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When an author chooses to tell a story from the point of view of an animal, with the perfect mixture of pathos and sentimentality, it outstrips childish fables about talking household pets. One of my favourites poems from school was An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. It is sad, yet also humourous, the death of a small bird from thirst being used by the poet to justify his alcoholism. In one perfectly composed poem he marries the vulnerabilities of a small, weak creature to his own frailties.
A far greater accomplishment than any wise-talking animated rodent.
Beasts of Burden has previously appeared as short stories in comic book anthologies, as well as the miniseries collected here and even a notable crossover with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson have fashioned together a strange world of talking dogs and cats, where human pets defend their owners and the rest of the world as well, from supernatural threats such as plagues of frogs, ghosts, witches and zombie dogs.
Our heroes are a small band of dogs, and an orphaned cat, who live on Burden Hill, a seemingly ordinary suburban neighbourhood. When leader Ace calls on a ‘wise dog’, to advise on a dog kennel haunting, the group find themselves drawn into a series of adventures, eventually leading to their own initiation into the ‘Wise Dog Society’ as apprentice Watchdogs.
The first page sets up the story immediately. Ace has Doberman Rex, Jack Russel Whitey and Pugsley (who is of course a small and very argumentative Pug) summon a wise dog by howling at midnight. We see the three dogs argue about whether or not the summoning is working, with the cat known as Orphan mocking them all the while, only for a large shaggy white dog to appear before them. Ace explains to the wise dog that his friend Jack claims his hutch is haunted. They group discover a carcass buried underground, with a collar attached. The wise dog identifies the bones as belonging to a dog named Trixie. The stage is sent for a most curious and heart-breaking exorcism.
When you come to Jill Thompson’s panel of the gathered group of dogs with tears in their eyes, it’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat. In fact the art of this book is one of its great strengths, the water colours brilliantly emphasising Thompson’s style, which in the past I have found a bit harsh for my liking. The loose lines around the characters gives them the appearance of constantly being in motion, which fits the material quite well. I also love how the ordinariness and lack of anthropomorphism contrasts so sharply with the occult horrors of Burden Hill.
Dorkin’s script manages these contradictions quite well, with the animals fitting in their adventures between making appearances at home so their owners remain none the wiser. There is this fantastic, incongruously epic tone to the proceedings, such as an army of cat familiars invading the neighbourhood, or a missing pups case becoming a story about vengeance from beyond the grave.
There is also a light melancholic tone to the stories collected here. The lives of these pets are cheap. After all, their owners can always just go back to the pet store. The story A Dog And His Boy is particularly heart-breaking. Dorkin also uses that issue to drop hints that some in the human world are aware of the goings-on at Burden Hill, but choose to leave the general public in ignorance.
This book is both warm and compassionate, as well as surprisingly humane. Dorkin and Thompson’s title joins the likes of David Petersen’s Mouse Guard in introducing contemporary readers to stories about animal protagonists that read more like classic adventure tales written with wit and pathos, than Disneyfied trite fare.
Drop whatever you are doing and get this book. It’s just that damn good (and many thanks to my lovely wife Stephanie who bought it for my birthday).