When there's something strange in the Dark Horse neighborhood, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's crew of stray dogs and cats answers the call to fight the supernatural. Friday afternoon at New York Comic Con, Dark Horse announced a four-issue series titled “Beasts of Burden,” where Dorkin and Thompson will further explore the animal characters first introduced in the short story “Stray” in the “Dark Horse Book of Hauntings.” CBR News caught up with Dorkin to discuss the new series.
“Stray” won Thompson an Eisner award for Best Painted/Multimedia Artist in 2004. Further installments appeared in the “Book of Witchcraft,” “Book of the Dead,” and “Book of Monsters.” “By the time we were working on the final story, Jill, Scott [Allie], and I were discussing taking the project further, and doing a limited series,” Dorkin told CBR. “And getting a name for the damned thing, because beforehand everyone either called the series 'Strays' or 'that cat and dog thing Jill and Evan are working on.'
“It took us a while to get things going, because of schedules, contracts, and all those sorts of things that hold projects up. But we’re finally making the comics,” he continued. “So, this is something we’ve been trying to put together for a couple of years now. I’d have been happy to have this up and running immediately after the 'Book of the Dead' story; I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to these characters. I really enjoy writing them and I love seeing how Jill depicts them.”
In the miniseries, it's once again up to the animals to deal with the rampant occult activity in Burden Hill. “The area is attracting the dead, the damned and the diabolical, and the human inhabitants of the Hill are blind to this as they go about their everyday business commuting to work, watching TV, worrying about money and their kids,” Dorkin explained. “The people there are barely aware of their natural environment, let alone the unnatural environment. So it’s fallen to these animals, whose eyes and ears and snouts are more attuned to what’s happening, to counter these malevolent forces and try to get to the heart of the mystery of Burden Hill.”
The writer said that new readers will have no trouble picking up with the miniseries. “We cover our bases in the first issue, it stands alone, we introduce the major players, the main concept is pretty simple, and at this point the continuity is very basic. Here’s our characters, they fight evil, please enjoy the show,” Dorkin said. “We’ll also have a short synopsis in issue one, on the inside front cover, just to cover things a little more. The four issues in the series will all be self-contained, with minor plot points floating through the issues, so, folks can pick up any of these and follow along. And I hope they will, because we’re working really hard to give people their money’s worth here. I am hopeful that retailers and readers will give 'Beasts of Burden' a look. If nothing else, Jill is doing a hell of a job on the artwork. It’s a beautiful-looking book. And I hear people like animals.”
Dorkin was quick to point out that his animal characters are not anthropomorphized, though they do have certain talents humans might not notice in their household pets. “They’re more or less ordinary animals, talking and emoting aside, our animal everymen who get sucked into these occult adventures,” the writer said. “They have some help along the way, in the form of The Wise Dog Society, a group of shaman-like dogs who have been tracking down and destroying supernatural menaces for generations. Basically, they’re the 'professionals,' but their ranks have dwindled and they’re getting too old, so their effectiveness has diminished and they need help, themselves. A Wise Dog appeared in 'Stray' to help the characters clear the haunted doghouse, and there’s an apprentice character, a Black Lab named Miranda, who also figures into the story. As things progress other animals will be involved, there’s a gang of stray cats, an underground rat army, and some woodland creatures and the like. And monsters. And demons. And other assorted evil crap.
“Anyway, dogs and cats fight the supernatural, that covers it all pretty much right there. Horror, adventure, humor.”
As to why he chose to present his animal stories this way, and what perceptions readers might bring to the series, Dorkin cited the historic interest in telling stories and the modern trend toward sentimentalization. “I a lot of people like animals, and a lot of people like to see animals in stories. There’s a rich and popular tradition of animal stories going back as long as folks could tell stories, creation myths, legends, lore, children’s literature, and then there’s all the cartoons, comics, newspaper strips and video games with animal characters,” he said. “It’s something no one ever even thinks about, it’s just accepted that this story has talking bears in it, and this one has dogs and cats, and that other one has dogs and cats that wear clothes and drive cars and chase each other with guns and axes. Animals make great stand-ins for people to tell different kinds of stories; the cultural and behavioral stereotypes we’ve ascribed to them make for great character shorthand if you go with the flow. They look cool, visually. And people like fantasy. Also, it’s been proven by a number of studies and focus groups that audiences prefer their entertainment to feature a cast of characters that piss wherever they want, whenever they want. It’s true. Google it.
“As for reader expectations, I can’t guess what they would be, exactly, and I’d go nuts trying to. I mean, certainly having animal characters either attracts or repels certain readers, but I’m not worrying about how I use animals and whether or not that usage sidesteps anyone’s possible expectations. I’ve got enough to worry about trying to make sure the stories don’t suck,” Dorkin continued. “Some folks have already read the material in the Dark Horse books and know what we’re doing here. As for new readers, or potential readers, I can say that these aren’t anthropomorphic animals; they don’t use their paws as hands or carry weapons or walk around on their hind legs. The main cast members are by and large ordinary neighborhood pets and strays. They can’t read newspapers or get information off the television to help them out, they understand very little human language, if they’re locked in their house they’re stuck unless we work something out to get them out of that daunting but everyday situation. And since these are cats and dogs, and the lives of animals can be rough, sometimes the stories can be a little rough.”
That roughness may be said to heighten readers' emotional investment, since unlike in many animal stories, here the heroes are far from safe. “These are cute animals, because animals are cute and Jill paints some goddamned cute as hell animals, but this is not a cutesy animal book. It’s not an all-ages comic. Bad things can and do happen to the animals in this comic, and sometimes they will use their claws and teeth to do bad things to other creatures,” Dorkin said. “It’s hard to write about animals fighting other animals and not have a little blood spray the trees at times. Not to mention fighting monsters. Then there tends to be a lot of blood.”