11/27/2009

Beasts of Burden #1-2



Beasts of Burden is a deceptively cute comic. Or at least it would be had it not first appeared in Dark Horse horror anthologies. Written by Evan Dorkin and drawn by Jill Thompson, this gorgeously illustrated series blends the hoary practice of anthropomorphizing the secret lives of pets with the premise that the suburbs hide some truly horrible things. The original short stories - some of which have been made available online - were supernatural monster of the week adventures featuring a Scooby Gang of dogs and cats for protagonists. They earned enough critical acclaim for Dark Horse to flirt with the idea of an ongoing series. The first two issues of the planned four issue run pick up where the shorts left off, and mostly conform to the original episodic formula. But there is a hint of laying the foundations for future world building should the series continue past its limited run.

Most of BoB's appeal hinges on the art supplied by Thompson. The delicately painted washes imbue everything with a soft glow that is appropriate to children's literature. It lends a picturesque quality to the the town of Burden Hill and the surrounding forest environment that can still just about convey that primal sense of dread kids feel for the things that go bump in the night.

Beasts of Burden 1 panel 1
Beasts of Burden 1 panel 2 But the art suggests that the story is meant to be read by at least older kids: While Thompson is clearly capable of rendering characters in a far more mawkish style, she applies restraint to the anthropomorphizing of the cast so that they still mostly look and behave like normal animals. Thus the violence is also less cartoony and has real consequences. Dorkin and Thompson make a concession to the narrative convention of using the animal's breed as a shortcut to underlining or contradicting the individual's personality: The Pug is pugnacious, the Jack Russell Terrier is excitable, and the Doberman looks mean but is actually a big coward. If this was a movie made today, the animals would be enhanced or rendered entirely in creepy looking CGI, while voiced by highly paid actors (Like here). So I count it as a good thing that the reader has only the comic art as a reference for now.

Beasts of Burden 2 panel Issue #1 is somewhat hindered by the need to reestablish the characters. While there is an attempt to minimize the info dump, the dialogue is sometimes hampered by the regular referencing of past events. The supernatural threat that eventually reveals itself is visually impressive, but seems to be mainly there to demonstrate the demon fighting credentials of the Scooby Gang.

Beasts of Burden 1 panel 2 In Issue #2, the gang has been shouldering more responsibility in protecting Burden Hill. But the series then veers unexpectedly into far more ambiguous territory when the threat turns out to be internal in origin and too mundane for their supernatural training to handle. And the ending is the most shocking so far delivered by the comic.