June 10, 2014

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Maple Key Comics #1 An Ambitious Debut

Those who follow my reviews know that I love the concept of the anthology. Getting to sample a variety of ideas, either related to a theme or a grouping of creators, is always interesting to me. Sure, there's a chance of not hitting it off with the artists involved, but when seeking out new talents to follow, it's hard to go wrong with an anthology.

Maple Key Comics, created and edited by Joyana McDiarmid, is a special kind of anthology because it goes back to the roots of the anthology concept: A way for smaller creators to get noticed by becoming part of a larger whole. This was one of the main driving factors behind Womanthology as well. The thing is, pulling that off successfully is very difficult. While I liked the work of many in the oversized hardcover, and found several new creators from it, overall, I found the slapdash collection of talent that was wildly uneven off-putting. It was presented as "See? Women are just as good at comics as men!" but there were too many moments where it felt like the creators involved were not given the structure and guidance needed to succeed with their stories. It had no flow, little structure, and a wild fluctuation in talent levels.

I bring this up because I think one of the things that McDiarmid does here is ensures that the reader understands exactly what they are getting into. While the concept is not unlike Fantagraphics' MOME series, where new creators are mixed with older, more established names, there is a feeling from the word go that this is an anthology of projects that might otherwise have been photocopied and distributed in the form of paper mini-comics or as part of a webcomics collective.

A panel from The Disappearance of Pepper Stein.
That distinction is extremely important to understanding and enjoying Maple Key Comics #1. If you go into it expecting to find people at the top of their creative game and just moments from their contract with a small press, you are likely to be disappointed. It is not that there isn't quality work in this first issue--far from it, in fact--but it must be understood that the works shown here are, for the most part, by people still honing their craft. This is their chance to build a wider audience and get reactions. By being together as a group, they increase their chances of being picked out in a crowd. It also allows them to be seen by people who might grab this because they want the work of a particular creator.

In short, this is like having SPX or MoCCA or any of a number of small-press East Coast shows delivered to your door. If that idea appeals to you, then Maple Key Comics will be a fun reading experience. If you are thinking it is more akin to Awesome or MOME, it may come up a bit short for you.

I am a big fan of finding folks when they first begin working in comics and watching them grow, like Joey Weiser. So for me, an anthology such as Maple Key Comics 1 is a perfect fit. How you feel about seeing raw talent is a very personal decision, but in this case, I advise you to decide accordingly.

A few notes about the stories included in Maple Key Comics 1:

  • I didn't keep a count, but I'd say a little under half of the stories are meant to continue across multiple issues, which follows the MOME/Shonen Jump model. It's great now, with only two issues in so far, but as the series progresses, I do wonder a bit about how that will work for those who come in late. 
  • Surprisingly, only two comics drew on autobiographical material. That used to be a big part of the mini-comics experience, and I'm not sure if that's a change in theme over time, the result of American Elf no longer existing, or McDiarmid's editorial choices.
  • Two comics featured pastiches of historical styles. One was based loosely on Archie, and the other on early 20th Century newspaper comics.
  • Most of the artwork was in traditional, line art style, with varying degrees of technical proficiency. The most detailed were McDiarmid's story of a rich family in the midst of major dysfunction and treachery and an intricately detailed, but ultimately a bit too busy start to a mystery set in an outsider club.
  • If you look carefully, you can see some of the influences at work, such as one that had the visual feel (though not the content) of a Box Brown comic. In another case, Kate Beaton's character designs were echoed a bit, but not slavishly copied, and the style fit the work well. 
  • Part of the fun is watching how these varied creators have taken the Center for Cartoon Studies "house style" and changed it to fit their needs.

My favorite stories were, in order of their appearance:

  • The Disappearance of Pepper Stein by Sasha Steinberg: A private investigator searches for a missing girl at a club for outsiders. Art is extremely well detailed but a bit claustrophobic with the word balloons and extensive backgrounds. The fact that Steinberg goes so far as to put details on the dress of a woman inside a tiny photograph shows he has great talent and potential. Body shapes are all sizes, which adds to the realism, even as the club thrives on its false faces. A very promising start.
  • Emi Foster and the Pets from Outer Space by Matthew New: This one opens with a tank cat. That's either going to work for you or not. Art is just above stick figure level, and the concepts behind this one--high technology, aliens, etc.--are a bit outside New's paygrade currently at his artistic level. However, the enthusiasm shines through with clever things like a robot making up a need for Emi to sleep by claiming she's at 40% efficiency or that the main agency is called DAD. This is exactly the type of story I'd likely grab at a show.
  • Shiny by Rachel Dukes: Periodic Garfield artist does a short wordless story about a mermaid who is attracted by treasure with a deadly secret. But the pleasure of possession might just be worth it. Great visuals, with a ton of detail, like barnicles randomly on a ship or the looks on the face of the main character as she explores for her prize.
  • Mangy Mutt by Dan Rinylo: The pastiche I mentioned earlier, along the lines of Krazy Kat and strips of the early 20th century. Really well done. The dialogue is perfectly played, the illustrations look right out of a 1920s broadside, and the concept of an alternative world is just modern enough to give this its own feel. Even ends on an appropriately stereotyped note of "ha ha henpecked men," but it's clear the creator is in on the gag. Well played.
  • Heartless by Will Payne: A great closing story for the anthology. Paybe's Beaton-esque art in gives rich, loose expressiveness to this wordless fantasy piece. He makes great use of black and white to create the mood. A woman must recover her lover's heart from demons. She quests along the way, with some really cool touches as to how she can get the information she needs. (For example, a singer won't help unless she sings the story.)  It's a tale of sacrifice and true love and the best of the complete stories. Very much a fable/fairy tale, and arguably the best part of Maple Key Comics 1.
Maple Key Comics is an extremely ambitious idea, and so far, I think it's doing what it set out to do. What I'm not sure of is whether there's a sustainable market for an anthology like this. It's hard to keep a series going long-term, even with high-profile creators, and introducing them into Maple Key would destroy the point.

As long as it lasts, however, those who enjoy hanging out in Artist's Alley to find the hidden gems there have a lot to look forward to. If you are that type of person, and understand going in that there's going to be rough edges and at least a few stories that don't grab you (this is a 300 page tome, after all!), definitely pick this (and its second issue) up and try it for yourself.