed constraints to Stepan Crick), and I knew a little something about Cartozia when it had yet to be named, in fact when it was just a gleam in Isaac’s eye. I recall him pitching the idea at a conference last January—imagine my surprise to see the project go from gleam to finished issues in such a short time! So naturally I would like to see this project succeed.
But I know I’d have gotten off my duff for Cartozia Tales anyway. Its strong roster of artists, intriguing collaborative method, and playful riffs on the conventions of high fantasy—all of this knocks my socks off. Its Kickstarter drive invites exactly the kind of communal interaction that the comic itself celebrates (the rewards offered to backers run the gamut—you could even find yourself featured in the comic!). And Cartozia’s aim to create honest, unpatronizing children’s fantasy comics is a welcome gust of fresh air.
I hope you’ll lend your support. Good cause, great crew, and prospects for a long run full of crazy creations—that’s Cartozia Tales in a nutshell. Check it out!