Dark Horse Comics is known for their fan-favorite supernatural books, from the over-the-top zombie-whupping of The Goon to the world-threatening menaces battled by Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.. But these supernatural heroes aren’t exactly into two-fisted action…in fact, they don’t even have fists.
Though best-known for such raucous comedy books as Dork! and Milk and Cheese, Evan Dorkin revealed a scarier side to his oeuvre in the award-winning short story “Stray” with Jill Thompson. That tale of pets solving a supernatural mystery led to a series of follow-ups within anthologies, and now the new four-issue miniseries Beasts of Burden. Each self-contained issue leads the animals of Burden into a new mystical mystery full of murders, monsters, mayhem and menace. And if you haven’t read the original short stories, they’re online on Dark Horse’s website.
We got Dorkin on the phone to explain this tale of paranormal pets to us. The highlights of our conversation follow, touching on everything from death in comics to his collaboration to Jill Thompson to why, despite appearances, this is not an all ages-book.
Newsarama: Evan let’s get into Beasts of Burden. For the readers who haven’t seen the short stories, tell us the characters and the premise.
Evan Dorkin: Cats and dogs vs. the supernatural. That’s the main thing to remember. (laughs)
It’s a group of pets who live in a town called Burden Hill, which is in an unspecified northeastern state. The first short story Jill and I did – an eight-pager called “Stray,” which was in The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings – was about a haunted doghouse.
I was fooling around, I wanted to do a story about a haunted house, tried a haunted dollhouse, didn’t work, so I went with a haunted doghouse, and that’s where “Stray” came from. Scott Allie, the editor, wanted me to draw it, but I draw dogs about as well as I draw feet, which is to say not very well at all. And I always saw it as being in a storybook fashion, and envisioned Jill drawing it, so she drew it and it did pretty well.
We did three more stories, and the mythos grew, and the storyline grew, and it…it’s a horror series, and an adventure series, about these dogs and this stray cat who have found themselves in a position to defend their town against an increasing series of supernatural visitations and events that they are largely unequipped to handle.
They become tutored in the ways of the occult by a group called the Wise Dogs Society, who are an ancient group of dogs who are dying out, a lot of them are going senile, and they’ve been around for a few centuries, and they don’t really have enough people to cover their territory any more. So they deputize our animals in the first issue of the regular series.
Is this making any sense? Uh, just go back to “cats and dogs vs. the supernatural.” (laughs)
We have ghosts and zombies, and we did a werewolf story in The Dark Horse Book of Monsters. Each issue is self-contained, but there’s an ongoing storyline where you learn more about the characters and what’s going on in the small town in each story.
But you can pick up any issue and understand it without needing to know anything. Each issue will have a few sentences inside the front cover, and those few sentences will add up to, “There’s some cats and dogs, and they fight monsters.” (laughs)
Nrama: Tell us a little bit about the individual dogs and their personalities.
Dorkin: Well, they don’t have the most in-depth personalities; it’s not like they went to school together. They’re plain dogs and cats to a degree; they don’t have abilities, though some dogs not in the main cast have knowledge of magic.
There’s a pug dog named “Pugs” – exciting name. right? I try to give the characters names that I really think people would name them, so they don’t have very exciting names.
There’s no dog named “Iron Man” in the book, unfortunately. (laughs)
“The Orphan” is a stray cat who is originally a pain, but becomes an integral part of the group. There’s Whitey, a Jack Russell terrier, not very bright. He tends to pee if he sees something bad – not all the time, but it seems to be what he does. He asks questions for things he doesn’t understand. He’s a sweetheart, so I should probably kill him and make people cry a little. (laughs)
Pugs is kind of like the Thing – a Brooklyn big-talker who doesn’t like anything, kind of like me. He hates magic, like me, which is weird considering that there’s all this magic in the book. But I don’t like magic when it’s nothing more than a light show that doesn’t explain anything, but somehow “wins the day.”
Rex is a Doberman who is a big-talker who turned out to be a big coward, but he’s getting his act together. His owner’s a drunk, so he’s not a very happy dog.
Ace is very steadfast; he was bitten by a werewolf in the last story in The Dark Horse Book of the Dead, so he’s the only character with some enhanced abilities. He’s a little stronger, a little faster than the others….and a little more violent.
But mostly, they’re just friends who hang out together and go from place to place to figure out what’s cursing their town. If you like what Jill and I did with the first four stories – well, this is more of the same. (laughs)
We’ve tried to make people laugh, and have some scary stuff, and some adventure stuff with hooks, and even some sad stuff! But if I try and talk about dogs and magic, I’m just going to sound crazy.
They’re animals – they’re limited on what they can do. They can’t use a phone, they can’t shoot a gun. I keep wanting to write a scene where they’re about to find a really good clue, and then one of the dogs’ owners picks him up and carries him off.
Cell phones mean nothing; television means nothing. They can’t open a jar! It makes it hard to write them sometimes, but there’s always a lot of things to figure out.
Nrama: How long had you known Jill Thompson before you first collaborated on “Stray?”
Dorkin: The first time I met her, my friend Robbie Busch – he was part of Instant Piano, and writes for a lot of DC’s kids line – we were driving back from the Detroit comic convention, this was 1990 or 1991. There was a horrible thunderstorm, we couldn’t even see the signs, and we wound up on the wrong road.
Anyway, Robbie called up a friend for a place to stay, and that turned out to be Jill Thompson. I recall I also wound up meeting P. Craig Russell the next day, so it turned out to be a happy circumstance. We wound up staying in touch – we’d run into each other at conventions and talk. It felt like I’d always known her, but we never collaborated on anything until “Stray!”
I honestly didn’t want to do that story unless she did it. That’s how deeply I felt about her work. And she’s only getting better. Some people slack off as a series goes on, but I got the pages for #3 and they were better than the pages for #1. Knocked my socks off. If the writing’s terrible, people should buy this for the art. It’s just lovely.
Nrama: What’s your collaborative process like?
Dorkin: We both kind of control our arenas. I’m learning to write more toward what Jill needs. It’s hard, because I draw comics as well – not as well as Jill, of course, but in a different style. I see things very differently when I write things down on the page. And Jill’s been asking me to cut back on my descriptions, because I tend to art-direct a little too much.
This is a problem I’ve had with artists over the years – the way I draw comics, I throw a hundred people into a panel, but that doesn’t necessarily work with non-humor comics, where it would not be wise to have 12 panels on a page with tons of dialogue.
Because Jill’s painting the book in watercolors, I have to work with fewer panels than usual. She prefers about five panels maximum; we’ve gone to six, and even seven, but five is usually the maximum.
Which makes things hard, because we’re trying to do these done-in-one stories with a large cast of characters, and I’m probably using a couple dozen fewer panels than I would have otherwise. I’ve put 21 panels on a page sometimes! (laughs)
When I was doing World’s Funnest, several people agreed to do the book, but said, “Don’t give me 14 panels on a page!”. My work is…not open. It’s probably a consequence of too many George Perez and Bill Elder comics as a kid.
Jill says, “Could you give me this?” and I try and write it for her, and we go over the scripts and she paints the book. We talk about it, I leave designs up to her 99 percent of the time, and she just puts more into the book than I ever expected.
Getting the pages back has been probably the best experience I’ve had in comics since World’s Funnest. But because it’s something we came up with ourselves, it’s even better, and it’s just amazing to get something back that I’m so happy with.
And it’s even better because I didn’t have to draw it. When I look at my own pages, I just see the errors – when I see Jill’s, I just see beautiful pages.
Brevity is something I’m working on…in real life, and on these pages, just hitting a scene or remembering that one panel means a lot. The way I talk is the way I write, for good or bad, so my work requires a lot of editing.
We just get the books done, you know? It’s not alchemy. Well, maybe it is alchemy, because together we’ve come up with something more than what we could have come up with on our own. Which is not to knock Jill’s writing, it’s just that this is different than what she does herself – the horror elements are more over-the-top than in her books.
Jill has joked, “I don’t know how you’re going to get this book out with no Page 22, because I am not drawing that!” But she’ll step up to the plate for the more horrific elements. A severed deer’s head is rendered as beautifully as a sunset or a cat.
The monsters are awesome. She might not enjoy drawing some of the stuff – issue #2 has some rough stuff! – but she winds up delivering something absolutely haunting.
The one thing I’m worried about is that the book looks quite adorable. People look at the cover and some of the art, and go, “Oh wow! Dogs and cats! I need to get that for my kids!” I don’t think they notice the skeletons or the blood spatters or the animal…in half, because the pages are so gorgeous.
This is a book you can show to teenagers, but my daughter is four-and-a-half and I wouldn’t show it to her. Some of the drawings we have around the house, we have to hide them from her. She took one of them when we weren’t looking! The only reason we know she’s read the first issue is that out of the blue, she started quoting the demon from the first issue at the dinner table.
Luckily, she didn’t see anything too nasty in that issue. But we hid the second issue, because there’s an animal-torturer subplot. It’s nothing too graphic – Avatar Comics would have asked us to juice it up a little bit – but, you know, it’s not something for little kids to see.
Nrama: So this is not an all-ages book –
Dorkin: It is not. I would bill it as for ages 13 and over. If your kids are really young, you might want to go through it first. Once in a while, there’s a line of dialogue that’s a little harsh. There’s no cursing, there’s nothing sexual, obviously, but the animals are animals, and sometimes they act like animals. And the monsters are monsters…
Nrama: Would you say it’s Redwall-mature or Watership Down-mature?
Dorkin: Watership Down, I would say. I don’t think anyone in Watership Down said, “Go hump yourself,” but then again, that’s not too bad in today’s society.
I don’t even want the dialogue to be bad; it just comes out of me naturally because I’m such a foul-mouth, and my work is usually pretty foul. But it’s the kind of book parents can gage themselves, particularly if their kids are reading Harry Potter or those horror books. At a young age, though, a drowned puppy or a dead cat can be horribly traumatic for a kid.
Nrama: Two words: Bambi’s mom.
Dorkin: I still haven’t seen that yet! I haven’t seen Old Yeller either. But you can kill a thousand people in a movie, but if you kill an animal, people will be really, really upset.
Nrama: I remember being 16 and seeing Independence Day, and thinking about how casually they blew up all these major cities and characters, but they go out of their way to have the loveable dog outrun an explosion.
Dorkin: I remember that – the one where they teach you if you send a crazy drunk to fly up inside each ship over every city, somehow you’ll win. And the ships won’t crash into any cities either, somehow.
But a thousand people dying is easier to deal with than one person dying, and animals…it affects people. This book was not designed to tug at people’s heartstrings. When we did “Stray,” some people got really upset by it!
I like animals, but there are times I realize I’m doing something really terrible to this character and I feel bad about it, and Jill feels bad drawing it, and readers sometimes feel bad reading it. But what’s the point of having characters if you’re not going to care about them?
Nrama: To paraphrase Enter the Dragon: You need emotional content.
Dorkin: Exactly, yeah. I agree with that completely. There was a reason Spider-Man was more successful than Superman in the 1960s.
I mean, with Superman, unless you have a problem with gold Kryptonite, I don’t know how you can relate to him. “You are a schmuck with powers” resonated a lot more than “You are a Greek God with powers.”
The thing about my characters is that they’re human – they have human emotions, human attributes, they speak. They’re fearful, they’re not the most heroic characters because they know their limitations. And they’re fish out of water, because they realize that their lives are opened up to the supernatural, which they never believed existed.
Some of them have religious beliefs; I don’t want to get too much into it, but the idea is that there are all these different cultures, and cats and dogs have different beliefs, such as cats believing they really do have nine lives. The raccoons and the birds, they all have their own little tics and beliefs and slightly different languages, though all speak English, I’m not playing D&D.
I’m less interested in how magic works or where evil comes from, than how it manifests itself, and how the characters do or do not defeat it. Issue #2 is basically about them failing! They screw up.
I’ve never understood why heroic characters don’t screw up more. If they screw up once in a while and there are actual repercussions, it creates a new level of suspense for readers.
There is death in the book, and mishaps, and pain, but I’ve found that every time I’ve had the impulse to kill a character, I’ve almost tried to go the opposite way because I’m really bored and sick of death as a gimmick and as a rote narrative device. These characters can’t come back, they won’t be reborn – well, the cat might.
But they’ve cheapened death in comics. Death used to be something special, like a crossover or a certain villain showing up in the last panel. It’s all everyday now, you know? So I like the idea of the characters actually surviving as the surprise.
That doesn’t mean they survive intact, or that they don’t have trouble sleeping at night, but I like these characters, and I don’t want to just kill them off for cheap effect.
If Jill and I get to do this book to the definite end we have planned, probably not everybody would pan out of this book alive, because it wouldn’t make sense to fight evil for a year or two and not lose a buddy, but…I’m going off on a tangent here. But killing characters off is boring, man! Figuring out how they survive, that’s the challenge.
Nrama: Was the Bunnicula series was an influence on this?
Dorkin: No, but I have seen them when I take my daughter to the library, because you see a book called Bunnicula, you’re going to remember it. I have always assumed that there are no new ideas, and everything you do is going to be similar to something else.
There were aspects of this from Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, all that Richard Adams stuff, and there are things I wanted to pitch 20 years ago, and Jill and I have talked about all these aspects of dog and cat society we can introduce as the series goes on.
And there’s things like Roald Dahl’s The Witches, you know, that idea of a child character getting drawn into this world of the supernatural. Or how there’ll be people, but you won’t see all of them, like the teachers in Peanuts, because it’s the animals’ world.
And there are more, and I’ll probably think of five more after we’re done talking.
Nrama: What other projects are you currently working on?
Dorkin: Finished Beasts #4. I’m doing a script for some Bongo comics. I’m doing a 15-page story for the next Simpsons Treehouse of Horror that I’ll be drawing as well.
Sarah and I just wrapped two scripts for Yo Gabba Gabba!, and we’re working on a cartoon for that as well. And there’s the Plastic Man thing I did for Wednesday Comics that didn’t run in the final book, and something for Dark Horse I can’t talk about. And I’m doing some stuff for Mad.
Anyway, I just hope people buy this book and that they enjoy it. We spent a lot of time working on it, and we had a lot of fun. The art’s great. Did I mention that?
The Beasts of Burden are haunting comic shops now.
Zack Smith (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.