Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Animal Stories’

“He spoke of lands not far nor lands they were in his mind”

Top Shelf brings us Animal Stories from Peter and Maria Hoey, the brother-and-sister team who make comics despite living on opposite coasts. Modern technology is cool, y’all!

Animal Stories is a series of six short stories that all take place in the same place and almost at the same time, and occasionally characters from one will show up in another. It’s a fun conceit, one which I always enjoy, and it makes the stories a bit more fun to read. In the first (and best) story, a young woman has a pigeon coop on the roof of her building, and one day she’s visited by an unfamiliar pigeon that has a note tied to its leg. The notes stir her imagination and become increasingly flirtatious, and the woman searches for whom the pigeon “belongs” to, heading out into the city and asking pet stores if they know anyone who keeps pigeons. She tries following the bird, and eventually she’s able to pinpoint a block where she thinks it comes from. Finally, she discovers the bird’s origin point and who’s writing to her … and it’s definitely not what she expects. In the second story, a man briefly mentioned in the first story is on a cargo shop when the crew discovers a dog, out in the middle of the ocean, swimming steadily along. They get him out of the water, but he wants to go back in. Then they start seeing other animals swimming, and they’re unsure what to make of it. The third story is a wry retelling of the Garden of Eden story set in a city park. The fourth story is about a woman who’s taking care of a very important dog. In the fifth story, a man lets his cat outside, and it’s usually gone for a few days before it returns. One time it returns and coughs up a hair ball. The man decides to cut it open (why? why not?) and inside it he finds … an emerald. That’s weird. It gets weirder when he gets it appraised. The final story takes place in one of the pet stores the woman in the first story visited (she makes a cameo), and in that store a parrot that never talks decides the time has come to talk … and it has a lot to say.

The stories are all a bit surreal, as you might be able to figure out from those brief descriptions. The animals don’t act like animals, in other words, and some of the people are awfully strange, too. The Eden story is probably the second-best, mainly because it actually has a point. The stories are frustrating because they don’t really seem to “say” anything. I know, looking for reason in an insane world is a fool’s errand, and the talking parrot at the end kind of puts a bow on what the Hoeys are doing in the book, and the best story – the first – doesn’t really have a good resolution, and, yes, I like Dali as much as the next guy, but it’s still a bit frustrating reading this book. Are the odd situations enough to sustain your interest? I suppose we could make facile judgments about some of the stories – in the first one, the woman misreads a situation, but of course she does, because there’s no way she couldn’t; the woman taking care of the dog could be making a statement on politics; the parrot’s story is straightforward enough; the man with the emerald finds himself in the middle of a blood feud – but like most surreal art, it’s best to just sit back and let it wash over you. I can do that to an extent, but not to the extent that the Hoeys probably want. The book is interesting to read, but it nags at me, because I want there to be “more,” and I suspect there isn’t. It’s just some weird stuff happening, and not much of it means anything. I could be wrong, certainly, as I’m not very bright, but it’s still frustrating. It’s an enjoyable book to a point, and after that it’s vexing.

I do love reading reviews, not before I write these, but afterward, especially on a book that I might not love but feel I ought to. I haven’t done that with this one yet, but the inside cover has a few, and the one that cracked me up is from the Seattle Review of Books. They write: “The Hoeys are making art that most mainstream publishers would never touch.” I’m curious what they mean by “mainstream.” If they mean DC and Marvel, two things: that’s not the mainstream, that’s a niche (as we see from the latest sales numbers for comics, which are dominated by kids’ comics and manga, with nary a DC or Marvel book to be found in the top 100); and if they do mean DC and Marvel, of course they won’t touch it, because that’s not what they do. It’s like saying a chef makes a brilliant pork tenderloin but a vegetarian won’t touch it – that’s not a zinger, because of course the vegetarian won’t eat it! If they mean simply more mainstream publishers than Top Shelf … well, I don’t know. I read some pretty weird stuff from other publishers. But the SRofB means “art” as the whole package, while I mean it in terms of the line art, because that’s how we roll in comics reviews! The Hoeys’ art is very Chris-Ware-ish, if that’s your thing – a lot of straight, carefully laid out lines, with rigidity in the curved lines, and a simplicity to the overall design of the buildings and people. It’s not terribly fluid, and the characters don’t show a lot of emotions, as their faces remain fairly static. When the Hoeys want to show some emotion, they tweak very small things on the characters’ faces, and in some cases, it’s effective, and in other cases, it’s not. The story about the dude on the ship is the most interesting, visually, as they use panels that slash across both pages, almost as if they’re film loops, and they’re angled either upward or downward across the page to “speed up” or “slow down” our eyes. This works well because of the more expansive nature of the story, taking place on the wide ocean as it does. The art is clean and nice, beautiful in a somewhat sterile way, but it certainly adds to the surrealism of the stories, which I assume is the point.

As with many comics, I’m annoyed that I don’t like this more, because it’s odd and charming and enjoyable, and it’s from indie creators, which I want to support, but it’s just a bit too cold for me. I appreciate the weirdness, because who doesn’t like weirdness, but at some point, the charm wears thin, at least for me. Perhaps you might feel differently! That’s why I provide links to products below!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


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