August 16, 2013

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Cartozia Tales

Welcome to the first entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Imagine a new world, ready for exploration by both creator and reader, designed for all-ages and an ongoing set of stories building the world up piece by piece. It's one part bedtime story, one part Canterbury Tales.

Now imagine it's put together by a variety of mini-comics creators with solid projects of their own, including Sarah Becan (Shuteye), Isaac Cates (Satisfactory Comics), Shawn Cheng (Graphic Cannon) and Jen Vaughn (Adventure Time).

If that's not enough, picture that part of the collaborative process involves Dylan Horrocks (Hicksville), Adam Koford (Laugh Out Loud Cats, John Hodgman), Kevin Cannon (Far Arden), and James Kochalka (Johnny Boo), all of whom will be doing an entry in an issue of the series?

Pretty amazing right?

Well, that's Cartozia Tales, an ambitious project that's just starting out and looks to be amazing, based on the first issue, which Isaac Cates was gracious enough to send me for a preview.

The premise behind Cartozia is that it's a fantasy world, but not one that's inhabited by the usual creatures. Sure, you'll find elements that will remind you of stories new and old, but the fun thing is that these are comics creators and they've really outdone themselves in finding ways to make this world innovative.

For example, page two introduces us to "Upside Town" --a village that's exactly what you think it is, but because this is a world of stories, that one is left for another day. We also get Vicunicorns, tickle crabs, bridges that change for every person who tries to cross, and humanoid otters. Even "normal" creatures get moved to unusual locations, such as the sticky forest octopus.

There's an amazing amount of innovation, and those ideas are shared because of the collaborative nature of the project. Thus an idea from Koford is used in Lupi McGinty's story, while Wick, a wind-up robot, is an idea from three of the team that co-stars in the story from Horrocks. It's like reading a jam comic that's been planned out, step by step, and the results are simply amazing.

From a nuts and bolts perspective, Cartozia is designed to be an ongoing series where the world itself is divided into nine sectors. Each of those areas gets a story in every issue, with the core creators (Becan, Cates, Cheng, Vaughn, McGinty, Tom Motley, Lucy Bellwood, and Mike Wenthe) moving around the sectors to give them a chance to write about each area at least once. Meanwhile, every issue will have guest artists who will each get a chance to tell a story in the world of Cartozia.

It's a bit like having an anthology series set in a shared world, and that alone would be enough to sell me on the concept. But after looking over the sample pages and now having had the opportunity to read issue one, I'm even more impressed. Cartozia Tales works on every possible level, no the least of which is being an all-ages project that doesn't patronize its audience.

While it's clear that Cartozia is meant to be readable by anyone who is literate (the website even stresses this as a selling point), at no time does it talk down to its audience. You aren't going to find five dollar words or moral quandaries that require college-level philosophy classes to solve, but you will get smart stories that feature characters on voyages of exploration. They must make decisions that aren't easy, whether it's to risk a father's wrath to help a shadowy woman rebuild her forest or whether true love is worth sacrificing something precious. These creators understand how to write for all ages, putting priority on the *story* and then working from there, rather than trying to make it "for kids."

Not only are the stories good, but the art is amazing. It varies in style, but at no time does anyone's contribution feel out of place due to a lack of quality or a desire to be different, which can be a problem in other anthologies and would kill a collaborative world like this one. While John Lewis's thin lines are quite different from the thicker inking of Lucy Bellwood or Tom Motley's loose, sketchy feel, it's quite believable that their character all inhabit the same world. As the issues go on, this is going to become increasingly important as ideas and stories blend.

There's also a commonality in panel structure, with most of the artists using tight medium shots within pages that contain six to eight panel grids, depending on the flow of the story. That also helps give the anthology structure, and I'll be curious to see if this continues as the issues go forward.

Notable for a mini-comic, all of the creators work hard to establish Cartozia by providing as much background detail illustration as possible. Sometimes mini-comics can be heavy on character and light on detail, but not here. From the introductory page, Wenthe and Cates set the tone by cramming as much as they can into every panel, as Shreya tells us about Cartozia and her job to explore it. We learn about who populates a bazaar and that the weather changes quite a bit depending on where we are in Cartozia, just by examining the backgrounds. Jen Vaughn's story takes us across seas and forests, but they aren't the same kind as the forest we see in McGinty's work, which is more tropical in flavor and is vastly different from the old growth where the gardeners of Sarah Becan live.

It's details like that which make or break a comic for me. Those are the kinds of things I mean when I say that Cartozia does an all-ages comic right. Is every child who reads it going to notice that?  Of course not, but for the child who does, it's mind-blowing, trust me. (I always could tell as a kid who was patronizing me and who wasn't as an author by things like that.) In addition, it means parents who read this story--or just folks like me who enjoy good comics, have plenty to appreciate.

And if that hasn't been enough good things, I'll add one more: Diversity of gender. Cartozia's stories feature both young men and young women, doing all kinds of things. Sometimes it's the girls who go exploring while the boys collect roots, and vice versa. I love that! Best of all, it's completely natural. No one is jumping up and down saying, "look at how we integrated the characters" --the just went ahead and did it.

This went a bit longer than I intended, but it's only because I really believe in this project, and I want to see it do well. You can go to their website to learn more, and Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe will be at SPX, tabling for Cartozia with the first two issues. Leah Palmer Preiss (who did the cover to issue 1) will also be at their table.

However, before you go to SPX, if this project interests you at all, you should go and help fund their Kickstarter Project for Cartozia. There are levels of all kinds), allowing you to do everything from sample a few issues to getting a full subscription. You can now even get a digital tier for half price. That means that you can pick up over forty pages of cool indie comics via PDF for just over $3 an issue, less than you pay for most mainstream digital books. (Disclosure: While I did not back the project, I subscribed as a pre-project program.) All of the artists are being paid for their work, which is important to me, and that costs money. Cartozia is also printed on thick, high-quality paper with durable cover stock. This is not a photocopied mini-comic--the work on the issues you receive are done well. When it's all said and done, that's a little over $6 an issue for over forty pages of quality art and story.

I highly recommend this project, and I think you'll agree. Please support this one on Kickstarter or at SPX. Anyone who loves all-ages comics, intricate worlds, or anthologies is in for a treat.