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