Beasts of Burden: Neighbourhood Watch
It may seem a little redundant to do a review of a one-shot, but man, this is good. Also, it’s been two years since I last read a Beasts of Burden story, so indulge me a little. Issue buying confuses me as is, so I’m grateful to Dark Horse for releasing these Beast of Burden stories, originally published in the Dark Horse Presents anthology, in one place. It says something about Evan Dorkin’s and Jill Thompson’s tales of a group of neighbourhood dogs and cats investigating supernatural going-ons in their resident Burden Hill, that they are popular -and good enough- to merit a separate, individual release. This one-shot contains three stories: ‘Food Run’, ‘Story Time’ and ‘The View from the Hill’, with each one offering a specific ingredient that made the 2010 hardback so special.
The barometer of a really good comic, for me, is if it draws an emotional reaction, and by that I don’t mean the ‘dear God this is awful’ kind. It’s difficult to nutshell the premise without making it seem pat and gauche, but Burden takes stock genre conventions – a team of investigators, supernatural/spooky goings on – and transfers them onto a group of dogs and a cat. It works so well because we attach so much meaning to pets and animals in their muteness, giving them personality and feelings so seeing their lives and problems bought to the page makes you nod in agreement – ‘yes that’s exactly how that cheeky-looking pug would react/say’. As animals are wordless, not only do we project feelings onto them, but we communicate with them on a more primitive, intuitive level- responding in an innate, instinctive manner. It’s this depth and baseness that makes the bond between man and animal unique.
Food Run has Rex and Orphan on the tail of a devious goblin with a taste for poultry, pilfering away the chicken from a local coop. The second story provides more on the myth and lore of the Wise Dogs, as three enthralled young pups are recounted the tale of Bitan, the orginal noble warrior dog, who in formidable partnership with his master Alric, battled the forces of evil, until an inadvertent glance at a basilisk turned him into stone. The story conveys the gravitas of legend, with Dorkin shooting through the pathos and poignancy with humour, courtesy of an off-hand pondering as to the origin and popularity of stone animals on lawns. It’s the third and final story, however, that packs that breath-taking punch which separates Burden from any other book on the shelf.
‘When the end comes and you leave this place won’t you miss your friend if his path takes him somewhere else?’
The friends go to warn an apparently lost herd of sheep who have been wandering the nearby fields of a treacherous valley ahead in their path. It’s obvious something is wrong as Jack the beagle is overcome by the sight of the sheep and collapses. They’re met by the herd’s bristling, protective sheep-dog, Ben. The herd call him off, agreeing to talk whilst Ben goes ahead to scope their path. Once the sheepdog is out of earshot, the sheep inform the Burdenites that the upcoming valley is of no danger to them as they are already dead. Unable to escape when their barn caught fire, a helpless Ben also perished in his futile attempts to save his flock. The sheep know they are dead, but Ben still thinks himself and them alive, and so they wander the hills in order to be together with their friend and to give him purpose. The sentiment combined with the horrific reality of what Jack ‘sees’ in a penultimate panel of burnt, red rotting sheep is an image that isn’t easily forgotten.
If you haven’t read the hardback volume preceding this – Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites – I would really urge you to give it a go. It’s something I picked up during one lunchtime at the library and ended up buying my own copy. Dorkin’s been teasing about an announcement on Burden news soon, and I’m assuming this to mean there is more of this excellent series on the way (pointless announcement otherwsie!), which I’ll look forward to eagerly.