Dorkin & Thompson's "Beasts of Burden"

Beasts of Burden

"Beasts of Burden" #1 on sale in September

In September, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson return to Burden Hill for more cute but vicious mystical animal mischief. "Beasts of Burden," a four-issue series spinning out of short stories first seen in Dark Horse's "Book of Hauntings," "Book of Witchcraft," and "Book of the Dead" anthologies, features full-length standalone adventures of what Dorkin describes as "cats and dogs vs. evil." The pair have taken two Eisner Awards for their work with the characters, with Thompson winning Best Painter in 2004 for "Stray" and together earning 2005's Best Short Story for "Unfamiliar." CBR News caught up with Dorkin and Thompson to discuss the new miniseries.

The animals of "Beasts of Burden" speak to each other and have strong, human-style personalities, but they are minimally anthropomorphized. "They're dog-dogs," Thompson told CBR. "It's Pluto, not Goofy -- Pluto's a dog, Goofy's a dog, but Goofy wears clothes and Pluto doesn't."

These household pets, largely but not exclusively dogs, take on the responsibility of investigating supernatural mysteries around the suburban town of Burden Hill, occasionally aided by the Wise Dog Society.

Though Dorkin was reluctant to say specifically what mystical threats the dogs (and cat) would face throughout the four issues of "Beasts of Burden," he did elaborate a bit on what follows from the preview art Dark Horse has previously shown. "We've shown already there's a rain of frogs, which leads into a larger problem in the forest. And a few animals get eaten."

Despite this admission, Dorkin said that for the most part the cast would remain fairly consistent, with few violent departures. "I've actually been staying away from offing members of the main cast, because I kind of want to buck the trend of murdering off all your characters. I don't mind putting them in danger and occasionally having them lose some body parts, but I'm not playing around too much with them." The writer added that, as the dogs move about the neighborhood of Burden Hill, other animals may join their crew.

Asked how he decided how to determine which type of dog fit best with a particular personality, Dorkin said that when fleshing out the series he bought a big encyclopedia on dogs for research. "I know dog breeds about as well as I know cars, which is not much. I kind of cast animals through that. The first story, when we didn't know there was going to be a series, I wrote down the naïve dog, the cynical dog, the scared cat I think, and just tried to match that. The obnoxious dog, the pug, seemed good. For the naïve dog I used a Jack Russell terrier because it's small, it's scrappy, and I think that's the kind of dog from the 'Thin Man' movie and I always liked that kind of dog.

"The other problem working with dogs is that they don't wear hats or have super-costumes or anything, so to differentiate them you have to have a different breed for everything. We don't have too many matched-up breeds."

Films and other popular media have gone a long way in establishing expectations about how certain dogs would likely behave, if given human personalities. "The wise dog, who's sort of a Gandalf character, it's not difficult to image him as a shaggy, hairy sheep dog," Dorkin said. "But obviously, with these different animals we're using, it is central casting like in old movies. The Spuds Mackenzie kind of dog won't make a great hero dog, but at the same time, when you have some dead dogs walking around with their guts hanging out it's funny to put a poodle in there -- which we did in a short story. We were just playing in this story, because it's supposed to be so scary: a zombie poodle, with a cute face. So we play against type sometimes. When you're dealing with cats, Siamese cats are going to be a little creepier than an orange tabby."

Dorkin said that Jill Thompson's art goes a long way in bring out each dog's personality. "I normally don't like painted work in comics because it's too stiff and they don't work a lot of panel-to-panel storytelling in -- there's a lot of posing, a lot of poster shots. But she has the comics and storytelling chops. The characters really do act, and the transitions between panels are not choppy. We don't have to have a lot of narration explaining what's going on. But the acting she puts into it is amazing. The characters really have a wide range."

Jill Thompson said it's not easy to get this degree of reality into her painted art. "You have to take a lot of artistic license to give them more human facial features. Dogs are a bit easier than cats because they have those cutie-pie eyebrows that they use to manipulate you to get food and stuff out of you. But I have to add a little bit to anthropomorphize them a bit in their facial features.

"It's also difficult a bit because, as dogs, they can't turn door knobs or pick something up. If they do it, you kind of have to make concessions. They're picking that up with their teeth," she continued. "You also have to remember the height of something. If you're trying to show a car or a house or something in the distance, when you pull back your main characters are small to begin with. Sometimes you're dealing with a Doberman pinscher talking to a Jack Russell terrier and there's a height differential in there. It's not like with people, where they're just a couple inches shorter than each other, sometimes one is two feet shorter than the other. So that causes me to pull back a little, do more long shots instead of close-ups."

While there are occasional human characters in the earlier short stories and in "Beasts of Burden," the owners are largely an off-panel presence and not usually active participants in their pets' adventures. This is partly because the humans are away at work during the day, and thus unaware of what's going on in the neighborhood. "If we get into more back-story, there will be more human beings and, like the animals, some of them won't be what they seem to be," Dorkin said. "And some of them will be good and some of them will be terrible. So far, I just really like the idea of showing this from the animals' point of view and once in a while having them talk about humans, and once in a while having a bit of business in the background about how they do and don't understand humans. One of them has an owner who is drunk all the time, he just doesn't understand. Things like that."

Humans also play a role in the mysterious brotherhood seen several times already in the dog and cat stories. "I have a lot of material on what the Wise Dog Society is and where it came from, it's been around for a couple hundred years," Dorkin said. "It's sort of a version of cat familiars. Witches have cat familiars, but in this world certain humans have dog companions who are sort of smarter than your average dogs. And they're dying out from disuse, lack of belief in magic, things like that. All that old crap.

"To be honest, I'm trying to avoid magic as much as possible. You know, nothing against ['Dungeons & Dragons'], I played it, I love it, but I don't want to get into the nuts and bolts of magic. I'm much more interested in character and story. They'd rather bite something or run away from something than learn a spell. That works for me, I think. I'm going through witchcraft books for research stuff, some people might get mad because we're not going by the 'real' rules of magic, but in the end, I just want to tell a story, you know what I mean? The dogs are not going to be using guns, they don't dress up in clothes, [but] they're very smart and some of them can speak to humans. I don't want anyone rolling a 20-sided die getting too mad at us, so we're not going into that too much."

Jill Thompson offered a bit more about her collaborator's unseen "Beasts of Burden" backstory. "When we started out with the first eight-page story, I don't think we ever expected they would keep going and become more elaborate stories with a larger cast or complex storylines. So when I did the first eight-page story, it was just a bunch of dogs who come together because one of them has a haunted doghouse. It was trying to put a spin on a ghost story from a completely different angle, and it kind of got popular and now they're just the dogs that deal with everything. But Evan's got some very inventive things, things that are never stated in the series. He thinks all the time, well, these dogs are out of their yards all the time -- doesn't anyone worry about that? Why are they always in their yards, since people keep their dogs in the house a lot? Well, they always pee on their rugs, so they get sent outside. That bad dog's spending the night outside! Those are things he'll mention to me that right now the reader doesn't really find out."

Even though "Beasts of Burden" is a talking animals story, it's not sanitized for younger readers. "Jill's artwork is really adorable, she draws gorgeous dogs and cats. But bad things happen in these stories," Dorkin said. "And while these aren't R-rated stories, they are kind of PG-13. We just want to make sure that, if a parent sees these cute animals, they also see the blood stains and the skeletons on the sides before they hand them to kids."

Though a capable artist himself as evidenced by his popular "Milk and Cheese" comics, Evan Dorkin's style does not lend itself readily to horror, something he acknowledges. "When Scott Allie, the editor, read the first story, he thought I was going to draw it. I said, there's no way I could draw this, I'd ruin it. It's going to take me one year to draw a dog looking like a dog decently," Dorkin said. "I didn't want it to be cartoony, I wanted it to have a little bit more oomph. I always saw it as storybooks, and I thought Jill would be perfect for them. And I think she was, and she ended up winning a couple of awards for it. The stuff that she's doing, every issue looks better than anything else. She's putting so much work into it. At this point there's eight or nine dogs and cats, I'm really glad she hasn't quit. I think we make a good team, it's been a lot of fun, a lot of hard work. And I think we've made a good book."

Yes, there's some potentially upsetting material affecting the animals' lives. "I'm not an overtly gory person," Thompson said. "I subscribe to the old-movie style of violence depiction, which is that nothing that I can create is as disgusting as what you can create in your imagination. Of course, in the first issue, there's a bunch of gore. But if there's something really bad that happens, I'd prefer to show what's leading up to it or the aftermath, not the actual impact. I'm a weirdo in that violence to humans makes me sad, but violence to animals makes me sad and angry. Drawing something like that has made me cry while I'm painting it, because I can't imagine doing anything bad to an animal!

"I really, really think it's unlike anything that's out there right now. I'm really proud of the work I'm doing on it. I think Evan is knocking himself out scripts and a huge, diverse cast of characters and some cool ghostly and scary things. I hope everyone likes the town of Burden Hill and spends some time there."

"Beasts of Burden" #1 is on sale in September from Dark Horse. The dogs' first Eisner Award-winning adventure can be read for free at Dark Horse.com

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