Written by Evan Dorkin
Art by Jill Thompson
184 pages, color
Published by Dark Horse
Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites is a book that might trick you at a glance. You might see an image or two and think, "Oooh, Jill Thompson is painting dogs and cats! I’ll get this book for my favorite pet-loving friend!" It’s an honest mistake to make. But if you take a look a little closer at Beasts of Burden, you’ll quickly realize that while Thompson is indeed painting some adorable animals, the scripts by Evan Dorkin are ones that start a little sad and dark and depressing, and then rapidly grow horrific. I say this as a complement, mind you. But Beasts of Burden is not for the faint-hearted.
Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites starts off with the four short stories that appeared in the Dark Horse Book of… anthology series. It’s in these four stories, published over the course of four years, that you see Dorkin and Thompson fully flesh out the world of Beasts of Burden bit by bit. The first story, "Stray," is arguably the story with the least number of horror elements involved, as well as the least grim. It’s still not all sunshine and roses, though, with a group of dogs (and Orphan the cat) having to perform a seance to figure out why Jack’s new doghouse is haunted by the ghost of another dog. It’s a sad story, one that will tug at the heartstrings of anyone who has (or had) a beloved pet of their own. "Stray" stands on its own as a piece that gives brief character sketches of the animals, but jumps right into the heart of the matter of the story.
That’s something that changes over the course of the remaining three short stories. We start learning the personalities of each of the animals, and their world begins to grow. Witches, cults, demons, zombies, you name it, we start seeing it in Beasts of Burden. It’s impressive because Dorkin expands their world in small careful steps (no doubt in part due to the stories being published annually and with additional pages each time), so it never feels like too much too quickly, and each new piece added into the overall structure fits well. By the time we get to the last of the four short stories, "A Dog and His Boy" (which unlike the rest of the book, is co-written by Sarah Dyer) the piece is a whopping twenty pages long (almost as long as the issues of Beasts of Burden that follow) and Dorkin has room so that he can spend a lot of the focus on a single dog, even while giving the other animals something to do. "A Dog and His Boy" lays the final piece of groundwork for Beasts of Burden, and it’s hard at this point to not see the huge differences between their world and ours.
The rest of Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites reprints the recent four-issue mini-series, and things kick into high gear at that point. As strange as it may sound, it reminds me in many ways of the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. series of mini-series also from Dark Horse. Not everything is neatly resolved at the end of the mini-series, and you get the feeling that it’s leading up into something even greater down the road. It’s also at this point where, perhaps because Dorkin knew that he would have additional issues following instead of the possibility of another story a year later if an anthology series continued, he’s not afraid to start making big sweeping events happen in his story. The animals get a larger role in their community, but also we start to see the effects that these nasty creatures are having on the other animals in the area. Not everyone makes it out alive in an issue, and it’s positively grim.
Thompson’s artwork follows a similar path to that of Dorkin’s writing throughout Beasts of Burden. Her paintings in the initial storyline use a strongly limited palette (lots of blues and grays), and looking at those pages now I’m still please and impressed with what she did there. As soon as you get to the second story, though, Thompson’s painting with a slightly smoother, more colorful finished look. The first page practically leaps out at the reader with fall foliage bursting with color, and the animals themselves look more defined and crisp. Even the lettering slowly changes over time, with Jason Arthur taking over for Thompson and providing a slightly more glossy look to the words. Even as Thompson continues to add new species of dog (as well as other animals) into her paintings, she also steps up her game when it comes to the grim. From dark red smears of blood across the page during a zombie attack, to the saddest, most depressing scene you’ll ever see (it’s the underwater final page of "Lost" for those who have read it), Thompson will scare and disturb you.
Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites is a dark book, but don’t mistake that for bad, because it’s anything but. Dorkin and Thompson should be deservedly proud of Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites; it’s gorgeously drawn, and grippingly written. Dark Horse is clearly pleased with it too, with the (surprisingly inexpensive) oversized hardcover that includes a sketchbook section at the end as well. At this point the only real question is, when will we see more Beasts of Burden? Fans of dark fantasy and horror absolutely must buy this book.