Review by Will Morgan
In the sleepy suburb of Burden Hill, where the boundaries between the visible and spiritual worlds are evanescent, a brave band of supernatural defenders patrols between the human realm and the unseen.
These furtive guardians roam the street in plain sight, but unnoticed by the populace who remain unaware of the huge debt they are owed.
They are several dogs, and one reluctant cat.
They are the Beasts of Burden.
And if that all sounds annoyingly twee, cutesypoo and Disneyesque… you could not be more mistaken.
Writer Evan Dorkin originated the concept as a one-off story for a horror anthology, but the happy alchemy of his characterisations of our cast and Jill Thompson’s luminous artwork kept the Beasts (not even formally christened as such in their earliest appearances) returning in Dorkin’s mind, and in various one-offs, until a miniseries was commissioned, and finally this gorgeous hardcover compiling all of their appearances at the time of release.
Of necessity, it’s a slow builder, but it’s fascinating to watch the characters develop from the ground up, with a trio of dogs summoning the legendary Wise Dog, to deal with events beyond their experience. When the Wise Dog responds, and sees the potential for worthy allies – and possible successors – an understanding is formed, as Puggsley, Whitey, Ace, Jack, The Orphan, and sundry others investigate zombie puppies, giant frogs, werewolves, possessions, and hauntings both metaphorical and supernatural.
The cast does change over time; some flee because they can’t handle the responsibility or face the danger, while others are casualties of the unnerving events of these taut, dexterous chillers.
In addition to being exciting and shot through with mordant comedy, the stories are often unsettlingly poignant. Dorkin skilfully evokes and reinterprets classic tropes of horror fiction, but he’s also very familiar with the everyday horror of human cruelty and callousness. Thompson’s lush painted artwork is a delight and a triumph, displaying a breadth of imagination and atmosphere surpassing her already formidable body of work. However, despite the stunning visuals, reminiscent of classical fairytales, and the engaging appearance of the animal protagonists, this is emphatically not a work for younger readers; any careless parent or guardian giving this to the kiddies is going to have some disturbed rugrats on their hands!
This handsomely-produced hardcover is a very appealing package, its heft and style adding an extra dimension of enjoyment to an already superior reading experience. There are also two compelling extras. An afterword by Dorkin details the origins and history of the series, and an extensive sketchbook of cover roughs, thumbnail-to-finished page annotations, and lesser-seen promotional material, all has Thompson’s commentary. These are far superior to the usual perfunctory ‘bonus materials’, and only add to the readers’ enjoyment.
Sumptuous, both in content and in presentation.