Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Coin-Op Comics Anthology: 1997-2017 by Maria Hoey and Peter Hoey

I should have realized they were commercial illustrators - their work has all of the hallmarks. The polish, the construction, the architecture of the comics panels. It all shows a deep insight into design and a deep concern for design, for telling stories precisely and sharply.

I didn't quite realize that the first few times I read the work of siblings Maria Hoey and Peter Hoey - the full-length graphic novel The Bend of Luck and the connected themed collection Animal Stories. I said that their work reminded me of other kinds of art - advertising, Flash games, informative pamphlets, and so on - but didn't quite make the leap to say that's because they do that other kind of work as well. They live in that world; they think in those terms.

Successful illustrators who make comics are rare, if only because comics are so vastly less remunerative than illustration. There's a text appreciation in this book, by Monte Beauchamp, who "discovered" the Hoeys for comics as editor of Blab! in the '90s, pointing that out, and doing a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of just how much money they could have made with the same number of pictures for commercial clients.

Coin-Op Comics Anthology: 1997-2017 collects the first twenty years of their short comics work, in a quirky reverse order. So it starts with Coin-Op magazine itself, which they self-publish. Issue five comes first, then four, and so on. Before that - it's unclear if it's all structured in reverse-chronological order, or otherwise structured for a particular reading experience - are the earlier stories from Blab!

(This is no longer the complete Coin-Op. Issue 9 came out last year; they seem to have a new issue about every other year, plus the regular stream of longer works.)

There are a lot of stories here, and I'm not going to try to list them all. Some are straightforward narratives, but many are more dreamlike, or design-driven. There's a series of illustrated "articles" about jazz musicians - all of them, I think, entirely fictional - and some pieces that seem to be mostly song lyrics (original, I think) turned into visual art. There's another series about two sad-sack characters, anthropomorphic dogs or dog-headed men, named Saltz and Pepz who get into various scrapes during what seems to be the Great Depression. They also have a few stories in a twelve-panel grid, showing the same wide scene each page, as big events crash or break across multiple panels and characters.

Many of the stories are set in the vague past, what I think of as the '30s or the '50s - not during The War, not during anything major or notable - with boxy cars and people in constructed suits and all the furniture of a world that's familiar and stable and entirely gone.

And even the pieces I call straightforward are very Hoey-esque: designed, often to the point of being schematic, telling stories as much in the ways the panels are laid out on the page as in the things that happen in those panels. None of it is obvious; none of their work is ever obvious, I'm coming to believe.

There's a lot of depth and interest in Coin-Op: a lot of time and thought when into every panel here. Even the wordless, imagistic stories - which, as a Word Person, I had to admit I didn't really "get" - are full of wonders and surprises. The Hoeys are as interested in how they tell stories, how they present moments visually , how those visually feel, as they are in the story being told.

They're illustrators. It's what they do. And they do it really well.

(I've hit the end here, and neglected to note that some pieces here - I think mostly older work, but not necessarily - were co-written by Charles Paul Freund. The song lyrics in particular seem to be mostly from Freund. It's not really clear how the Hoeys work together - other than they both write and both draw, from opposite ends of the American continent, on what I assume are the same digital pages somewhat simultaneously - so Freund adds another layer of "how does this fit in" to the mix. That's all unimportant, frankly: the work is the work, however it got made or whoever did what.)

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