*Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites — Best of 2010

I love animal comics, but I am too squeamish for horror, so I wasn’t sure how I’d react to this blend. I should have had more faith in the skills of writer Evan Dorkin and artist Jill Thompson to create stories worth reading.

Beasts of Burden cover
Beasts of Burden
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The Beasts of Burden are the neighborhood dogs (and a stray cat) of Burden Hill. They were introduced in “Stray”, which first appeared in the anthology The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, where they seek the Wise Dog’s advice for Jack. His doghouse is haunted, you see, so the pack needs to summon and then exorcise the ghost. It’s a simple, clever idea that plays out in a story within a story, as we see the ghost’s tale as part of the process of resolving her lingering attachments. And the idea of a proper burial suits well characters that like to dig.

The beasts went on to appear in three more anthology short stories over the next few years, including “Unfamiliar”, which won the Eisner Award in 2005 for Best Short Story. Those four stories, along with the four-issue Beasts of Burden miniseries that followed, are collected here as Animal Rites.

The challenges facing the pack come from classic horror stories, all tweaked to relate to animals: A coven of witches and their cat familiars attempt to summon a demon. Zombie dogs. Werewolves. A stray boy (a runaway) who has both the ability to speak to the dogs and a gruesome secret. Giant animal monsters. A serial killer who murders puppies. A seance and possession to gain revenge. A haunted graveyard. They’re all presented with Dorkin’s dark humor, as when they determine what will finally wake a dog ghost or they figure out a disguise for their cat buddy.

Thompson’s painted art (previously seen in Scary Godmother, which will soon be re-released from this publisher, Dark Horse) is better than ever, as she captures animal behavior in realistic yet expressive form. Her work on this series has won her the Eisner Award for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist in 2004, 2007, and 2010. She handles well both the everyday pet action and the exaggerated supernatural beasties.

The characters are distinctive, in keeping with their breeds: Jack, the beagle, is faithful but not particularly smart. Pugsley speaks the truth brusquely. The Doberman, Rex, provides strength but can be skittish. Terrier Whitey is nervous, gullible, but determined. Ace, the huskey, is solid, an anchor for the team.All demonstrate the loyalty that make dogs such beloved companions and dedicated protectors of their neighborhood from these many ghoulish invaders, while the cat, Orphan, is streetwise but secretly desires the group’s friendship.

It’s a dense book, particularly appropriate for the season, with lots to look at and ponder. It’s very creepy, and quite scary, at times, not for the young, but the art is so lovely I could focus on that at the darkest moments. My favorite touch shows both how these stories are faithful to the genre and how they’ve been creatively tweaked to feature animals: When the dogs need a summoning circle, instead of holding hands, they sit in a circle, paw to paw and tail curled to tail.

I’m also impressed that it’s such a handsome hardcover at such a reasonable price. The ending promises more to come, which I’d love to see. Also included in this book are an author’s afterword; cover reprints; seven pages of design sketches with Thompson’s notes; and advertising art with the beasts. You can read the first story, “Stray”, online, and others are available at Dark Horse’s website. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

9 Responses to “*Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites — Best of 2010”

  1. Rob Says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Johanna–somehow I missed this when you first announced it, and the story you linked to sure is cute. (Sad, but cute.) I’ll be picking it up!

  2. With Best Books, the Year Has Ten Months » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] novel list is rather as expected — my favorite of the ten is Dorkin and Thompson’s Beasts of Burden. Also […]

  3. Stephan Says:

    Stumbled across this at the local library…great book to have! A different perspective to supernatural happenings. I like the whimsical style of illustrations to gory subjects such as resurected dead dogs…easier to swallow? which would probably be overly gross in another.
    Be out hunting for this issue…hopes its avaiable locally.

  4. Best Graphic Novels of 2010 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] Beasts of Burden by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson — Gorgeous and scary, charming and creepy, as a neighborhood gang of dogs tackle ghosts and monsters. […]

  5. Two Exciting Upcoming Dark Horse Books Feature Jill Thompson » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden will return in 2011. If it’s like the previous (excellent) book, a miniseries in periodical format will be followed by an attractive collection with extra […]

  6. Anthony Mystery Award Introduces Graphic Novel Category » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] would be the Parker book (although I’ve heard the first is better), just for the craft, or Beasts of Burden, which I thought transcended its genre instead of just being a great example of it. […]

  7. Congratulations to First Female Comickers Recognized by NCS » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] National Cartoonists Society (NCS), and Thompson won this year’s Comic Books category for Beasts of Burden. (I would think that would make this a shared award, since Evan Dorkin wrote the book, but […]

  8. Dark Horse Christmas Card Features Beasts of Burden » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] of snow on us — and it was this one. I was thrilled to see such wonderful characters, the Beasts of Burden dogs, illustrated by Jill Thompson, celebrating the holiday. Thanks, Dark […]

  9. Beasts of Burden Movie a Possibility » DVDs Worth Watching Says:

    […] has the news that Reel FX has announced they are developing a CG-animated film based on Beasts of Burden, the way cool animal comic by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson. Director is planned to be Shane Acker, […]




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