Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites, by Evan Dorkin
It sounds dreadful: a group of talking dogs goes around the neighborhood solving mysteries. It sounds like one of those wholesome cozy novels where the cat helps his human solve the crime, or like Scooby-Doo without the kitsch appeal. It’s amazing, really, that Evan Dorkin could take such a cutesy premise and turn it into something powerful and dark and wonderful.
Life is perfectly normal for the canines of Burden Hill, until a beagle named Jack begins to suspect that his doghouse is haunted. Concerned for their friend, Pugsley the Pug, Rex the Doberman Pinscher, and Whitey the Terrier seek help from the Wise Dog, an English Sheepdog accustomed to dealing with the paranormal. You’d expect this to devolve into a hokey little fluff piece, but listen: precisely five pages later I had tears in my eyes, and then it happened again two chapters after that. And then a bit after that I had to put the book down to have a good sniffle. And then again, and again.
The emotional depth is truly astonishing. Over the course of several discrete but sequential stories, you come to care for the seven main characters—six dogs and one cat—and the secondary characters they meet. Some of the stories are campy (cannibal frogs! zombie dogs! humongous killer rats!), but the comedic relief never undermines the pathos of the narrative.
Jill Thompson’s artwork beautifully illustrates Dorkin’s text. She draws her animals realistically without resorting to cartoony gags and paints them with lush watercolors. I’m thinking of one panel in particular that made my jaw drop, in which a Weimaraner tilts her head and looks at us with soulful eyes, the light and shadows dancing on her face. The image itself is haunting, as is her speech bubble: “My children are missing.”
The language is (mostly) mild, but the physical violence can get gory and the emotional violence is intense. However, more mature readers should check this out from the library, or even buy it from a comic book store; if the publisher, Dark Horse, sees enough profit from Beasts of Burden, then Dorkin and Thompson will be obligated to continue writing stories with my new favorite paranormal investigators.
Check the WRL catalog for Beasts of Burden