Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson

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Welcome to October here at Deja.Revue. If you have not noticed already, I tend to be a fan of the creepy, the weird, and the left-field in comics. So I though October would be a perfect time to indulge those predilections even more than I already have. Horror, as a genre in comics, has always been just off to the side. Less flashy than superheroes, and something of a mutant child of crime comics, the genre has a breadth and depth which is, in my opinion, almost unmatched. I do not hope to cover the whole diverse range of the genre in the coming month, but I do hope to give you a survey of some of my favorite works on page and screen. If you would like to read further, Paste has an excellent list of horror comics you should read. For further reading on the history of horror comics, check out Mike Howlett’s essay in the back of this excellent horror anthology that I will not have the time or space to write about this month. If all goes according to plan, I will have a column each Monday for you, culminating, fittingly, with Halloween at the end of the month. Don’t forget to turn off the lights.

It is important that you know that this book is all about neighborhood pets roaming the neighborhood and running into paranormal phenomenon and, eventually, become guardians of the neighborhood from such phenomenon. It is important that I get this out up front because despite a premise that in lesser hands could easily result in nothing more than inconsequential cartoonishness, Beats of Burden is a dark, moving, and melancholic comic. Danger is real. People Animals die. Burden Hill, where the action is set, is not normal or safe, and our intrepid heroes become all too familiar with the darkness creeping in from the outside.

Evan Dorkin centers the book around a group of canine (and one feline) friends whose bonds of loyalty are tested and strengthened as the events in Burden Hill become weirder, more frequent, and more dangerous. Most of the stories in the book are shorter than the average comic. As a result, Dorkin uses some narrative shorthand to make the characters recognizable and memorable. Their personalities are archetypal and fixed. They grow into their heroism by pushing their best qualities to the fore, and by sticking together. This is not really a criticism of the book, as the characters are endearing and the narrative is mythic, employing moments of graphic realism sparsely, and to great effect.

Jill Thompson’s art is a great compliment to the story partly because of how well it switches modes between the quotidian, the gruesome, and the fantastic. Once again I must display my slavish devotion to the use of watercolors, for it is their diverse range of light and texture that allows Thompson to seamlessly enter these different modes – moving from sunlit suburban streets, to foggy graveyards, to murky woods. Most comics are the result of a partnership between writer and artist, but oftentimes the latter serves a subordinate role. Not so here. It is Thompson who renders so delightfully the world of Burden Hill, filled with beasts both noble and ignoble. She gives vital shape and form to Dorkin’s mythic heroes (who just so happen to resemble the menagerie at the local pet shop).

Humor is an essential counterpart to horror. Beasts of Burden can be quite funny, offsetting the pressing darkness and lending the book a sense of adventure amidst the looming peril. It leans toward the lighter side of horror, but this only makes the moments of violence and gloom more effective. Beasts of Burden is a classic yarn, a tale of good against evil, which is not meant to send you to bed hiding under the covers, but to send you out into the world with the hope that good can still be done, and the the unrelenting darkness can be beaten back.

 

-Ian

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