Forever Fangirl: Wanna Be a Beast of Burden?

Beasts of Burden

Beasts of Burden

Whew, what a busy few weeks it has been for your Forever Fangirl. Between Comic Con, script deadlines, and auditions for Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights (I got cast, thanks for asking), I’ve been on a mini hiatus. But never fear, I haven’t vanished, and I’m back to introduce you, or perhaps re-introduce you to Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with this team of five dogs (Ace, Rex, Jack, Whitey, and Pugsley) and one cat (Orphan) first presented by Dark Horse Comics back in 2003 as part of their horror anthology “The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings“, let me give you a little history. Living in the neighborhood of Burden Hill, these neighborhood pets and strays band together to fight to save their home from the paranormal forces that only they could fight. Mixing traditional horror elements with cute talking animals, Beasts of Burden’s first story “Stray” is Disney meets The Sixth Sense, as Jack, a beagle, enlists his friends to help him exorcise the spirit of the golden lab Trixie, who had been hit by a car and was buried in a panic before she was dead. From that moment on (through several appearances in Dark Horse’s “The Book of…” series), the group fought everything from the witch cats to werewolf hobos, earning Eisner Awards for Best Short Story, Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior Art), Best Publication for Teens, as well as the National Cartoonist Society’s Best Comic Book Artist for Jill Thompson in 2011, spawning collected editions, a 4 issue limited series, and a guest shot with Hellboy in “Hellboy/Beasts of Burden: Sacrifice” cowritten by Mike Mignola.

I’m going to admit, I never saw this series on its first run, and I only became aware of it when my roommate picked up Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites from Comic Con this year. Collecting those first short stories and reprinting the limited series, we are introduced to the characters and the world they inhabit, as they go from average pets to apprentices of the Wise Dog Society. Written by Evan Dorkin (creator of Milk and Cheese, published by Slave Labor Graphics) and beautifully painted by Jill Thompson (best known for her work on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman), Dark Horse has collected this in a nicely bound hardback that is definitely worth picking up.

Anyhow, having never heard of this book before, and literally having finished it last night, imagine my surprise when my trip to my local comic shop revealed a shiny new copy of Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch, collecting three spooky tales originally published in Dark Horse Presents.

First of the three stories, the gang has to go up against a chicken stealing goblin, and learn that sometimes the ones we are trying to protect don’t entirely understand what we’re attempting to do. In the second story, the Wise Dog tells three wandering puppies the epic tale of Bitan and the Basilisk. The final story in the book is a ghostly tale about a herd of sheep who are lost in more ways than one. The writing in all three stories is beyond compare, deftly mixing the traditional story elements of  heroism and sacrifice, with the spookiness of ghosts and boogeymen, all told with a decidedly doggy bent to it. These are anthropomorphic animals only in the fact that they are thinking, speaking and sentient. In every other way, they are dogs (and a cat), walking on all fours, barking when nervous, prone to butt sniffing, and under the domain of their human owners. Dorkin writes them like a pro, giving each dog his own personality, his own voice, and even if you know nothing about what breed of dog is which, it doesn’t matter, because the story is compelling enough to keep you enraptured.

The art in the book is above the pale, of course. Unlike crappy direct to dvd movies about blank eyed lab puppies going to the moon or something, Jill Thompson manages to give these animals and their otherworldly enemies expression and emotion, while remembering that they are dogs (and a cat.) Muzzles remain muzzles and yet somehow they smile. Body postures of strength are head up, tails high. Fear causes fur to fluff and tails to tuck. This is not a Disney story though. There’s plenty of blood and gore here, all done with Thompson’s almost delicate paints. I think it’s watercolor or maybe inkwash, but man, is it pretty, and it is a perfect marriage of story and art. Really understandable why this artist has won every award there is to win.

So, yeah, go pick up this book, and then get the collected versions. Rumor (and Wikipedia) says a cgi film is on the way, so we have that to look forward to.

And, until next week, don’t let the Black Dog getcha!

Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch
Written by Evan Dorkin
Art by Jill Thompson

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