Beasts of Burden: Animal RitesWritten by Evan Dorkin; Illustrated by Jill ThompsonDark Horse; $19.99
I know we’ve been talking a lot about comics for kids lately, so I’m going to give that a rest for a bit (except to point you to Nate Cosboom and Skottie Young’s latest thoughts on the subject). Fun and awesome comics don’t always have to be kid-appropriate. Beasts of Burden is an excellent example of that. Monster-hunting dogs and cats sounds particularly good for children, but not when the monsters are this scary. Your kids may be different from mine and more power to them if they are, but my eight-year-old would have nightmares if this was his bedtime reading. Doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy the hell out of it though.
As you may know, Beasts of Burden began as a recurring feature in the Dark Horse Book of… anthologies. There were four volumes – Book of Hauntings, Book of Witchcraft, Book of the Dead, and Book of Monsters – and one of the highlights of each was always Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s story about five dogs and a stray cat who get pulled deeper and deeper into the supernatural.
The Animal Rites collection includes those four stories as well as the four-issue Beasts of Burden mini-series. In the spirit of anthology tales, each of the eight stories stands by itself. There are no cliffhangers; no To Be Continueds. But there’s a larger story taking shape as the pets learn more and more about the paranormal and begin to figure out that the recent weirdness in their quiet, little, wooded community is being orchestrated by a single intelligence. What that intelligence is remains to be discovered by the end of Animal Rites, which is fine by me. There’s a slow build moving towards that revelation and I don’t want Dorkin and Thompson to rush it. Besides, I want more of these stories and it’s comforting to know that there are plans for that.
What’s not comforting is the stories themselves. As I hinted at before, they’re dark and genuinely scary. This is no Scooby Doo. There’s blood and death and possession and tragedy so strong it’ll break your heart. Seriously, I don’t know how Thompson painted some of the stuff she had to without getting hammered first.
But the book is also charming and cute and sweet. It’s obvious that both Dorkin and Thompson are pet owners, because the characters all act like real animals. They have varied personalities too. Ace the husky is noble and brave and the leader of the group. Pug (Mister Pugsley to his owners) is blusterous and crass; the gang’s tiny Ben Grimm. Rex the Doberman is a lot of talk, but actually rather cowardly, possibly the result of having a drunk for a master (it makes me extremely uneasy to imagine Rex's home life). Jack’s a smart, inquisitive beagle; Whitey is an excited, easily distracted terrier, and Orphan is a stray tabby cat whose tenacious loyalty to his friends causes him to save the day more than once. Readers get to know and love these animals over the course of the book, and that makes all the danger they’re in that much scarier.
Adding to the realism is all the world-building Dorkin’s put into the concept. Not just Burden Hills – which feels like a real place and one you’d want to live in and protect – but even the culture and belief system of the animals. There’s a small council of Wise Dogs who protect the others, though we don’t yet know anything about where they meet or how widespread they are. And the dogs all believe in the Great Dog who dug the lakes and mountains and the Black Dog who comes to usher canines into the afterlife. We’re starting too to get hints about cat culture, which seems much less structured than that of the dogs. I want an ongoing series so that Dorkin and Thompson can explain all of this fully. More than that, I want a whole set of Beasts of Burden hardcovers that I can share with my son once he’s old enough to read them without crying.
Discussion Question: What are some other fun, adventuresome comics that you wouldn’t share with a young person? Why are they inappropriate and what makes them still fun?