Though it’s been a little over two years since the last “Beasts of Burden” one-shot, Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer and Jill Thompson’s “Beasts of Burden: What the Cat Dragged In” not only maintains the high standard of excellence I’ve come to expect from their collaborations, but invites in old and new readers alike.
Dorkin and Dyer introduce the characters quickly, placing the cat Orphan front and center while reminding readers of Dymphna’s treacherous past. It never feels like exposition, even though it effortlessly serves as such; this is the sort of writing skill I wish more creators had. It’s something we see throughout the entire one-shot; whenever we need information, it’s conveyed in an exciting, attention-grabbing way. This book never even comes close to being dull or slow, and something new happens on every single page. Surprisingly, the dogs that make up the bulk of “Beasts of Burden’s” usual cast aren’t present here, but they’re also never missed. It’s a smart decision to leave them out; with three cats and a raccoon venturing into the abandoned house of Dymphna’s old mistresses, there’s no need for them and — if anything — they would have cluttered the plot.
Dorkin and Dyer always keep the reader guessing. While most readers will suspect that Dymphna isn’t telling us everything, the writers balance her character so you’re never sure if she’s going to betray the others or not. She’s an unreliable ally from beginning to end, someone who has strong motivations that exist outside of Orphan and the Kid’s goals. Don’t be tricked into thinking that, just because the protagonists here are animals, they aren’t complex; in an ideal world, all comics would have characters this fully realized.
In Thompson’s beautifully painted pages, every single panel is lush and expressive, from carefully crafted green leaves to the objects in the house that belonged to the witches. There’s a sly humor in the latter with all of the scattered cat paraphernalia, even as Thompson never loses sight of the fact that this is a house that has artificially accelerated decay. She chooses dull blues and grays for these rooms, with splatters of mold and dirt everywhere you look. It’s a strong contrast to the lifelike green of outside, or even the unnatural green of what’s lurking in the basement. These careful choices continue on every page.
Thompson is also able to make animal faces look so expressive, it almost hurts. Orphan’s terror is palpable as they flee the evil in the basement, and who knew a raccoon could look so determined, based solely on a facial expression? Even the creature in the basement is well rendered, a strange mixture of fantastical and dangerous elements merged together. This is an amazing looking comic, a reminder of how lucky the industry is to have Thompson’s talents.
“Beasts of Burden: What the Cat Dragged In” is a thoroughly wonderful comic and it was well worth the wait, though hopefully the promised two-parter mentioned in the letters column will have a slightly shorter gestation period. Dorkin, Dyer and Thompson have given us a perfect comic; I wouldn’t change a single thing about it. If you’ve never read any of the “Beasts of Burden” comics, this is as good a place as any to see what you’ve been missing. Comics are rarely this great.