June 5, get ready for your favourite book of 2018. That’s right, THE CARDBOARD KINGDOM IS COMING! Cartoonist Chad Sell has teamed up with Jay Fuller, David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez to take readers to the magical world that is a suburban neighbourhood in the summer, where imaginations run wild and fun times flow freely. This all-ages title is charming to say the least, and I was lucky enough to speak with Chad and his co-writers about this wonderful title below.
Aaron Long: Take me through how Cardboard Kingdom came togher…how long has it been in the works?
Chad Sell: The central idea for The Cardboard Kingdom had been bouncing around in my head for nearly 10 years. I loved the idea of all these kids in a neighborhood brought together by creativity and fun cardboard costumes! But I struggled for a long time trying to come up with a single storyline that would fit the concept. So I set the project aside for quite a while, but I would occasionally find myself being drawn back to the characters I had created, and eventually it occurred to me that each of them should have their *own* story!
I had been struggling with some of my own comic projects for a long time – when you’re writing and drawing something by yourself, it can be really hard to get any kind of perspective, like: “Does this make any sense? Is this any good??” So I was starting to wonder what it would be like to collaborate with someone else! My friend Jay Fuller does a wonderful LGBTQ+ kids comic called The Boy in Pink Earmuffs (http://www.boyinpinkearmuffs.com/), and I asked him if he’d want to work together on something. I described my idea for The Sorceress, a boy who dresses up like a glamorous, magical villain, and we developed her story together. The result was an early version of what you’ll see in the first chapter of The Cardboard Kingdom!
AL: When did you decide to make it an anthology? How did you assemble your team of co-writers?
Chad Sell: I was really inspired by the early successes that comics anthologies had on Kickstarter – I would see groups of like-minded creators coming together for a common purpose, and that seemed like such a cool thing to try!
However, I knew that The Cardboard Kingdom would be different. Each story in The Cardboard Kingdom follows a different kid in the same neighborhood, with tons of fun overlapping characters and plot elements throughout! (Not to mention the epic final chapter where all the heroes unite for one last adventure of the summer!!) A key part of the proposal was that I would illustrate all the stories and have a hand in shaping the stories to ensure a cohesive reading experience. I laid out all those ideas on my website, where anyone could submit their story ideas for a few months in early 2015!
It was *so* exciting to see the early story pitches come in, and over the course of a few months (lots of phone calls, e-mails, etc.) I put together our Cardboard Kingdom team! I mentioned earlier that I struggled a lot with my previous comic projects where I was the sole author. But with the CK stories, I knew that each one featured a character I already loved and was a story worth telling.
AL: What drew you to this project?
Jay Fuller: Chad actually approached me several years ago to work on what would become the first story in The Cardboard Kingdom, “The Sorceress,” which we eventually released as a standalone mini-comic. We were familiar with each other’s work online and both living in Chicago at the time. I was writing my all-ages, queer comic The Boy in Pink Earmuffs and I think Chad thought I could lend some of that sensibility to this project. We met for dinner, he pitched his outline for “The Sorceress”, and I was instantly hooked by the premise. I think I’m especially drawn to genderqueer stories about youth because there used to be so few examples. And of course I leapt at the chance to work with Chad.
Later, when he told me he was expanding the Cardboard Kingdom universe into a book, I was elated. I drew from my experiences as a kid making elaborate cardboard dioramas and Lego towns and pitched Megalopolis. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers, so I have plenty of experience trying to protect my creations from those wandering “kaiju.” We all used to watch the classic Godzilla movies with my Dad, so it seemed like a perfect fit to meld all those memories.
Manuel Betancourt: Chad. I’d been such a fan of his work that when he sent out his initial call for story submissions I was most drawn to potentially being invited to work alongside him. And then once we all began working together and I got to see everyone else’s stories I was even more excited to be part of a project that was such a celebration of the power of imagination.
Barbara Perez: At the time I found the open call for submissions, I was working on a middle grade novel and I thought it would be really interesting to explore that idea as a graphic novel instead. This was an ambitious project but I was excited to see where it could lead. Having multiple writers work together can be a daunting task, not to mention to keep the book at large cohesive was really important too. I think all of us learned a lot while working together and the book demonstrates really well how collective storytelling can be a trove of treasures!
David DeMeo: I had been following Chad’s Drag Race work for years. After visiting his website, I discovered all of his comic work which I adored, especially Manta-Man and Vreeland. I was consuming a lot of Chad’s comic work until one day I saw a post about a collaboration project called the Cardboard Kingdom. I read the accompanying story, the Sorceress Next Door, which really resonated with me because I was that kid; the only thing I wanted to be when I grew up was an evil sorceress. So I submitted my story pitches and the rest is history.
Vid Alliger: I had been following Chad on social media for a while, because I really admired his artwork. When he posted on Twitter that he was looking for collaborators, it sounded like an amazing opportunity to work with really talented individuals to help tell some meaningful stories.
Michael Cole: I had actually been a big fan of Chad’s for a while before the graphic novel project had come up. I love RuPaul’s Drag Race and had eagerly awaited to see Chad’s portraits of the queens each week. I even had some of his artwork already hanging in my house—both from Drag Race and some awesome X-Women prints he had done. So I already followed him on social media. When he posted the call for story submissions for a graphic anthology, I immediately had my story in mind. I think I’d even been considering already writing it out in prose. I knew that if I procrastinated, I’d talk myself out of it and so I sent him my story idea the first day he began taking submissions.
Cloud Jacobs: It sounded like a lot of fun. Coincidentally, I discovered Chad’s call for submissions while on break as an assistant in an elementary school library. Children’s literacy is a topic very near and dear to my heart so having the chance to participate in it as a writer was just excellent.
Molly Muldoon: Chad and I have a mutual friend (Terry Blas, who’s my co-writer on the YA comedy/murder mystery comic Dead Weight from Oni coming out April 24) so when I finally met Chad at ECCC one year, a few months before he started looking for CK contributors, we were already pals. I thought CK was such a great idea and I really wanted to be a part of it. I’m so happy that I am!
Katie Schenkel: The whole concept for The Cardboard Kingdom intrigued me from the very beginning. Chad’s hunt for cowriters came across my Twitter feed (I believe it was retweeted from Gail Simone, and I’m always grateful that she signal boosted it that day!), and I came up with the bones of the story within a few minutes. I remember typing up my idea, being so pumped to potentially be part of such a cool project. I’ve been a big believer in kids comics since I began writing comics criticism, and I’ve always believed in the power of stories to help kids better understand their world and themselves. Before he made his final collaborator picks, Chad and I had a phone conversation where we honed my story idea into what ultimately became The Big Banshee. I buzzing with energy by the time I got off the phone, my only thought was “Man, I really, really hope I get this gig.” And here we are three years later!
AL: What can you tell me about your short story(ies) in The Cardboard Kingdom?
Manuel Betancourt: My story is titled “The Prince.” It’s about how formative certain animated (coughDisneycough) films can be and how those of us who never quite get to see ourselves represented there find ways to bend and ship and queer what we see on screen. At its heart, though, it’s a riff on fairy tales for boys who blush when they’re around boys they like.
Barbara Perez: I wrote THE MAD SCIENTIST, which stars Amanda, a young Dominican American girl that is obsessed with fairy tales and science. She’s a little Dr. Frankenstein, who is stuck in an intersection many POCs will recognize: Living in two worlds. The story centers around what ways cultural expectations shape who we are and how sometimes those expectations could push us apart or closer from those around us.
David DeMeo: The Huntress was based on my babysitting experience as the oldest of three brothers. My mother was single and worked a lot, so babysitting my baby brother, Dylan, often fell to me. He wasn’t as wild as Vijay, the Beast Boy, but he was definitely a little escape artist. You would turn your head for a minute and the backdoor would be hanging opened and he would be gone.
I don’t want to say too much about the Bully because I don’t want to spoil his story, but I can tell you that his Nanna was based on my own grandmother, Josephine. Chad drew her off my description and she ended up looking just like her! It meant a lot to me to be able to include her in the story since she’s no longer with us.
Vid Alliger: My initial submission to Chad eventually became the chapter “The Blob.” It focuses on my character, Elijah, who just wants to get the attention of his older brother, Nate, and join in the cardboard fun. I wanted to tell a story about brotherhood, because it’s what I know. I have three awesome older brothers myself.
I also worked with Chad on the chapter titled “The Robot.” It’s about a girl named Connie who has a hard time relating to the other children in the neighborhood. When she sets out to have the grandest, most diabolical robot-themed birthday party ever, no one is quite sure what to expect.
Michael Cole: I know that we’re still supposed to be kind of protecting the spoilers of the stories a little bit, so, hopefully without being too vague, I’d say that my story, “The Gargoyle,” is about a little boy who responds to the anxiety and fear of his parents’ troubled divorce by adopting a superhero persona. At its heart, the story is supposed to be about this kid who tries to be brave and take responsibility for something that isn’t really his fight to fight—but that he’s pulled into regardless. Ha! That feels very vague.
Cloud Jacobs: My story is about a kid who has trouble making friends. I was lucky, when I was Egon’s age I had two very close friends to nerd out with while everyone else was playing sports at recess. Now that I’m a teacher, I see that this is a very real problem kids this age deal with. I hope Professor Everything can reassure them that there are kids out there just like you and that they’re not alone.
Molly Muldoon: There are two things you should know about the Animal Queen: She’s in charge and she’s not a princess, she’s the queen. She’s also six so this might be a bit of barking/biting situation. 🙂
Katie Schenkel: My main character Sophie has a big personality and a big voice. She gets snapped at by a visiting relative who tells her nice girls are quiet and well-behaved. While she believes this at first, Sophie ultimately creates the Big Banshee as a way to express herself and be as loud as she wants. I wanted Sophie’s alter ego to be unapologetically big, both in personality and size, because so often girls (especially black girls) are taught they shouldn’t take up space. The joy of the Big Banshee is in the freedom to be as big and bold as you want.
AL: Who do you identify with most from the neighbourhood?
Chad Sell: Wow, this is such a tough question! The most diplomatic thing to say is that the whole CK world is full of lovable, complicated characters, and I’m sure readers will relate to each of them!
BUT! Of course, The Sorceress is most deeply rooted in my own biographical details – As a kid, I revered the glamorous Disney villainesses like Maleficent and Cruella de Vil. And much of my professional life up ‘til now has been spent illustrating drag queens. So the Sorceress sprang out of my own exploration of what exactly drew me to those powerful female figures, and what it means when you try to embody one.
I also VERY MUCH relate to the Robot, who finds social interactions endlessly confusing, and so she prefers to hide behind a clunky cardboard Robot costume and speak in a loud monotone about world domination.
Jay Fuller: It’s difficult to choose one character because I see elements of my childhood reflected in all of them. Peter and his meticulousness, the Sorceress and her flair for drama, the adorable romance of Miguel and Nate…but I think I identify most with Alice from Kris Moore’s “The Alchemist and the Blacksmith.” At that age, instead of a lemonade stand, I actually used to try to sell rocks by the side of the road! I also tried pushing a potion I made from water and toothpaste and pens made from dirty seagull feathers. I had a ton of hairbrained schemes back then.
Manuel Betancourt: Is it too self-indulgent to say that I identify the most with Miguel (from “The Prince”)? He truly is the kid I wish I could be, if only because he’s able to turn those blushes into a lovely friendship. Though, like many of my collaborators, I have a soft spot for Alice who’s as by-the-rules ruthless as I was growing up.
Barbara Perez: Does it count if I choose my own character? Haha. I think I’m not alone in saying that some of the characters are based on very real parts of each of us. I know for myself, a lot of the things Amanda faces are things that happened to me as well. I hope the story offers a way in which some of those conflicts can (or should) be addressed to help kids flourish instead of retreat into themselves.
David DeMeo: I think it’s easy to see shades of yourself in all of these characters, which is one of the things that makes the story so special. But if I had to pick one, I would probably say the Sorceress. The Sorceress is epic and fabulous and powerful – the kind of character I always loved when I was a kid. I think a lot of young gay boys identify more with the female villains than any other characters. It was easier to relate to a fabulous outcast who gestured grandly and oozed charisma than it was to relate to the other perfect characters we were force-fed as children. This is why the Sorceress is such an important figure; she appeals to the super villain in me, but inside she is the little gay boy just trying to make his own way.
Vid Alliger: That’s a good question! Probably the Scribe, because I’ve always wanted to tell stories.
Michael Cole: I know it’s a cop-out, but I identify the most with Seth, the main character from “The Gargoyle.” It’s mentioned briefly in the author’s page of the book, but the story is inspired by my own childhood. Like I said, my parents’ divorce happened when I was very young and it was really an especially awful time for our family. As a kid, I nearly completely stopped sleeping because I was so obsessed with looking out for my family for a lot of reasons that I didn’t even understand until I was an adult, which was essentially where my story pitch came from. I think writing “The Gargoyle” was a way for me to work through a lot of that finally. And when we began discussing character designs, I think it was only kind of natural that Seth sort of ended up resembling me. Eerily, both of Seth’s parents also look very like my parents—so seeing people’s reactions to Seth’s story, which is in many ways my story, has really bonded the little guy to me as much as possible. (I even went out and got a tattoo of Seth’s helmet to commemorate it.)
Cloud Jacobs: Honestly, I identify most with my own character, Egon. He just wants to be a part of things but sometimes his thoughts and feelings get in the way of that. I feel like younger me and Egon would have been great friends.
Molly Muldoon: Like everyone else, I assume, my little girl was based on my own childhood. I don’t think I was quite as demanding as she is but I definitely had my own stuffed animal coterie that required each animal being introduced any new stuffed animal I got. There were a lot of parties with a lot of fake bowing. I’m also an only child so I did have to deal with a lot of finagling in relationships as a kid, realizing how to balance power dynamics and the ever dreaded ‘sharing’. I think I turned out alright and I think our little Queen is on her way.
Katie Schenkel: Since her story is based in part on my childhood experiences, I do identify most with Sophie. I was the girl who talked too loud and too much. I started equating quiet with nice — It took me longer than Sophie to realize I deserved to take up space and be myself. That’s one of the reasons I love readers get to see Sophie thrive in the Cardboard Kingdom, even after her main chapter. I got to give a loud girl a group of friends who supported her and liked her for who she is, which was exactly what I needed to see when I was that age.
Admittedly I also identify with Vid’s character “The Blob,” whose costume no one else gets at first. All my grand designs for crafts as a kid never looked right. I completely relate to the Blob not being quite as good at making costumes as the other kids. Cardboard construction is tricky!
AL: To say this is a special work is an understatement. The Cardboard Kingdom is a magical, joyful place. What was your favourite part of working in this world?
Chad Sell: It’s so wonderful to work on wonderful stories with wonderful people. I’ve said before that creativity and collaboration are the closest things to magic I’ve ever experienced in this world. And it’s true! The entire process of creating this project with my collaborators has felt magical, and it means so much that readers are finally able to explore the Kingdom, too!
Manuel Betancourt: The collaborative aspect of it. I won’t say I wasn’t wary about working with so many other talented writers but, just like the kids you see in the story, it became evident very early on that we were all giddy about building something together that embodied the spirit of community found in the Cardboard Kingdom. It’s been such a delight to be part of such a generous group of collaborators and it’ll remain my biggest takeaway: how there really is strength in numbers and that the more open you are to other voices the better your creative work will be.
Barbara Perez: Seeing the stories mesh together was probably the best part, suddenly all these isolated stories found themselves together and didn’t mind sharing the same world. They even uplifted each other’s own stories by way of being there!
David DeMeo: I think it’s mind-blowing how a group of people spread across the country, most of whom have never even met, were able to work together seamlessly to create this world together. The project has been touched by magic since the very beginning, and watching it come to life through Chad’s illustrations has always been my favorite part. Getting the original character sketches of my kids was probably the most exciting moment. Like, “This is really happening.”
Vid Alliger: Thank you, that’s so kind! I loved collaborating with so many talented people! I think each creator brought their own experiences and perspectives to the project, and I think it’s why the world of The Cardboard Kingdom feels so rich and full.
Michael Cole: By far, my favorite part was talking with Chad about what the world would look like. Every story is so vibrant and detailed. The words are just words, but seeing how Chad brought all of our stories to the page was completely surreal. With “The Gargoyle,” he took so much care to make that story distinct according to the tone—the daytime scenes are so saturated and the nighttime scenes are beautifully dark and rich, like that’s where it really comes alive. A lot of what Chad did mimicked theses ideas that were already in my head and it was a pleasant shock every time I got to see what he came up with.
Cloud Jacobs: My absolute favorite part of this project was seeing it come together. From scripts to finished product that I could hold in my hand, it’s been amazing to see this project take shape. I should also mention that everyone that is a part of this book has been so awesome, especially Chad for bringing us all together to work on something so cool.
Molly Muldoon: The best part of this whole experience was meeting and working with everyone. I was working on this and another graphic novel around the same time and while both were great, they were very different. DW was a small team of three and our editor so it was very intimate and closeknit. Meanwhile, CK was like taking the court with your whole football team. We had such a wide variety of experiences, everyone gave constructive, helpful feedback to each other and just the sheer enthusiasm brought to the project was delightful. We’ve got a private group where it seems like we’re gabbing with each other every other day or so and it’s just so nice to know I got to meet these great people who all believe in this book as much as I do and we made this together.
Katie Schenkel: Besides getting to craft Sophie’s story, my favorite part of this project has been the joy of getting to know all the characters of The Cardboard Kingdom and that element of our unique collaboration. It was one thing to write each of our own chapters, but watching our own protagonists showing up in the other chapters and being friends with each other made for a really fun creative process. All the characters in the book are just really good kids, so watching them develop friendships and support each other was really an extension of the co-creators supporting each other.
Plus, while we all made a point of signing off with each other when writing someone else’s character (“Would Shikha do this?” “Does this line of dialogue work for Nate?”), once in a while I wouldn’t know Sophie was going to show up in a particular scene. Chad would send us updates as he worked on the art, and discovering Sophie having a funny moment in the background of other kids’ chapters always made me smile.
AL: The Cardboard Kingdom addresses a ton of issues that affect childhood and society as a whole, while being completely all-ages friendly. Was it difficult striking a balance between taking on important topics and keeping the tone of the overall collection fun for kids?
Chad Sell: My guiding principle for this project was to tell meaningful, emotional stories rooted in the characters’ own struggles. A lot of my favorite children’s stories feature heavy topics with an emotional impact, and so I was happy to feature those kinds of stories in The Cardboard Kingdom! But one of the fabulous features of working with a team of ten people is that they each bring different personalities and life experiences to the project, and so there were several writers who brought a lighter, more comedic touch! We spent a lot of time trying to calibrate the flow of each story and fine-tune the flow between all of them so that reading The Cardboard Kingdom would be a rich, rewarding experience.
Manuel Betancourt: Honestly I think the fact that we never had conversations about how to make it “fun for kids” or “accessible to everyone” was probably key. We set out to write stories about kids that felt true to our experiences; those necessarily reflected broader (and sometimes darker) issues. But in not sanding those down I think we were able to get at something quite special. Also, that we embraced fantasy and sometimes quite silly characters and situations (a sassy sorceress! a cookie-hungry beast! a loud banshee) kept it all from being too dour. Oh. And here’s where I’ll also single out Chad’s distinctive style and his bright color palettes. He’a created such a sunny and colorful world that it keeps things breezy even when the subject matter can be a bit heavy.
Barbara Perez: I think as writers, we should always give the reader some credit. It was always important for us to keep the stories light but still pertinent and I think our job as creators is to find that balance without having to compromise either element.
David DeMeo: The beauty of working in a large group is that ideas have a lot of filters to pass through before making it into the final product. I would say it was pretty easy to balance the emotional elements of this book because of all the different voices involved in making it happen. Some of the stories are inherently more poignant than others, some are more comedic, all of them are hopeful. We had a good recipe.
Vid Alliger: I think striking that balance was something everyone tried to keep in mind, and I was surprised how skillfully Chad and some of my fellow collaborators wove stories that dealt with difficult subjects while still speaking to children. I don’t remember it ever being a major concern, though. I think we were all able to find age-appropriate ways to discuss the issues tackled in this book, and our main concern was creating something our audience would have fun reading.
Michael Cole: In some aspects, yes. I know that we had gone back and forth a few times with how to end “The Gargoyle,” which is the only story that I can really speak too personally on. I think originally, there was kind of an upbeat ending to it, and then we agreed that there was no reason to pull the punch. I remember worrying that my story could have been cut because it really does go to some dark places—I think I’d convinced myself it might be, haha. But the more time I’ve spent with The Cardboard Kingdom,the more I realized that I would have liked to have seen more of that realism—seen more children that were sometimes struggling like I was—when I was that age.
Cloud Jacobs: I wrote from personal experience, so it wasn’t that difficult for me to put it on the page. I think Chad did an excellent job of keeping everyone balanced so things didn’t feel too heavy but at the same time addressing these issues in a kid friendly way. I honestly think that some adults will identify with these children and maybe see things from a different point of view after reading.
Molly Muldoon: I was very cognizant of this when I was pitching my story. It would have been so easy for this to have gone very dark and heavy. I was lucky enough to have a happy childhood with no big obstacles to overcome (well, until middle school but we all went through middle school) and wanted to explore a bit of a lighter problem, since people with more relevant things to say could handle those other issues better. I know Chad said that he got some pretty dark submissions but overall, I think everyone did a really great job on dealing with heavy issues with a light touch which will still resonate with kids.
Katie Schenkel: One of the happy surprises about this unique creative process is all of the writers of the Cardboard Kingdom had very different visions for their sections of the book. You might think it would become too many cooks in the kitchen, but Chad wrangled and shepherded us so our stories all flowed while still varying in seriousness. We each brought our strengths to our parts of the book but we had the same larger message of acceptance and creativity, so it became this beautiful tapestry that made sense together. And none of us felt like our individual chapter needed to be everything to everyone. When we put them all together, the larger story was one that represented lots of different kinds of kids.
AL: Any final words for readers about The Cardboard Kingdom?
Chad Sell: The Cardboard Kingdom is all about embracing kids’ creativity and imagination, and I hope that extends beyond the boundaries of our little book! One of the things I’ve been most excited about is seeing kids cosplaying as our beloved characters or creating their own amazing cardboard costumes! The Cardboard Kingdom is vast, and everyone is welcome!
Jay Fuller: Just that it’s been such an honor to work on this project and that Chad deserves so much credit for pulling all these stories together and delivering some of the most beautiful artwork I’ve ever seen in a children’s book. I think it’s a really special project that tackles so many heady issues with a gentle, assured touch. We’ve all been so overjoyed to see all the positive early buzz. It’s been a surreal experience and I’m just so proud to be a part of it.
Manuel Betancourt: I cannot wait for everyone to get to visit the Cardboard Kingdom and to get to play in this little sandbox of ours. I just hope readers feel as welcome and as seen as we hope they will.
Barbara Perez: We hope you will find a little of yourself in this world and that it can help build opportunities for addressing some of these trickier subjects. You too are part of the Cardboard Kingdom, we hope it brings you many adventures!
David DeMeo: I hope you enjoy reading our book as much as we enjoyed writing it. Now go outside and play!
Vid Alliger: I hope you have as much fun entering the world of The Cardboard Kingdom and getting to know all of its colorful characters as we had creating this book for you!
Michael Cole: I know that every piece of art really captures something personal for the creator, but I am so incredibly proud of the work that this team but into The Cardboard Kingdom. Everyone just poured their hearts into these stories and I think it shows up on every page. This is the first big thing I’ve ever got to be a part of, and I don’t know if we just got lucky, but every single person who has touched this has been amazing to work with. Just depths of kindness and humor. I hope readers take the time to really follow the creators on this book, because I think they’re all going to do some amazing things.
Cloud Jacobs: I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed working on it!
Molly Muldoon: Welcome! 🙂
Katie Schenkel: The stories in The Cardboard Kingdom were the ones we desperately needed to read as kids ourselves. We hope the it resonates with adults who (like us) yearned for something like this book growing up, but ultimately we wrote it for the kids of today. The world is tough right now, and we want The Cardboard Kingdom to help kids feel a little less alone.
The Cardboard Kingdom hits stores June 5, 2018 from Knopf Books.