Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson

Posted by on September 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Dark Horse; 184 pp., $19.99; Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-1-595-82513-1

As a fictional conceit, talking animals are difficult to do well.  Often the results feel forced, obvious, childish or derivative — the realm of Saturday-morning cartoons.  However, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden — about a group of mystery-solving pets — is none of the above.  Despite its seemingly naïve premise, it emerges as a bold, inventive and timely horror series.

Part of the reason that the creators so easily sidestep the usual pitfalls of the adventuring talking-animals niche is that the two not only have an affection for, but also an understanding of, animals that affords the characters more respect and less condescension.  The carefully observed distinction between species that lent so much pathos to Grant Morrison’s We3 is here even more nuanced and affecting.  The team of pets is comprised of five dogs and a cat, each of whose breed is a clever shorthand of their personality — the noble husky, the sleekit ginger moggy, the wisecracking pug (who is treated with right amount of disdain by the other animals) — so that they appear almost fully formed, allowing Dorkin to excise unnecessary backstories and allow the stories to carry momentum from the first panel.

One of the main appeals of the series, though, is Jill Thompson’s artwork.  Rendered in beautiful, saturated watercolours which, while faithfully representational, are not slavishly photo-realistic.  With the bucolic greens of neighborhood gardens, she evokes the fragile veneer of suburbia so beloved by David Lynch, John Waters and Time Burton; and, like these directors, is able to play off that surface with contrasting visions of horror and violence.  In her protagonists, too, there is a similar dichotomy, but one that’s often played for laughs.  Within the sweep of two panels, the dogs and cats of Burden Hill can change from having serene, life-like expressions to bug-eyed, flailing-limbed expressions of terror, straight out of Scooby-Doo.

The Great Dane and his mystery gang is probably the easiest and laziest comparison to make with Beasts of Burden.  Although the mysteries the animals find themselves involved in are predominantly supernatural, Dorkin and Thomspson never push the camp factor too far, nor the limits of believability.  Indeed, much of the series’ power and emotional resonance comes from its grounding in the real and the horror of the mundane.

In the “Lost” episode, the animals come across a stagnant pond called Devil’s Well which unleashes the vengeful ghosts of drowned animals.  While the spirits cause a little uneasiness in the reader, it is the object of their vengeance that truly chills the blood — especially when revealed as subtly and coldly as it is here.

This collision of the real and the fantastic is particularly effective through the eyes of the animals.  Whilst the modern Western world grows ever-more secular and skeptical, the notion of ghosties, ghoulies and the supernatural no longer hold the same resonance as they once did (hence the profligate “gorn” genre that’s been providing scares and box-office revenue recently).  By giving the characters a naïveté, it allows Dorkin to build his own mythology for the animals (a hodge-podge of pagan, heathenist and voodoo beliefs) that is given full credence by all concerned.  The result is that all the scares feel genuine and that the characters are in real peril — a fact underlined by Dorkin’s willingness to dispatch with several cats, dogs, frogs and even humans as collateral damage for his rampaging spirits and monsters.

Beasts of Burden manages to strike all the right emotional notes: it is chilling, comedic, tragic and heartwarming.  It’s a series that feels born out of a genuine love of the characters and so transcends both its premise and its genre to become a drama that is, ironically, altogether human.

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