Maple Key Comics is a Mome/Shonen Jump style anthology, with each issue containing a single chapter of a longer serial (usually three to six chapters). Each issue also contains shorter, self-contained stories as well, from a mix of CCS grads, students, and others. Editor Joyana McDiarmid goes for a wide net in terms of genres, visual styles, and levels of polish. The serial nature of each issue can lead to some rockiness as a reading experience, but it's also unearthed some real gems. Rather than evaluate each issue on their own, I'm going to review the first three issues together, while evaluating them artist-by-artist. Each issue features several serials, a few one-offs, and a "star artist" one-off feature.
Jon Chad (star artist, issue one). His "The Surena Grant" uses sci-fi as a horror vehicle, rather than as an expression of pure joy and learning as in his books for kids or as a celebration of genre excesses in Mezmer. Here, the horror of apathy permeates this story about a group of scientists who investigate the weird deaths of a local animal species, only to become victims of the same extreme apathy that overtook the animals. Chad's detailed line, usually used to emphasize excess, is effective here because he understood that restraint was the order of the day for getting across the emotional punch of this story, both from a visual and narrative perspective.
Sophie Goldstein, "The Oven" (chapters one through three of six). I've noticed that Goldstein has adopted a slightly less detailed line of late, especially for her character designs. There's even a bit of amusing quasi-appropriation here and there, like a smarmy drug pusher looking like Jughead of The Archies. Goldstein once again settles into her primary narrative interest: fertility and parenthood, explored by way of sci-fi tropes. Here, a couple relocates off the grid in the future to a place in the sun-burned desert in order to have children that are forbidden to them by the state. Goldstein is always careful to never tip her hand regarding her characters, maintaining a healthy skepticism toward the utopian aspects of the community that's on display while not diluting the hopefulness of the main characters. At the same time, she explores concepts like indolence and the corrupting influence of the outside world. This will be collected and published by AdHouse later in 2015.
Sasha Steinberg, "The Disappearance Of Pepper Stein" (chapters one through three of six). There are a couple of detective serials running in Maple Key, but they couldn't be more different. Steinberg's serial is extremely well-constructed in terms of providing a missing person (the McGuffin of the piece so far), a host of suspects, and a body count. What makes it so fascinating is that it at first appears to be set in an underground gay club in Berlin between the world wars, a time when gay culture went through a huge boom. Then Steinberg pulls back and reveals that it's set in a modern-day city, thanks to the McDonald's ("the sign of Modernity") we see at the end of part one. Steinberg puts gender, gender roles, and drag and the tropes that go with them into a blender, blurring characters and what the reader expects of them. His visual flourishes, like starting each chapter with a flurry of silent images in tiny panels, make the setting come alive. My one complaint with the story is that the detective protagonist, Phaedra M, is pretty much a cipher at this point. Not sure if this is intentional or not, but Phaedra is being dominated by all of the supporting characters.
Billage, "Sailing Blind" (chapters one through three of three). Bill "Billage" Bedard's comics are often concerned with nautical tales, and there's a strong air of authenticity regarding the details of modern sailing in this story about a young woman who gives up the corporate life in order to become the first mate to a blind charter boat captain. Those details drive the narrative, create conflict, throw in a few twists and help resolve the story. It includes certain nautical superstitions, the jargon of sailing, the actual mechanics of sailing and other details that the woman (Bridgit) had to prove to Captain Cross in order to gain his trust. However, this is a sloppily-produced story. There are multiple spelling errors, misattributed word balloons and a number of rushed drawings. I didn't even notice the visual motif of blurred lines representing the captain's failing eyesight until a second reading, because most of the visuals are blurred and sloppy to some degree. The characters are enjoyable, but the fact that their conflict resolves in a "meet cute" scenario felt more than a little twee and predictable.
Luke Howard, "Talk Dirty To Me" (chapters one through three of six). Howard is one of the most talented of the CCS alums and has merely been cycling through influences in an effort to work out his own voice and style. This story is clearly a big step in the right direction. While there's a certain Chris Ware/Kevin Huizenga influence (and maybe some Michael DeForge?) in the character designs and interactions between fantasy and reality, the nature of that influence is blurred and the effect is a new one. The story follows a young couple who have just moved to New York City; the husband has a job lined up for him and his wife is left to figure out what to do. Going back and forth in time, we learn that she's frustrated sexually (her husband turns her down) and that she gets a job at a phone sex line. She learns that she's so good at this job that she stuns those who interviewed her, despite her initial shyness. It's a fascinating story about shame, sex, identity and pride.
Iris Yan, "Hotline" (chapters one through three of six). I discussed Yan's excellent serial here.
Laurel Lynn Leake, "Space Kitchen", (chapters one through three of six) and "Headspace" (chapters one through three of six). The cooking and mental health columns are sort of an interesting bit of interstitial material, but they feel incredibly slight compared to what Leake is capable of as an artist. "Headspace" is more interesting, as it's sort of a Ray Fenwick-style example of using the actual decorative aspects of lettering as the primary visual aspect of one's comic. The advice is good ("Sometimes you gotta be weak and that's not evil"), but I found myself wishing for more.
Mathew New, "Emi Foster and the Pets From Outer Space" (chapter one only). New abandoned this smoothly-drawn and written story after a single issue to concentrate on his thesis, which was too bad. It's practically a textbook example on how to create reader interest in a character and introduce their universe while still providing conflict and excitement. It's sort of a King City for kids, only with a teenage girl as the heroine. A genius inventor and amateur superhero, New provides her with conflicts and opponents worthy of her abilities. The best thing about the story is that the art may be easily read, but it's still quirky and avoids slickness.
Neil Brideau, "A Dragon At The Gatehouse" (chapters one through three of six). This story has grown on me as it's gone along, mostly because one of the protagonists (Cora, the traveler) is kind of an awful person. This is a story about a ruined gatehouse and stones that look like a dead dragon, and how they got there. It's a bit cutesy at first, until the traveler reveals that she's seen a couple of dragons, which makes the elderly gatekeeper who invites her for company realize that a dragon is hunting her, and that her moods are influencing the dragon. The third chapter ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, as the gatekeeper is whacked by the dragon's tail--and it was guided by Cora. I'm not a fan of Brideau's stylized lettering ("A's" that look like triangles are especially annoying) and some of his figure drawing is distracting, but it's those rough edges that differentiate it from other fantasy stories I've read.
Josh Lees, "Rigel and the Star Teens" (chapters one through three of six). While the immediate genre trappings of this strip suggest "Archie In Space", Lees goes much deeper than that. It's about the ways in which a group of teens who are the first generation on their space colony to know life without war struggle with the quotidian problems of life: work, money, boredom, class, love. It's Archie with a more existential bent, as the Dan DeCarlo/Harry Lucey house style that's so familiar to readers is used in a way that honors their source material in terms of the plots while creating a totally different emotional context for these sorts of characters, who are looking for meaning in a world where one's mere survival is no longer the most pressing concern. The third issue even suggests a potential love triangle emerging.
April Malig, "The Serial Mishaps of Vampire Princess Cat" (chapter one only). This was also abandoned after one issue, perhaps because it felt like Malig wrote herself into a corner. This mash-up of autobio/slice-of-life romantic comedy with genre silliness is sometimes too frantic and all over the place for its own good. Her line also feels rushed and far less considered than in her other work.
Laurel Holden, "The Face In The Cloud" (chapters one through three of six). This is another detective murder mystery, only with a decidedly different focus than Steinberg's. It's about a young woman whose cutting-edge engineer husband dies suddenly. When an amateur detective approaches her with both kindness and the instigation of the possibility that her husband may have been killed, the woman not only decides to hire the detective, she also throws her now-uncertain life into becoming a detective herself. Combining old detective tropes, inverting gender stereotypes and injecting some futuristic technology makes this an effective, funny and interesting strip to read. Holden's brushy style is typical of many artists in the anthology, but it doesn't make it any less effective.
Joyana McDiarmid, "Hale" (chapters one through three of six). The editor called her own number for this story, and the result is one of the most spectacular serials in the anthology. It's set in the near future, but it's really all about family, greed, betrayal, ambition and a variety of twists and turns regarding all of these things. When young Elliot Hale is invited home from college to help his half-brother Parker convince his father to give him the money owed to him via inheritance, the situation explodes into a family argument worthy of Eugene O'Neill. The softness of her character design belies the brutal nature of the intrafamily squabbles.
Rachel Dukes, "Shiny" (issue one). This is a mermaid story about a cursed gem that shows off her line in a way she rarely gets to do in her own autobio material. The actual payoff is on the slight side.
Dan Rinylo, "Mangy Mutt" (chapters one through three of three). Mangy Mutt is Rinylo's go-to character for any sort of story he wants to tell. The first issue was a George Herriman-inspired, frantic strip about MM meeting his female, parallel self while dodging the dog catcher. This is good-old fashioned slapstick cartooning, done very much in classic style. The second issue features a horror strip about a creature hunting MM and eventually stealing his face with tendrils issuing forth from where its own face should be. The third issue features MM making pronouncements about veganism to his parents, only to be undone by his own arrogance.
Rachel Lindsay, "Rachel Lives Here Now" (chapters one through three of three). This is a sort of meta-autobiographical comic in that it's about Lindsay quitting her high-powered job in New York and moving to Burlington, VT to fulfill her dreams of being a cartoonist. That premise pretty much informs nearly every single strip, as she compares the experience of being in the city to being in a smaller town, to the relief she feels following her dream, to the terror she feels in how little money she makes. Lindsay is an expressive cartoonist with a scribbly style that punches up her sense of humor. Her observations are generally pretty witty on their own, but her scrawl of a line just adds something to it.
Will Payne, "Heartless" (issue one). This is a superb silent story about a prince's heart captured by three demons and how his true love tries to get it back. Payne's excellent and expressive character design and strong understanding of pacing add a surprising level of nuance and emotion to this story, which incorporates the feel of old-time fairy tales but with modern sensibilities.
John Carvajal, "Forgotten" (issue two). This is a silent story about a robot looking for something or someone. Finally guided there by a friendly bird, it turns out he was looking to become one with a robot mate, who fuse in a somewhat disturbing and weird scene. Carvajal takes the piss out of the otherwise twee nature of this story with that sequence, which is otherwise utterly sincere. A cleaner and brighter line probably would have made more sense in this story.
Nicole Georges (star artist, issue two). I'm not a fan of Georges' scrawled diary style of art, but I did like her using technical drawings as a kind of emotional and narrative flourish. The story she told, about trying in vain to find a particular vegetarian restaurant in Chicago after CAKE one year was surprisingly witty, with lots of interesting detours and twists before a hilarious ending.
Adam Whittier, "If The Coffin Fits" (issue two). Whittier's hillbilly bigfoot cartooning style reminiscent of Billy DeBeck's Snuffy Smith is a great change of pace for an anthology where most of the work is fairly naturalistic and/or brushy. The nature of the gag here, that a husband buying a coffin annoys his wife, is closer in nature to William Faulkner than DeBeck, but that's what makes it funny. Whittier's line is flawless.
Carl Antonowicz, "A Sickness Upon The Land" (issue two). This is yet another fantasy/fairy tale story, but it's a remarkably dark one. That's not surprising, given that Antonowicz loves Steve Bissette-style psychological horror stories that have no manufactured happy endings. Here, a magician wearing a bird's head mask schemes to foment conflict between two brothers while brutally ripping the souls out of innocents. The last page reveals is especially visceral and unnerving. Antonowicz's major problem is a lack of clarity in his art; he overdraws and adds details that obscure rather than illuminate in too many panels. He either needs to go fully expressionistic and own this style or else clean it up just a bit.
Rebecca Roher, "Primordial Soup" (issue three). Roher seems inspired in equal turns by mythmaking and Eleanor Davis' line and take on childhood. This is a clever bit of meta-mythmaking, as a young child scolded for expressing her opinion about a myth regarding the primordial soup and touching things in a curiosity shop winds up creating her own myth. It's a funny story that gets at the idea that children and their opinions are not respected or even heard, and the child in this story reacts by creating her own reality. The big, brushy lines are incredibly expressive but entirely clear.
Jonathan Rotzstain, "The Everything Bagel" (issue three). Rotzstain takes the concept of the "everything bagel" and turns it into an all-powerful object in outer space, coveted by the powerful and wisdom-seeking but speaking only to an innocent child. The story is neither here nor there, because Rotzstain's chops aren't good enough to get across the absurdity of the object, but the premise is too thin to support its length.
Anna McGlynn, "Like Water" (issue three). This series of vignettes is one of the very best stories published so far in Maple Key and was certainly one of the best short stories of 2014. Influenced in part by Lynda Barry and perhaps Melissa Mendes, McGlynn details a summer spent with her dad and his new girlfriend's children. One of them becomes her soul sister, and she and her brother introduce her to the monster that lives in the nearby pond. Using a brushy style that's a bit clearer than Barry's line, McGlynn perfectly evokes that sense of wonder of being a seven year old, of having a new instant family, and of the tipping point between believing in magic & monsters and being too old to do so.