Review: Beasts of Burden: What the Cat Dragged In

I don't think it's mentioned enough by readers and reviewers that stories don't have to be original. I find myself often falling into the trap of judging a work not on its own quality, but on whether the concept is fresh and creative. It is of course a bad thing to be repetitive or derivative, but a comic like Beasts of Burden is a reminder that great execution can take the most rote story ideas into something excellent. Beasts of Burden, published in one-shots over the past few years, is the story of a group of suburban house pets who investigate supernatural events. As a concept, it sounds like the sort of pandering, fifty volume children's novel series one would find shelved in a library under 'intermediate'. In practice, it's a dark, funny, beautiful horror series that has, at the heart of its stories, a very adult sense of tragedy. 20070The most recent chapter of Beasts of Burden is "What the Cat Dragged In" a one-shot that showcases a number of the series best qualities without quite being one of the best stories itself. It's a tale focuses fairly narrowly on one of my favorite side character, the former witch's familiar Dymphna, who must return to an old haunt to confront a very literal demon from her past. The old haunt is the house of her former mistress, and while getting in is a challenge involving a grumpily talented housebreaking raccoon, getting out is by far the more difficult task (cue dramatic music). The inside of the house has aged twenty years or more in six months, and the house is not as uninhabited as one might hope.

It's a fairly standard haunted house story, infused with extra pathos on a couple of levels. Firstly, it's never just a story about scary monsters. The conflict is rooted in the guilt of Dymphna who must deal with the fallout of some nasty actions she took when she was a much less noble creature. Seeing Dymphna react to the shambling, undead spectres of old friends is at once legitimately terrifying (Jill Thompson can draw a mean undead cat, more on that later) and heartbreaking. Secondly, Dorkin, Thompson, and Dyer continue to make good use out of having an animal main cast. There's a certain shorthand to animals that allows one to emotionally connect much more quickly than to a human character. It could be a manipulative trick to make the audience care, but the characters in Beasts of Burden are far from two dimensional, meaning their immediate likeability simply allows the storytelling to be more economic.

It is not really fair to review an issue of Beasts of Burden without talking about Jill Thompson's work. I won't say it's the most important part of the book, since Dorkin's sharp, subtle script is really excellent, but it's a huge draw nonetheless. Thompson's art has a few strong outlines, but is mainly content to leave linework behind in favor of richly evocative watercolors. The effect is a richly developed world that feels sharply defined and yet deeply atmospheric.  It also should be noted that making an animal's face evocative of emotion without becoming cartoonish and exaggerated is an incredible feat I don't fully understand. None of this is news to Thompson's fans, but if you are by any chance on the fence about this issue (or any of those that preceded it), maybe look through some of her work online.

I mentioned I didn't think "What the Cat Dragged In" was one of the series best, but reason for this is a little hard to pinpoint. The last act falls a little flat due to a slightly too neat ending, but it's followed by a two-page epilogue that is one of the most beautiful comics sequences I have read this year. Similarly, the structure is a little simpler and more predictable than I was hoping, but as I mentioned, there's a certain charm to a book that is so straightforward and sincere. So in other words, it's not my favorite issue ever, but it's damn good, and everything a fan of the series could hope for. And frankly, it's hard to dislike any comic uses 'Stinkin' thin! I bite your face" as a dramatic line, and nails it.


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Beasts of Burden: What the Cat Dragged In Writers: Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer Artist:  Jill Thompson Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 5/4/16 Format: One-Shot; Print/Digital