Buy This Book: ‘Cartozia Tales’
Cartozia Tales is an idea I wish I’d had.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Cartozia Tales is a bunch of ideas that I wish I’d had, put together inside of yet another idea that I wish I’d had. It’s a Matryoshka doll of seething jealousy on my part, and if it wasn’t so good, I’d hate it. Fortunately for everyone — particularly the people reading every issue, like I plan to — editor Isaac Cates and the crew of cartoonists and special guests creating his comic have the talent to back it up, and the end result is a comic that takes the idea of building a fantasy world and makes it something that’s genuinely fun to read about.
The core idea behind Cartozia. the one that me and everyone else looking for a great hook to build an anthology around is kicking ourselves for not coming up with first, is, well, Cartozia. That’s the fantasy world that provides the setting for every story in the comic, but more than that, it’s the kingdom that’s detailed in the map originally drawn Cates and then painted by Sarah Becan in the first issue. And that map, as you might expect if you’ve got a thing for sussing out root words, is the foundation on which every story that follows is built.
Like Cates, I’ve always obsessed over maps of fictional places and the storytelling potential that they have with every notation, and Cartozia’s is particularly good. It’s got an interesting shape, those two big puzzle-piece islands that are dotted with landmarks that feel like they were pulled out of the best roleplaying game manual that you had when you were twelve. There are places with names like “Owl Rock” and “Little Pangaea” and (my personal favorite) Meadhall X, a group of lakes shaped like a giant’s footprint that’s called, appropriately enough, “The Footprint,” and a dozen other places with the kinds of interesting names that make you immediately want to know more about what’s going on there.
That’s where the real hook comes in.
When each issue of Cartozia Tales is planned out, the map is split into nine pieces with a three-by-three grid. Each creator from the core group, plus guest artists like James Kochalka, Kevin Cannon and Dylan Horrocks, is randomly assigned a section of the map, and that’s where their story takes place that month. Sometimes, it’s just as simple as two characters having a conversation that takes place in a forest rather than in, say, a desert or the middle of the ocean, but that setting is always there, always a part of the story. And more often than not, the classic fantasy staples of adventurers and explorers, lost ruins and arcane secrets hidden in libaries are able to take center stage.
The map is big and varied enough that each of the nine spots contains plenty of places to explore, and while I don’t know this for sure, I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be a private game going on among the creators to see how much of their assigned square they can fit into one story. Jen Vaughn got the Southwest corner in the first issue, and when Mike Wenthe and Cates switch off with her, they make sure to throw in a reference to the Snowman Village in addition to continuing her story.
Meanwhile, Vaughn is off in the East explaining how a beautiful girl became something that looks like a Medusa Head from Castlevania and walks around on its hair-tendrils.
See, that’s the other hook: After those initial random assignments, the map gets shuffled around again for the second issue, and then again for the third, with the creators switching off parts of the map and the stories that go with them. They’re picking up the stories that started in those locations and continuing them, using the dramatic hooks they were left with from the creators who started them, in one big collaborative world-building story jam. It’s the type of thing that could very easily go wrong — there’s a reason you don’t see a whole lot of people talking about how great the DC Challenge was — but here, it works.
It’s all part of the theme of exploration, of going to see what’s already out there and what happens when you continue just a little bit further than anyone else has gone before. The creators are literally mapping out this world they’ve created, taking those vague, potential-filled landmarks from the map they started with and building on them, explaining what they are and adding detail that wasn’t there before. They’ve kept it accessible, too — Vaughn told me that the goal with Cartozia was to create something that “isn’t geared towards children, it’s geared towards good storytelling,” but they’ve definitely made something that’s truly all-ages, complete with instructions for activities like making masks, coloring paper dolls of characters and, of course, drawing maps.
There’s a lot to love in every issue — they’re about 40 pages, but with nine sets of creators working, they end up so dense that they feel twice as long. My favorites are the story of Jasom the Ruff Crow, which starts out pretty depressing in Cates and Wenthe’s first installment and then takes an intriguing twist under T. Motley, and Dylan Horrocks’s Taco and Wick:
The latter is the story of a servant girl and her only friend, a wind-up robot recently fired from his job keeping the lighthouse-like Frightlight lit, and it plays out like a smart, sharp fable in both the original and when Lupi McGinty picks it up in the second. Only two issues in, and I already can’t wait to see where the rest of the creators take them, and how they keep expanding on the simple morals that are best expressed by the story of a girl and her robot.
It’s a great book, and right now, the Kickstarter funding the first 10 issues, which just met its goal as I was writing this, is on its last day. I’m not a huge fan of anthologies to begin with — the ratio of great stories to things I just want to skip through on my way to the next high point ususally seems skewed towards the bad stuff — but with Cartozia Tales, these creators are doing something special, and they’re doing it well.
And they’re making me ridiculously jealous while they do it.