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Review: Beasts of Burden, No. 1

Katherine Dacey

Most librarians know Jill Thompson as the creator of Magic Trixie, a charming trilogy of graphic novels about a feisty young witch and her friends, but Thompson’s career has spanned a number of genres and major franchises, from Sandman to Wonder Woman to Swamp Thing. Her latest series, Beasts of Burden, pairs her with screen- and scriptwriter Evan Dorkin, the creative force behind such titles as Dork, Milk and Cheese, and Superman and Batman: World’s Funnest. The two collaborated on four previous “Beasts of Burden” stories, which appeared in various Dark Horse anthologies such as The Book of the Dead and The Book of Hauntings. After the two nabbed Eisners for their work on “Beasts,” Dark Horse commissioned a four-issue mini-series featuring the same characters introduced in the original shorts.

Beasts of Burden, No. 1 
By Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson
Rating: 13+ (mild gore, language)
Dark Horse, 2009, UPC: 7 61568 13834 4 00111
32 pp., $2.99

beasts1 Review: Beasts of Burden, No. 1The premise of Beasts of Burden is appealingly simple. In the sleepy town of Burden Hill, a group of dogs and cats investigate supernatural phenomena, protecting their unsuspecting owners from ghosts, witches, and zombie pets. Issue one, “The Gathering Storm,” finds the gang hot on the trail of a unique nemesis: a plague of cannibal frogs. When the flesh-eating amphibians swarm the nearby forest, the gang pursues them, discovering an even more sinister – and hungry – entity lying in wait.

Dorkin and Thompson are clearly scholars of 1970s horror films, as they exercise the same restraint that made Alien and Jaws so effective. For most of the issue, we don’t know what’s lurking in the woods, though a few tantalizing and grisly clues hint at its size and power. When Dorkin and Thompson reveal the bogeyman, it turns out to be big, scary, and mildly ridiculous – not unlike Bruce, the mechanical shark that terrorized Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfus in Jaws.

Thompson’s artwork is some of the most appealing you’ll see in a mainstream comic this year. Her dogs and cats are rendered with great care; her pugs look like pugs, her huskies like huskies. She endows each one with a distinctive, breed-appropriate personality, bringing each character to life through body language and mannerisms that pet owners will immediately recognize as authentically canine (or feline; the gang’s unofficial mascot is Orphan, a marmalade-colored cat). Better still, Dorkin has trusted Thompson’s art to carry the burden of the storytelling. The story has no omniscient narrator or explanatory dialogue in which the Beasts tell us what’s happening or what they’re feeling; we’re simply tossed into the action, unraveling the froggy mystery alongside the characters.

samplepage2 Review: Beasts of Burden, No. 1

Readers new to Beasts of Burden may find some of the dialogue a little confusing, as the animals pepper their conversation with references to earlier events. Though knowledge of the original stories isn’t necessary to appreciate their humorous, salty banter, it certainly helps. (Readers who want to know more about the characters can view three of the original "Beast" stories on the Dark Horse website.) Readers should also know that their are a few modestly icky moments towards the end of the story that make it inappropriate for grade school readers. On the whole, however, Dorkin and Thompson handle the horror element tastefully; most of the violence is implied, not directly shown.

Given the violence and colorful language (sample: “C’mon, you dogs! Off your asses!”), Beasts of Burden is best suited for teens. Dorkin and Thompson’s series offers just the right amount of visceral jolts, corny jokes, and pathos to appeal to a broad range of tastes; horror buffs and animal lovers alike will find a lot to like about its tightly-scripted storylines, beautiful illustrations, and appealing characters. Highly recommended for readers 13 and up.

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  All images © 2009, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson.

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Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

Comments

  1. Kat Kan says:

    I absolutely agree with this review. I have been looking forward to this mini-series from the time it was announced, because I’ve been a fan of the stories by Dorkin and Thompson. And yes, definitely for teens.

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Kat! I’m glad to see other folks really like this special series, too. Let’s hope Dark Horse puts together a special “Beasts of Burden” TPB that includes ALL of the material. That would be a great thing for libraries to own!

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