Animal Castle (#1 – 2) – Xavier Dorison

3 out of 5

Whenever there’s a story that can be summarized as “like X but with Y!” my first question is always: is there any benefit to swapping out for Y? Has your change actually added some new dimension or perspective to the idea, or do you just like robots and think telling Romeo & Juliet with Transformers would be fun? And it can be – and sure, toss in references to oil or bolts instead of blood or money for some cheap hyucks – but it’s also pretty limited. Good for a glance, maybe good for a first exposure to a particular story template, but if you’ve already seen / heard that template before, the quirky appeal will last only as long as it lasts.

There are many comics and books, stretching back across decades now, which bring in anthropomorphic animals as the main cast. Many of these fall into the bucket mentioned above, but there have also been a lot of good examples of finding a middleground between cute puns and legitimate lore that makes the mice or cats or whatever worth our time. When it comes to animals and political / social parables… well, we’ve also had quite a few, with Animal Farm being a common reference point.

Animal Castle, a comic from writer Xavier Dorison and artist Felix Delep, maybe purposefully namechecks that classic, and also doesn’t seem to stray too much from its class and leadership struggles, though starting out with the hierarchy of a particular farm of sheep and rabbits and etcetera being lorded over by a bossy rooster, a pack of angry dogs as the militia, and their president bull. Though there’s some nuance regarding whom reports to whom – this farm isn’t the top of the food chain – but there’s nothing particularly unique about the one-note villains who love their power and disinformation, and same with the populace of go-with-the-flows and some rabble-rousers. Because this is a European comic, the presence of talking animals doesn’t automatically equate to this being a kids book, and indeed, we start out with a public execution of an “egg stealing” hen (it was her own egg…), the sole male rabbit essentially runs a harem, and a foiled rebellion later on ends quite bloodily; but this is mostly just tone – at its core, you’ve seen this story of haves and have-nots told before, only this time it’s with animals, which you’ve also seen before. There’s not really any lore or world-building to mention, except a passing reference to the prior farm owners passing from plague. Maybe this will be important, but it’s delivered in an off-hand way as though just to speed us to talking cats and dogs.

I’m being rather snide here, but that’s not to say that Dorison and Delep don’t tell their tale well. Our lead, single-mother cat has a good balance of skepticism and concern for her family’s well-being, and the day-to-day specifics of farm work are amusing. The baddies are good baddies; the hero characters are heroic. And Delep’s art has a really engaging, classic Disney vibe to its characterizations, albeit of a much more detailed and richer character, given amazing warmth by colorist Jessica Bodard. Characters sometimes over-emote, but that might be translation hiccups; the windy balloon tails of Thomas Napolitano (this also seems to be a European penchant, and one I don’t quite understand) also add to this occasional distracting disconnect between words and art.

The richness of the visuals make one wish Dorison would step off the beaten path somewhat, and with the introduction of a wise rat from elsewhere to the farm, perhaps that will be in future issues, but Animal Castle, for anyone who’s read Animal Farm or books / comics of its ilk, is a bit too worn in in its tone and tropes.