Song For Cantalagua is a Mexican solarpunk adventure webcomic about Nila, a girl who sets out on a quest to solve an ancient mystery in her hometown.
The comic is published regularly on their website and is free for all to read.
Now in its fourth year, the creators are busier than ever, but they’ve agreed to sit down with our Poetry Co-Editor J.D. Harlock for a chat.
J.D. HARLOCK: Tell us a bit about yourselves.
SfC: Our names are Maria Izquierdo, Paulo Esparza, and Antar Castro. We’re a team of 3 creators based in Mexico and we met working for the same school named MST Design School where the three of us used to teach, Paulo now teaches somewhere else. A few years later, an opportunity to work together to develop a story came up and we ended up creating Song for Cantalagua. There’s a festival here in Mexico called Pixelatl and each year they host an event usually sponsored by Cartoon Network where people have to pitch an animated series to them, according to each year’s guidelines; if it wins, it gets made into a pilot. That year, it was 2018, the pitch had to be led by a woman and focused on “the future” so we teamed up and developed the first idea for Cantalagua. We didn’t win, though, but we decided to continue the project since we liked it so much. It wasn’t the same back then but we managed to keep many things. Of course, comics and animation are very different so we had to adapt a lot; we worked on the whole story even before we decided on the final designs and style of the comic.
Although we’re all designers and storytellers, each of us is a specialist in different areas and that helped the project be more rounded.
For instance, I’m super goal-oriented so I’m in charge of planning and making sure every part of the project gets done by its deadline. I also love fantasy worlds and all things nature so that’s something the comic will always have a lot of. It’s also thanks to Cantalagua that I took up gardening, so I have the comic to thank for that! For my background, I studied Graphic Design and Visual Communication and had an interest in Editorial Design. What I really wanted to do, though, was to be a concept artist for entertainment. Curiously, comics were always there in my life since I was little but somehow I didn’t really consider them professionally. When we started working on Cantalagua, I had already been reading webcomics for almost a decade, manga and comics even longer than that.
Paulo also loves fantasy and he’s an amazing storyteller. He’s the one in charge of making sure every part of the worldbuilding makes sense and that our characters are always reaching for their goals. Also, he manages our social media and that in and of itself is a huge task. Paulo has worked directing and producing for TV and is a connoisseur in Film studies, but a great passion of his is teaching, and is really good at it. Both him and Antar were my teachers and I don’t know where I’d be without them.
Antar is the master storyteller and it’s thanks to his knowledge of story structure that we could even make this project come to life. He’s chronically busy but somehow we managed to make this work together and we wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s worked on so many projects as a concept artist, look developer, art director, and many other freelance jobs that he probably can’t talk about right now due to NDAs. Both Antar and Paulo studied at the same school, the Facultad de Artes y Diseño de la UNAM, but at different times.
The three of us love to eat and that’s something that we wanted to incorporate in the comic also – big shots of delicious food!
However, the three of us have our own projects besides Cantalagua so we work on this only part-time. We’ve been doing this for almost 3 years, or 4, counting the development. When the workload is larger than what we’re expecting, we took on board two other members of the team, Gerardo Blas and Marisol Diz, who work on the page flat colors.
J.D. HARLOCK: Are there are any major differences between Song for Cantalagua from when it was a cartoon pitch and now as a webcomic? If so, can you elaborate on them?
Since it was supposed to be a Cartoon Network series, it had to fit the brand. It was a simpler design, more reliant on comedy (although not by much. Maybe that was the problem, ha!) and a simpler story. Really, we hadn’t thought about the whole story arc we wanted to tell yet; many characters didn’t even have names either, like Nila’s friends Otto and Clara, who were just Nila’s Friends then.
What kept though, was the contemplative moments. We always meant for Cantalagua to be a rather slow story where we got to just sit and watch whatever nice moment nature presented. It’s something that we still focus on in the comic, certain panels or even whole scenes where we just get to enjoy the shade of a tree, the flow of water or the way plants look.
J.D. HARLOCK: How did this webcomic come about and what inspired the idea?
SfC: As said above, there was an opportunity to pitch an animated series so we worked on developing the pitch bible for Cantalagua but the project wasn’t chosen. Instead, we decided to turn it into a webcomic and changed a few things to make it work this way. The three of us developed the whole story and worldbuilding, even before we had anything visual to show for it (the original designs changed a bit). Once the story was finished and we were happy with it, we started creating the concept art and designs we were going to use. Eventually, I started working on the comic itself, and finally, we started posting it online. That whole process took us about a year. Right now, our pipeline is much more straightforward since we already know what happens in the story. Paulo writes the script for each chapter, I work on the page layout and draw the comic and finally, Antar applies the color.
J.D. HARLOCK: What works/philosophies/real-life events did you draw inspiration from?
SfC: There’s a lot, from each one of us. What we do have in common –as it usually happens with solarpunk works– is Studio Ghibli. We tried to go for that whimsical and wholesome atmosphere that Ghibli’s films usually have. But also, we wanted a more contemplative story, where you could stop and just enjoy the moment for what it is, instead of always racing forward. That’s actually something our protagonist, Nila, has to learn in her arc.
Also, in that regard (and this is deeply personal to me), but while we were in development, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma and had to take a break from work during treatment. Working on Cantalagua helped me get through all that because it gave me something to look forward to doing each week that also meant a lot. I feel like I had to learn exactly what Nila had to do, and it ended up influencing her characters. Fortunately, I’m fine now!
Obviously, our living in Mexico has inspired us in certain ways that we sometimes don’t even notice. And we also wanted to tell a story based on relevant subjects now like the climate crisis and intergenerational teamwork to solve all these problems but in an optimistic way; after all, in a solarpunk world, there’s a different approach to these problems because of the technology developed but at the end, it still falls on the hands of regular people to make a change.
Of course, Cantalagua is also filled with geeky references all three of us love, like The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, CardCaptor Sakura, Little Witch Academia and lots of Disney. It’s basically a hot pot of everything we like mixed with many plants and tiny robots whose job is to water them.
J.D. HARLOCK: Can you elaborate on how Mexico had an influence on you?
SfC: Mexico is a very culturally rich place and we have many traditions all over the country that change depending on the location. For the most part, those traditions stem from the indigenous cultures originally from those places that thanks to colonialism have mixed with many other traditions and ways of living. Of course, many of these indigenous people are still alive today and are their own communities. But as Mexicans, we’re usually described as warm and welcoming people by foreigners and tourists and that was a big inspiration in how the town of Cantalagua came to be, who is also famous for welcoming with open arms anyone who wishes to visit.
We also have this concept, “pueblear”, which means “visiting small towns and enjoying the local culture”. That even caused the government to designate certain popular towns as “Pueblos Mágicos” or “Magical Towns”, which incentivized tourism. But it also caused problems because reckless tourism and gentrification ended impacting those places, and it still does. That is actually part of the plot of our comic, considering Nila lives in a guest house that used to be filled with foreigners when the town was more famous in the past but now is suffering from exactly that.
But not everything is bad, obviously! We’re also very proud of our food and our warm personalities; we are very passionate. I think this is true for many places in Latin America, not just Mexico of course so we wanted to create somewhere that could apply to many different experiences but using what is closer to us. Cantalagua is not set in Mexico, and not really any place on Earth, but an Earth-like world, in a future where people ended up developing technology that solved many of our problems. It’s also an optimistic story about community, traditions, and what a home can end up meaning to different people. I think all of us working on Song for Cantalagua have a strong attachment to our roots and are very proud of them.
J.D HARLOCK: When and where did each of your first hear about solarpunk and what drew you to it?
SfC: It was on Tumblr a few years ago. Nature has always been important to me, even when I was a small kid so it was only normal that stories defending nature would appeal to me, although it was only after I saw that post on Tumblr that it got coined with a name, solarpunk, in my mind. Studio Ghibli was a big influence growing up and even if many of its films aren’t quite what we’d call solarpunk now, the interest in a balance between humans, technology and nature is always there.
J.D. HARLOCK: What are your thoughts on the solarpunk genre/movement? What does solarpunk mean to you and where do you see it heading?
SfC: As a movement, I’ve only just recently found an interest in, but it aligns pretty closely with what an ideal world would look like to me. Also, as a storyteller, creating stories that use hope as a driving force instead of apathy or resignation is what I aspire to do.
J.D. HARLOCK: Have you worked on any other solarpunk projects?
SfC: Not really, at least not consciously. Hope and idealism has always been part of my work but it’s never been as present as it is on Cantalagua.
J.D. HARLOCK: Do you have any other solarpunk projects in the works?
SfC: Not for the moment. Song for Cantalagua is a big project that deserves all the attention we can give and then some.
J.D. HARLOCK: Do you plan to revisit solarpunk in the future?
SfC: Probably. There are many facets of the solarpunk aesthetic and philosophical premises that are interesting enough to explore other kinds of stories within them. As a team, though, only time will tell.
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J.D. Harlock (he/him) is a Lebanese writer based in Beirut. His short stories have been featured in The Deadlands, Sciencefictionary, Defenestration, Wyldblood Press, and the Decoded Pride Anthology, his poetry has been featured in Penumbric, Mobius and Black Cat Magazine, and his articles/reviews have been featured in NewMyths.com, Mermaids Monthly, Interstellar Flight Press, and on the SFWA Blog.