Our heatwave is nowhere as bad as the one afflicting Europe right now, but it’s a heatwave nevertheless, and to cool off I felt like traipsing down the icy corridors of horror. Evan Dorkin‘s series Beasts of Burden, the tale of a (predominantly) canine crew who fight the supernatural to keep their small town community safe, fits the bill: though including elements of adventure, mystery, and humour, it’s genuinely tense in places (and features enough blood and grue to keep the average gorehound satisfied). One expects a comic in which all protagonists are animals to evoke baby-talk sounds of endearment, not send chills down the spine of the more sensitive reader, and yet…
However, I’ll warn you that a fondness for animals is a prerequisite for enjoying this comic, lest you miss the emotional punch to the gut of moments like a dog searching for her lost puppies, or animals mourning the loss of their friend. Despite the paranormal threats these pooches (and cat!) have to deal with, I would say that it’s that emotional horror that makes these stories memorable, especially to a modern reader well-versed in zombies, werewolves, and witchcraft (yawn, how cliché…) I am quite allergic to animals getting hurt in stories, but Beasts of Burden never feels manipulative in that regard: shit definitely happens, but is overcome through teamwork and courage.
This comic also features loving watercolours by Jill Thompson (according to the DC Comics website, ‘most well-known female comic book artist‘… not sure how they measured that), who’s not only great at evocative woodsy landscapes in all seasons, but also a deft hand at convincing portraits of animals. I have seen too many comic artists who cannot draw a convincing cat or dog (let alone a horse, a true test of artistry…) to take that for granted. This post only spotlights material from the collection Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites (2010, Dark Horse), as Thompson was later on replaced by Benjamin Dewey, whose art I suppose I could bear… if only the standard desaturated colouring job wasn’t the final nail in that coffin. It’s a bitter pill to swallow after Thompson’s bright, organic art.
All stories featured in this post are written by Evan Dorkin and illustrated by Jill Thompson.
Beasts of Burden is still ongoing, with the latest installment, Occupied Territory (illustrated by Benjamin Dewey, alas), published in July 2021.