Maple Key Comics #2: A New Model for Indie Comics Storytelling?

Maple Key Comics #2 (June/July 2014) is a continuation of many of the stories from the first issue as well as some stand-alone stories. In the intro, Joyana McDiarmid, the editor, mentions that this one is the “unofficial “Friendship” issue”, as the relationships between the characters in the continuing stories deepen. Character and relationship development is (hopefully) inevitable in any serialized story, so I do not think that this intentional theme is even necessary. Furthermore, it is not what stood out to me. The collection of stories is quite diverse and hard to tie together thematically. I kept returning to the uniqueness of Maple Key Comics as a model, which more than anything affected how I perceived the stories.

The idea is quite novel: gather together a group of cartoonists, many of them young and in this case Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) alums, and put together a bimonthly “anthology” which showcases serialized comics as well as one shot stories. I put anthology in quotes because it is a collection of works by various artists and as such is subject to both the strengths and weaknesses of one, but is different in that it showcases many serialized pieces over independent stories. In the lens of the anthology, it can be evaluated by the ideal of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, meaning that the individual stories must be strong, but that these individual triumphs combined with a greater vision for the collection (usually the job of the editor), makes for an entity to be judged as a successfully unified piece. This is what a great anthology hopes to accomplish, but this structure is also its greatest vulnerability. Why? Two things: 1) It is difficult for every piece to be equally strong, and 2) even if they were hypothetically, the reader will not like the work of every artist in the anthology, due to their individual tastes.

Evaluating Maple Key Comics as an anthology is limiting however, because of the serialized pieces. Given this, I would recommend for anyone who wants to read these to start with the first one. This model of serializing stories in a bimonthly collection somewhat problematic in that it is vital for the reader to start from beginning and not just dive in. This will disinterest some, especially in the current media landscape, where many expect art to be free and are less inclined to have to pay for a collection of serialized stories. Study Group Comics, 2D Cloud, and some others, for instance, somewhat circumvent this in offering some serialized comics for free, while also charging for print and digital works. I see this as a minor issue though. One reason is because cartoonists need to challenge the entitlement many have over consuming comics for free.

But the second and more important reason is because Maple Key Comics is giving a space to young, and innovative indie cartoonists with a commitment to longer form storytelling in a communal, design-savvy, and cost-effective manner. Getting a graphic novel published as a young cartoonist (by young I am not necessarily referring to age, but experience), can be quite difficult, and while self-publishing is an option, it is expensive and takes much work to promote and distribute. Given this, cartoonists may serialize it on their own, often in the form of a minicomic, or even just stick to shorter stories, which are easier to circulate in a more timely fashion and easier/cheaper to publish and distribute. There is something to be said for telling short stories and some cartoonists do their best work in this form, but it often means that many cartoonists, especially younger ones, may have long-form stories that never gets told. The Maple Key Comics model tackles this issue thoughtfully, with an overall focus on cartoonists who have noticeably put thought into world-building. Although not all of the stories are equally strong or successful in that manner, there is a certain thoughtfulness and even studied nature in most of these pieces that may speak to the nature of being a cartooning school alum, or just being a group of cartoonists who have made a deliberate choice to hone their storytelling skills, regardless of their varied artistic and writing styles.

It remains to be seen how the serialized stories will progress and what potentially expanding beyond CCS alums will mean for the “brand”, but the initial intrigue of many of the storylines, coupled with the smart idea of including a few short pieces, and a “star artist interview" with a more seasoned artist, is a recipe for an innovative advancement in the world of indie comics.