Thursday Comics Hangover: The circle and the rectangle

I've written a few times before about my love for the comics magazine Coin-Op, which is written and drawn and colored and designed and everything-else-d by brother-sister cartooning team Peter and Maria Hoey.

You might have had a hard time tracking down an issue of Coin-Op the last few times I wrote about it; the series was only available at a few indie shops or at special occasions attended by the Hoeys, like the Short Run Festival. Now, though, you're out of excuses: you can pick up or order a hefty collection of the Hoey siblings' comics at any bookstore in the country. Published by Top Shelf Productions, Coin-Op Comics Anthology: 1997 - 2017 is a sharp-looking hardcover collection of the first five Coin-Op books, as well as earlier Hoey comics that appeared in places like Blab! Magazine.

Coin-Op comics are fundamentally built out of two distinct shapes. First is the squat rectangle of the page. All the Hoeys' strips are laid out in horizontal format, giving each page a sprawling sense for those who are accustomed to the vertical orientation of most modern comics.

The second, and maybe most important, shape is the circle. (I'm hardly the first person to notice this: "The characteristic icon of Coin-Op is the perfect circle," writes Josh O'Neill in the introduction to the book.)The Hoeys evoke perfectly rendered circles in almost all their work, from a crisp white tabletop to the chaos of a river flooding a nondescript office in overlapping circular panels. Their characters run in circles. In some instances, their heads are perfect circles. The moon hangs in the sky like a shiny quarter. A man examines a diamond ring.

All of the comics in Coin-Op riff on variations of those two shapes: the broad expanse of a rectangle and the unending loops of a circle. A movie screen and a spinning jazz record. The Hoeys are history buffs, drawing strips that riff on Vertigo and the life of the director of Rebel Without a Cause. Other strips discuss the life and legacy of jazz greats like Herbie Hancock and Django Reinhardt.

My favorite part of Coin-Op is when the Hoeys test the limits of comics as a storytelling medium. One strip breaks a parade accident down into a string of interconnected narratives, each given its own progression of individual panels that form part of a greater whole. A wordless strip surveys a crime wave committed by a pigeon. The most surreal strips play out in banal cubicles — beige offices so bland that the reality of the comic strip seems to fold in on itself as an act of rebellion against the boredom of ordinary life.

If, like me, you believe the storytelling range of comics has yet to be fully explored, the Coin-Op anthology is for you. These comics are dancing on the razor's edge between strict formalism and chaotic play. That's where the most interesting stuff always happens.