Review by C.J. Bunce
My wife, Elizabeth C. Bunce, and I stumbled across a very good Dark Horse Comics anthology series several years ago all beginning with ”The Dark Horse Book of…” These nicely presented hardcover editions included a Hellboy story, other ghost or horror stories by the best writers and artists at Dark Horse, and ended with a story about a group of dogs and an orphaned cat. The collections were each brilliantly drawn, brightly (or darkly) colored, and included exactly the right kind of tale for fans of ghost stories over gore. The anthologies included contributions from the likes of Mike Richardson himself, P. Craig Russell, Keith Giffen, Kurt Busiek, Mike Mignola, Eric Powell, Brian Horton, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson. Each anthology had a separate nice-and-creepy theme, including The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft, The Dark Horse Book of The Dead, and The Dark Horse Book of Monsters.
My favorite story in each anthology was by writer Evan Dorkin and artist Jill Thompson, focusing on the dogs and the cat. The dogs, Ace, Rex, Jack, Whitey, and Pugsley, and the orphaned cat (who they call Orphan). These qualify as quiet stories, in that they were snuggly hidden in the back of these anthologies and meekly waited in the shadows of the louder and more mainstream stories in the front of these books. But Evan Dorkin knows how to convey compelling story via animals like few others have mastered. Likewise, Jill Thompson’s characters are expressive and animated, and leave readers begging for more. Her watercolor style reminds me of Mike Grell’s work on Green Arrow, Warlord, and Jon Sable, and she probably has a more accessible style than someone like Alex Nino, whose God the Dyslexic Dog series is one of my favorites.
In The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, their 2003 story “Stray” focuses on a the group exorcising a doghouse that has become possessed in a somber and gulp-worthy series opener. This of course was not initially intended as a series, yet Dorkin and Thompson continued their contributions to future books. In The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft, the band of animal friends encounter a witch cat in the 2004 story “The Unfamiliar.” In 2005′s The Dark Horse Book of The Dead story “Let Sleeping Dogs Die,” the merry band confronts the witch cat again, this time allowing her the chance to become part of the team. In 2006′s The Dark Horse Book of Monsters, the animals encounter a werewolf in “A Dog and his Boy.” Each of these stories is endearing and clever in a way you’d only find in the Dark Horse universe.
So last week at the comic book store I stumbled on a new Dark Horse one-shot Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch. I did a quick flip-through and knew it looked good and familiar and so I added it to the pull-list stack. It didn’t click until I started reading the three new stories to realize what I had: more great Dorkin and Thompson, and the animal pack has a name now as the Beasts of Burden. This new one-shot is actually composed of three stories from Dark Horse Presents issues #4, 6 and 8. Two other compilations exist that I have yet to get my hands on, a Beasts of Burden four-issue mini-series and a crossover one-shot in 2010 with Hellboy called Hellboy/Beasts of Burden: Sacrifice. Another edition, Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites (2010) collects the stories Stray, The Unfamiliar, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, A Dog and His Boy, and issues #1-4 of the mini-series.
In Neighborhood Watch, the story “Food Run” follows our group protecting the neighborhood from a golem-like green goblin. In “Story Time,” an old sheepdog called Wise Dog recounts the epic story to three local pups about a brave dog in battle with a “Weeping Angels” twist. In “The View from the Hill,” Orphan has encountered a lost herd of sheep and although we hear no “bah-ram-ewe” uttered, Dorkin and Thompson enter the realm not of Babe but of the X-Files. Will little Jack ever be the same?
Last year there were rumors that Beasts of Burden may have been optioned for an animated movie. So long as Jill Thompson is illustrating and Evan Dorkin is writing this could be a great idea–a dark, but not too dark, animated animal tale to take on the same old animated offerings we get each year. But the real challenge will be getting the human voices to match the inner thoughts of Dorkin’s dogs and cats as well as he writes it.