Hounds and Fury
What if Scooby-Doo was genuinely spooky... and every member of the Mystery Machine gang had paws... and, supernatural stuff aside, the setting was surprisingly realistic... and the end result was totally awesome?
You’d have Beasts of Burden, a delightful breed of horror stories featuring ghosts who walk, creatures that stalk, and most particularly dogs who talk (at least to one another), created by comics virtuosi Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson. I’ve blogged about both before, Dorkin briefly in April and Thompson back in May 2009 when I praised her bewitching work on Scary Godmother and Magic Trixie.
The initial BOB story was published in 2003’s The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings. “Stray” introduced us to the troop — or didn’t, actually, jumping right in and making us figure out the dogs’ names from dialogue as we went along, the closest thing I might have to a complaint about it. We meet them as they attempt to summon a so-called Wise Dog to help them figure out the strange sounds, smells, and sensations surrounding beagle Jack’s new doghouse.
“My grandpa told me when I was a pup... ‘Howl at midnight, three strong,’” Whitey,
an excitable terrier, assures his pals after the invocation seems to fall flat. “Then again, they did put Grandpa down the next day.” In addition to Jack and Whitey, the core group consists of Ace, the leader of sorts, a noble husky; Pugsley, an irreverent pug; Rex, an imposing Doberman who’s also something of a scaredy-cat (but who’s been brave in a pinch); and Orphan, the only actual cat in the bunch to start, whom everyone — including Orphan himself — considers an outsider yet who always ends up involved in the adventures at hand. The Wise Dog also shows, and the cast expands in later tales to include an apprentice Wise Dog named Miranda, the sorcerous black cat Dymphna, and others.
At first Jack chalks up the disturbances in “Stray” to bad food or nightmares, while
his human family even brings in a pet psychic who says that Jack is asking for “more affection”. (“Please don’t listen to this moron,” Jack counters silently. “I just want a decent night’s sleep!”) The Wise Dog determines that the doghouse is haunted, and the pack digs until bones are found — normally a treasure, but not when the bones belong to another dog. Although the entire story lasts only 8 pages, the concept is fresh, its characters are well defined, and the denouement is quite poignant. The beasts of Burden Hill are bound by the indelibly eerie experience.
Small wonder that the critters, having garnered Thompson an Eisner Award (neither her first nor last), returned in 2004 in The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft for the 12-page “Unfamiliar” and twice again after that in ever-longer anthology entries before a Beasts of Burden miniseries debuted in September 2009. The first issue’s 23-page “The Gathering Storm” ends with the Wise Dog deputizing our heroes upon their success in confronting, to quote Pugs, “a mother-humpin’, big-ass giant frog” (made up of smaller frogs) and the realization that Burden Hill is apparently a magnet for bad mojo.
Occult frog infestations are not unfamiliar to those following Dark Horse’s line of Hellboy projects, edited like BOB (and the anthologies from which the feature sprang) by Scott Allie. The creative team also includes Jason Arthur, who took over the lettering from Thompson using a font based on her own style for the word balloons.
You can read “Stray”, “Unfamiliar”, and the disturbing 16-page “Let Sleeping Dogs
Lie” from 2005’s The Dark Horse Book of the Dead for free at the Dark Horse website. Once you do, you’ll want them in your library, which can now be accomplished without tracking down the original anthologies (still recommended given the other goodness they contain). All three stories plus the 20-page “A Dog and His Boy” from 2006’s The Dark Horse Book of Monsters are reprinted in 2010’s Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites hardcover [ISBN 978-1-59582-513-1 — update: now available in paperback, ISBN 978-1-50670-636-8], which also collects the four 22-to-24-page stories from last fall’s BOB miniseries and throws in a sketchbook section too. The World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator himself crossed paths with the BOB cats and dogs in the October 2010 Hellboy / Beasts of Burden one-shot, Sacrifice, and last month a new 8-page story, “Food Run” — less intense and more whimsical than what’s come before — appeared in the revived Dark Horse Presents, with further BOB tales promised for future issues.
Although Dorkin may best be known for the kind of outrageous humor published through Slave Labor in Milk and Cheese (scheduled for a deluxe hardcover collection from Dark Horse in December) or the irreverence of Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast, he’s also shared bylines with partner Sarah Dyer on episodes of the Kids’ WB hit Superman and its comics spinoff; the drama in Beasts of Burden still feels next-level. Meanwhile, Thompson’s artwork blends cartooning and naturalism beautifully in the lush watercolors that readers have come to expect from her Magic Trixie books for Scholastic or the Scary Godmother hardcovers first released by Sirius (collected by Dark Horse last year). The genius of his writing and her art is epitomized by a pair of panels from “The Gathering Storm” wherein an action shot worthy of Thompson’s fellow comics-painting Chicagoan Alex Ross depicts Orphan ready to strike, his claws reflected in the eye of the frog beast that is his target, after gravely intoning, “This is for Fluffy, you big stinkin’ pile of crap.”
You may read that as purely a laugh line out of context, but when I describe Beasts of Burden as poignant and disturbing I mean it — the occasionally slightly crude dialogue isn’t the only reason these stories are not appropriate for younger readers. For every instance of levity, be it a tough-talking raccoon or a magic hairball or the pun in the title of “Something Whiskered This Way Comes”, the stakes remain life and death (and sometimes reanimation) with true sacrifices made. We grow to love these beasts as they banter, yet it’s often the silent scenes that truly touch the heart. As in much good fiction, the moments of farce and pathos follow closely on the heels of one another, rendering the beasts of Burden Hill something very akin to human.
Images © 2003, 2005, 2010 Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson.
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