How Eleven Creators in Nine Different Cities Came Together to Make One Book
The ten writers and one artist of ‘The Cardboard Kingdom’ discuss what it’s like to collaborate on a massive scale
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“H i! My name’s Chad Sell, and I want to make a comic with you.” That’s the call for writers I saw on Instagram back in spring of 2015. I had been a fan of Chad’s for a while, but mostly for his gorgeous illustrations of the queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. This project sounded different — the call for pitches was accompanied by a small graphic of a kid in a Hulk-like cardboard costume. Along with Jay Fuller, Chad explained, he had created a short comic titled The Sorceress Next Door about a young boy who’d rather be an evil sorceress. The story had struck a nerve and he was looking to build an entire neighborhood of kids who used fantasy and homemade costumes to create an imaginary world that would give the graphic collection its title: The Cardboard Kingdom.
I was about to be done with graduate school and while I’d never written a comic, I thought, why not? Next thing I knew I was on the phone with Chad. He liked my pitch about a young boy who wasobsessed with Disney-like animated films and gets his crush to role-play with him as his dashing prince, and he invited me to write for his book. But I wasn’t alone. There were to be ten writers in all, working together to create an collaborative world.
Chad had originally imagined The Cardboard Kingdom as a collection of short stories about kids dealing with divorced parents (“The Gargoyle”), friendship (“Professor Everything”) and cookie-loving siblings (“The Huntress”). But it soon became a more interwoven summer narrative where all ten writers worked with the Chicago-based illustrator to integrate characters and storylines alike. We didn’t know each other before we started, we lived in nine different cities in eight different states, and most of us never met, but using social media and other tools we managed to create a diverse collection that feels like one big story.
We didn’t know each other before we started, we lived in seven different cities, and most of us never met, but we managed to create a diverse collection that feels like one big story.
Our group of collaborators are as eclectic as our neighborhood kids. Some, like Fuller (The Boy in the Pink Earmuffs), Kris Moore (Science Girl), Molly Muldoon (Dead Weight), Barbara Perez Marquez (The Order of Belfry), Vid Alliger (Funny How It Goes) and Katie Schenkel (Moonlighters) are comics creators at heart; some even by trade. Others, like me, found this to be an exciting foray far afield from our usual creative work: David DeMeo first pitched Sell while working at Whole Foods (he’s now a jewelry designer and account manager for Chavez for Charity) while Michael Cole pitched while in grad school (he now teaches English Lit at Wichita State), and Cloud Jacobs while working at an elementary school library (he’s now a fifth-grade teacher).
As we near our publication date I wanted to convene a roundtable discussion between all 10 of us (sadly we lost Kris just last year; the final book is dedicated to him). I was curious to talk about how we created a graphic novel while never once being in the same room. You can take a look at our condensed chat below where you’ll learn how we preemptively avoided royalties in-fighting, how we turned to social media to create our very own online writer’s room, and how we’re proof positive that it truly takes a village to build a kingdom.
We’re proof positive that it truly takes a village to build a kingdom.
Manuel Betancourt: I wanted to open our conversation with a question I wrestled with at the start of this process: is this going to be a disaster? That is, I’m curious if anyone (else) had any reservations about embarking on a project that involved so many people.
Vid Alliger: I wouldn’t say I was worried, except maybe on Chad’s behalf, because I knew that he would bear the brunt of any interpersonal conflicts that might have arisen.
Chad Sell: I was worried, absolutely. I worry about everything. Prior to opening up the submissions process, I vividly imagined all the many things that could go wrong with this weird, wonderful project. I tried to think through the various sources of tension that could arise between myself and my collaborators and to plan ahead: In an effort to be totally transparent from the very start, I laid out all my proposed terms for the project, including breakdown of revenue, decision-making, and everything, so that anyone submitting their story knew exactly what they might be getting into. One example: each contributing author gets an even split of the book’s royalties, regardless of how many pages they specifically wrote for the book. I didn’t want my collaborators to have a financial stake in arguing for a longer story, or to feel threatened if I decided to cut a page or two.
Jay Fuller: In the beginning, it was difficult to imagine how so many writers responding to an open call for submissions — from the internet no less! — could possibly be cobbled together to form a cohesive and consistent narrative. It’s a minor miracle and a testament to Chad’s skill as an artist and editor that The Cardboard Kingdom reads so well as a unified, interconnected collection.
Katie Schenkel: I’ve described The Cardboard Kingdom’s entire process success as “a miracle.” I definitely was nervous at first about having so many collaborators on the project. I had started passion projects with one or two collaborators that completely crashed and burned due to my co-creators losing interest or the timing just not working out. And even if we all stuck to our deadlines, what if we disagreed about the direction of the book? I knew how easily this project could fall apart, especially with so many cooks in the kitchen. But we all respected each other’s time and each other’s points of view on the characters, and I think it shows in the finished product.
It’s a minor miracle and a testament to Chad’s skill as an artist and editor that The Cardboard Kingdom reads so well as a unified, interconnected collection.
Manuel: As Jay notes, after working on our individual stories we set about combining them and really weaving them together into one cohesive narrative. This involved giving each other feedback and starting to step on each other’s toes when it came to different characters and storylines. Was this easy for everyone?
Barbara Perez Marquez: Our initial work in The Cardboard Kingdom happened largely while I was still going through graduate school, so in that regard I was very familiar with the workshop environment we created as we worked to refine things. In addition, I feel like we all took care to provide suggestions and edits without “killing each other’s darlings” which is so often part of that process. I felt like whatever guidance we provided each other was coming from a good place, to make the best book we could.
Chad: Yeah, as you said, Manuel, a lot of our efforts were focused on uniting our characters into a community that felt dynamic and alive, and so that was largely very positive and exciting, like, “How about your character shows up here? What would your character’s take be if this happened?” I think each creator made the final determination about their own characters’ motivations and responses, but the rest of the team was able to offer interesting connections and new scenarios that would bring out new aspects of those characters.
A lot of our efforts were focused on uniting our characters into a community that felt dynamic and alive: “How about your character shows up here? What would your character’s take be if this happened?”
David DeMeo: Feedback was always handled delicately, in my opinion. When I first read “Big Banshee” and I saw that Katie had used [my characters] Shikha and Vijay in her story, I was thrilled.
Katie: Aw, David! That means a lot to me. To answer Manuel’s question, more or less writing our chapters in order made it easier to ensure we were writing the other creators’ main character accurately. David’s script was mostly done when I was working on mine, so I felt pretty confident in how I used them in my story. And the constant communication in this project meant I could get David’s feedback quickly and make sure any concerns he had about Vijay and Shikha were handled. And then later in the book we see Shikha and Sophie doing best friend stuff. It was cool to have collaborators take what I had set up and expand on that in a satisfying way.
Jay: Everyone was very aware that these characters are our babies, so we took special care to make suggestions in constructive, open-ended ways. Early on, I think everyone was a little nervous about stepping on toes, but as the process matured, it became more collaborative and led to some fantastic cross-pollination.
Early on, I think everyone was a little nervous about stepping on toes, but as the process matured, it became more collaborative and led to some fantastic cross-pollination.
Katie: Yeah, I was really happy with how Sophie was used in the other chapters. There was only one line of dialogue I suggested an alternative to, plus Chad had a specific idea about how Sophie would be used in the finale that he developed with me. And some of my favorite parts of the book are Sophie’s moments in other chapters, like the “not having it” look on her face when it’s revealed she’s been pushed into the princess role in your chapter, Manuel!
Michael Cole: Going back to something Barbara said, in the time since I pitched my story idea for The Cardboard Kingdom until now, I’ve finished out a graduate program, begun — and nearly completed — another one, bought a house, started a full-time university position, developed and executed several courses as a lecturer on the side. We’re all incredibly busy, but it’s just to say that there were certainly times I really worried that I wasn’t pitching in as much as everyone else was. I think there was always this great attitude of just getting our start and understanding that everyone had lots of other responsibilities in addition to the graphic novel. But it still was difficult on occasion to feel like you wanted to be more involved but could barely keep your eyes open some days.
Manuel: In a way the fact that we’re a big group meant we needn’t carry the burden of the project on our shoulders — though, of course, Chad was doing much of the heavy lifting at times. There were clearly strategic choices you made as you began plotting the next move after we all submitted and workshopped our stories, were there not?
Chad: In developing each individual story, I tried to work pretty much one-on-one with each creator until they submitted a script that I was able to turn into a readable rough “doodle” draft of the full story. At that point, I would generally share it with the full team so that all of us got to know each other’s characters and stories. Which was so exciting! However, I tried to be really mindful of when to solicit the feedback of the full team on a particular story, for fear of there being “too many cooks in the kitchen.” But throughout the whole multi-year span of working on the project, it’s been invaluable to have such a big team of collaborators to cheer each other on and share insight!
Manuel: In that sense I think our collaborative endeavor is both a boon and a challenge, especially as we begin promoting the project. Have you guys found it hard to explain the quirky nature of The Cardboard Kingdom to other people?
Molly Muldoon: When I explain it, I usually say something along the lines of “It’s a neighborhood and each one of us wrote a kid” which is… kind of true? It gets more at the heart of what it is, I think; it’s not so much what we wrote but the character we created which is why I think it worked so well.
Michael: This has been a bit frustrating for me, for sure. I think the collaborative nature of it is hard to explain also. Over the last few months, I’ve had friends introducing me by saying, “This is Michael, he wrote a book.” I went in to get a haircut the other day and the woman who does it yelled, “Did you guys know Michael wrote a book?” It’s Kansas, so there’s not a lot of publishing here. So then I always have to stop and say, “I contributed to a graphic novel with several other co-authors and one artist.” And then to explain that The Cardboard Kingdom is rooted in children’s issues makes it seem like it’s really only for children, but I think so much of what we’ve heard from people who have gotten ahold of ARCs is that they’ve loved it for themselves, that it really appealed to them. It’s got serious themes, but it’s also bright and beautiful and very joyful. But at the same time, I kind of think that the best creative works are the ones that are sort of hard to describe.
I kind of think that the best creative works are the ones that are sort of hard to describe.
Jay: Ha, yes! When describing the book, I think I’ve settled on: “a Children’s Graphic Novel of which I am a contributing author” — that’s not clunky at all, right? Barbara makes a good point, though. The Cardboard Kingdom isn’t quite an anthology and it isn’t quite a single-narrative comic. It’s something special.
David: I’ve had similar experiences to Michael: “David wrote a book!” And I have to raise my hand and politely clarify. When I explain our book to people, I always start with Jay and Chad writing The Sorceress Next Door and how that was the inspiration for our book. Then I explain that once each of our stories is over, our characters continue into the rest of the book written by the subsequent authors. We were all in on the same story, essentially; we just wrote different parts of it. People seem to catch on quickly.
Cloud Jacobs: I’ve nailed a line down for describing the book. Whenever I meet someone or they ask about it I say “I wrote a story for a graphic novel, along with other writers, called The Cardboard Kingdom, it’s about a bunch of kids who deal with their real-world problems through fun, friendships and their superhero alter egos.”
Manuel: To think we did it all remotely! Social media acted as necessary tool for all of us — it was part of the recruitment process with your call for pitches as well as the writing process with Google Docs and Facebook functioning as our hubs for our book-wide discussions. What about these ways of communicating helped being able to work with collaborators that were scattered all over the country?
Cloud: I think we can all agree that this project would have crumbled without the internet and social media. From the call for pitches (which I found on Reddit) to the final draft being uploaded to Google Drive and being able to see everyone’s hard work, the internet has been essential for the Kingdom to come to life.
Barbara: It was certainly better than trying to get everyone on a video or voice chat (!). The early part of the process with the pitch call really showed the power of social media and how far and wide voices can reach (I myself found the pitch call through Twitter).
I think we can all agree that this project would have crumbled without the internet and social media.
Vid: I just don’t know if this book would have been possible without the Internet and social media! I say that not just because these things were our main tools for communicating and sharing ideas, drafts, and critiques throughout this process, but also because I can’t imagine how we all would have found each other and connected in the first place, were it not for the Internet. It definitely still feels a little surreal to me.
Molly: The hardest part for me was juggling this with everything else on my plate, to be honest. I started and graduated graduate school while we were working on this, as well as working on another book. But it was more than worth it! Everyone’s been a joy to work with and the Facebook page really kept me in touch with everything that was going on and let me chat with everyone when I wanted to procrastinate work.
Michael: I will say, what’s been most challenging, for me, is being so separated from everyone else. I want to meet everyone! Like, for real. This has been such a journey and so important to me — it feels weird to have done it without meeting a single other person who has had a hand in the process. I’ve really struggled with it for the past two years, honestly, the last two years. I don’t really think it’s sunk in yet, and I’ve wondered if that’s been because I’m so far away from the other creators. I haven’t really been able to see this reflected in anyone else or maybe even vocalize what it feels like? And the fact that we’ve lost one member of the group (Kris) means that there’s always going to be a part of that particular circle that can’t be closed, which is tragic.
This has been such a journey and so important to me — it feels weird to have done it without meeting a single other person who has had a hand in the process.
Manuel: Yes, there’s this sense that we’re a collective but it’s a fragmented one since we’re all over the place. Some of us are in New York, others in Chicago, Baltimore, Portland… Also, losing Kris means that the collective will forever be missing a key member. Thinking of what we were able to accomplish while being so scattered, I wanted to hear from everyone about whether it feels like the collaborative spirit that’s embedded in the graphic novel genre is a good fit for the stories being told in The Cardboard Kingdom.
Jay: I’ve read a lot of fantastic graphic anthologies, like Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology and Little Heart; A Comic Anthology For Marriage Equality, which began life similarly to The Cardboard Kingdom as open-submission projects built around a common theme. It’s a formula that works! However, to my knowledge, The Cardboard Kingdom is one of few, if any, that actually connects all its stories into a single world that culminates in a finale tying all the characters together.
Barbara: For myself as a fiction writer, words can be overzealous. We look to finish whatever we are writing before any others see it. With art, once someone else sees it, it keeps on growing. So, having graphic novels created collaboratively, same as you do with comics, you have a level of uniqueness to whatever is created that is hard to replicate otherwise.
We look to finish whatever we are writing before any others see it. With art, once someone else sees it, it keeps on growing.
Chad: I agree with Barbara, and I think there’s something inherently visual about the essential parts of The Cardboard Kingdom. Throughout the book, kids create homemade costumes out of cardboard, and it was important to me in their character designs that each costume felt tactile and true to that. There’s tape, there are flaws, there are goofy design decisions only a kid would make. And it’s those flaws and the fragility of their armor that contrasts so powerfully with some of the very real emotional and familial struggles they encounter in the book. Periodically, we glimpse the characters as the kids see themselves — often more powerful, graceful, and fully grown. Which is beautiful and powerful, sometimes funny, sometimes sad.
Vid: I think we all worked hard to make sure the writing and overall tone of The Cardboard Kingdom felt consistent throughout, but I think Chad’s artwork really unified all of our ideas and helped make the book the cohesive whole it is. The book has a specific look and feel, and I think that uniformity would have been harder to achieve if the book had been our writings alone.
Michael: I also want to say that, at the end of the day, what The Cardboard Kingdom is about is community. And that was something that we achieved through collaboration — at least I think so. Even for a character like Seth in “The Gargoyle,” who sort of has to be rooted in isolation, there’s this great expansion that happens later where he gets to be part of something bigger. It might be corny to say that it felt like my experience working on this project mirrored that, where I had this nugget of an idea that got pulled into and made a part of something more rich and expansive.