July 28, 2011

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Beasts of Burden Volume 1

Written by Evan Dorkin
Illustrated by Jill Thompson
Dark Horse

Humans aren't the only creatures who have to deal with issues of the supernatural. It seems that dogs and cats are plagued with spirits both friendly and otherwise, too, at least in the town of Burden. Watch as this pack of dogs and their stray cat friend try to keep a lid on the evils that plague not just the animal world, but that of the humans as well. Facing off against witches, ghosts, rats, and other terrible things, they are perhaps the only line of defense against those who would harm us. They are the Beasts of Burden, and these are their stories...

I first encountered this group of animals (and the first four stories in this collection) in the excellent series of Dark Horse horror anthologies, "The Dark Horse Book of...", where Dorkin and Thompson generally closed out the volume with a beautifully illustrated and creepily crafted tale of horror using talking animals as the protagonists. I was well aware of Thompson by that point, but ironically, this was (and remains) my only exposure to Evan Dorkin. If this is any indication of his writing skill, I really need to fix that at some point.

Dorkin says that he wanted to do something a bit different with a horror story, and that shows here. Rather than focusing on the usual human issues, these stories are set firmly in a universe where animals can talk to each other--but not to ordinary humans. That's a crucial distinction. because instead of the "Dark Scooby Doo" stories these could have become, we are operating in a world that is closed to humanity. Thus if a dog is caught killing a boy, that dog can't explain by wagging its tail or communicating to a sympathetic teen or something of that nature. Nope--if you're caught doing something bad in this world, you as the animal are going to die. That's exactly how it should be, because the best horror stories pit a few humans against the supernatural world who might be punished for taking bad--if necessary--actions. Dorkin gets this, and uses the same logic for his dogs.

Despite Thompson's light touch on the painted comics, they are extremely dark in nature. We have witches conjuring up horrors, puppy-drowning sadists, zombie dogs that don't feel like it's exploitative of the genre bandwagon, and shambling horrors made up of various dead things, to say nothing of the natural creepiness of rats. Dorkin is writing sheer horror here, right up there with the worst that King or Straub or Moench or Gaiman or anyone else you are more likely to associate with horror can conjure up in their own works. Dorkin gets that the best horror occurs when you aren't afraid to have terrible things happen to your favorite characters. Otherwise, the terror seems false. I'm fully convinced that Dorkin is going to off animals in these books and that means I turn every page with trepidation.

Most of the stories here are not breaking any new horror ground, but that's okay because I don't think there's a lot of new tropes to be explored in the horror genre. We have of course seen zombies and ghosts avenging their deaths and vast supernatural conspiracies before. On the other hand, using animals to tell these stories is quite a new twist, one that I think Dorkin nails and gives the material a fresh enough spin that even the most weary horror-reading veteran will enjoy. It's really cool to see how dogs deal with, say, a demonic possession, given their pack mentality.

I also like how Dorkin put a cat into the story. It allows him to show fear and suspicion because of difference in a way that would seem rather ham-handed or inappropriate if he tried it with humans. There's no legacy of racism involved in having dogs think a cat might have led them astray in a way that having, say, an African American character run away or an Asian act suspicious might dredge up. The dogs themselves are also of different breeds, allowing for variety both visually and in personality, though I do think Dorkin was a bit shallow in his choices: The pug is pugnacious, the most wolf-like dog is pack-oriented, etc. But that's an extremely minor complaint.

Given how much I'd enjoyed the four short stories that formed the basis for this new series, it didn't shock me that I liked Beasts of Burden. However, what I was not expecting was how much I liked it. Dark Horse has so many good horror comics in its stable, from Hellboy to Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, and it's great to see them continue to develop and support horror comics that aren't knee-jerk zombie knockoffs. Beasts of Burden are a welcome addition to the fold and worthy of taking their place beside PBRD and the Goon.

I'm a little late to the party in reviewing this series, but if for some reason you are a horror fan and haven't read Beasts of Burden yet, go out and get it right away. You'll be glad you did!