“Animal Stories,” the new comics collection of sibling cartooning duo Peter and Maria Hoey, rides the line between a themed short-story collection and a novel told in shorts. Each story is self-contained, with different protagonists and independent resolutions, but they connect with each other. The protagonist of one story is mentioned in another. A park groundskeeper explicitly appears twice. The largest connection of all appears early, when one tale’s adolescent protagonist visits a pet shop with a silent parrot, a scene recreated in two other stories, from different perspectives. Even if the contents or twists of the stories are different, these connections give the feeling of a shared world. But while we are clearly in the same neighborhood, it isn’t quite novelistic, with an arc more thematic than narrative.
The central theme of “Animal Stories” is built into the magical realism common to every story, even if the form it takes varies. For instance, in one story a pigeon might be an epistolary romantic predator, while in another the previously silent parrot an eloquent revolutionary. In another story entirely, a completely normal dog, the kind that needs regular walks in the park and fear-barks at storms, is the incumbent president of the United States, a fact that is treated as mundane. In one story, a house cat basically plays the role (in a non-sexual way) of a noir femme fatale. What is common is that the animals here are a lot smarter and craftier than we give them credit for, and we humans are a lot less in control than we think. The humans of “Animal Stories” are so frequently tricked, ambushed and defeated by animals, it feels true when the parrot threateningly tells a pet store owner “the age of dominion is nearly over.”
But while the humans in these stories have little control over what happens to them, the Hoeys have absolute control of their craft for the effect of masterful storytelling. At times, this comes in the form of inventive panel layouts, such as a cascading layout that follows swells of the ocean or a layout where a park sign in the center of the page tells the reader exactly what law a couple is breaking at the moment. At other times it’s the way their art contributes to the feel of the collection. The art, with its clean lines, bright colors and realistically rendered features, makes it so when something mythical like a dog president appears, what is looking at us isn’t an exaggerated cartoon like Snoopy: it’s a realistic dog. The result isn’t just absurd, it’s utterly surreal, leaving the reader as ambushed as the collection’s human subjects.
By Peter and Maria Hoey
Top Shelf Productions, 176 Pages, $19.99