Exploring Animal Detectives in BEASTS OF BURDEN

Beside each and every one of you, at one time or another – or possibly even right now --sat an animal. These pets becomes companions, colleagues or at the least roommates with you and your life for years at a time. You share their lives with them, and they know some of the most intimate details of their life…. But what about their secrets? Do you know what they do when you’re not looking?

In the recent miniseries Beasts of Burden, writer Evan Dorkin and artist Jill Thompson take up that challenge and find the cats and dogs we know and love have a supernatural side. Spiraling out of several award-winning anthology stories, this recent miniseries shows a gallant gang of canines and felines caught in a supernatural struggle of forces beyond their comprehension. They talk, they fight, they cast spells – and are more human than you might expect.  

And for the creators Dorkin and Thompson, a one-time pair up for an anthology tale by two noted solo cartoonists turned into over a hundred pages of collaborative storytelling that’s taken them afield of the work they are known for producing on their own. Their collaborations earned them several awards including a pair of Eisners in previous years, and with the deluxe hardcover edition planned for release in June 2010 just before Comic-Con International: San Diego 2010 they just might do it again.

Newsarama talked with both Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson about the book, about their process, and about their own pets and pet peeves.

Newsarama: One of the things that really struck me about this book, particularly the first issue, is how it wasn’t aimed at kids – I mean, characters die – in some gruesome ways. This seems more Animal Farm than Walt Disney – was it difficult to find the right balance for doing these stories?

Evan Dorkin: No, not really. We've had a few discussions on how far to take things, art-wise, though. Jill prefers to imply scenes of violence and gore, I'm fine with that because it can be very effective, but I also think there are times we need to see things more explicitly. We try to balance that out, as far as the imagery goes. But writing-wise, I think I have a good handle on what I'm going for with the stories. There's only been a few times where Scott's asked me to tone something down, and that's almost always concerned Pugs' foul mouth. Otherwise, this isn't a kid's book, and it was never conceived as a kid's book, despite the cute animals and the storybook feel. So I'm not really doing any kind of balancing act. The dogs sniff rear ends and piss wherever they want, they aren't people, despite their emotional range and ability to talk. And when they get into a scrape, they use their claws and their teeth, and claws and teeth extract blood. And they often fight things that eat animals or tear them apart. I don't think we wallow in that sort of thing, but Jill's had to paint some grisly stuff here and there. Especially in issue four. It's not Scooby-Doo, but it isn't Lucio Fulci, either. But the tone of the series is one of the few things I don't ache over. There's plenty of other stuff I worry about when writing the scripts, that isn't something I hit the Atavan bottle over.

Jill Thompson: I think even though it was not aimed at children, I think it is something that a parent could introduce to a child. It depends on the parent and the child. The parent knows what their child can handle. But, while the book is not for a general audience, it certainly is rated PG. I don' think children should be shielded from everything. It's life. You have to learn. It's you are exposed to more serious themes that is important.

I'm not a big fan of graphic violence. You know – violence for violence's sake… I want any moment like that to have an impact and not be used to titillate. So, I suppose I'm old-fashioned in my storytelling. but I think building suspense, drama and emotion make the intense scene mean something. And, sometimes I prefer to keep the violence off-panel. And just show the reaction to it, because then, the reader takes an active role in determining exactly what the characters are seeing.. I trust the reader's imagination at times like that. They can fill in the blanks with something that hits really close to home. It's more intense in their mind than what I would choose to draw.

Nrama: I’m amazed by your ability to draw all these different animals in distinct ways that differentiate them from each other. You’ve got Harry in Scary Godmother, but this is the entire cast! Did you have to do a lot of work to build up a repertoire of animals, or was it pretty natural for you?

Thompson: I compiled lots of photo reference to refer back to as I drew. But really once you get used to drawing a character, it becomes simpler each time.. and I understand the skeletal structure underneath. So I know how the animals muove and subsequently how to exaggerate their movements when necessary. The same goes for their facial features; even though they are dogs and cats, they still have to "act" so I take some liberty there. I want to keep it more "realistic" versus "cartoony" like Harry in Scary Godmother. So they have more "eyebrow" movement than regular dogs… that helps. I also go out and talk to people walking their dogs. We have a pretty doggy neighborhood, so the opportunity to see them up close is as easy as taking a walk. And I'm always snapping pics with my camera or phone.

Each new animal character is a challenge though. You have to get used to them. Up until now, I did not draw animals everyday. I suppose if I had to draw some farm animals in an issue – that would throw me for a loop for a little bit. Plus, the difference in height would be a bitch to deal with if say, White were talking to a horse… ha! That's always a challenge; keeping things in the proper scale and proportion.

Nrama: Speaking of scale, working on short stories for anthologies you’re probably bound by a specific page number. Did doing this miniseries allow you to spend more time on moments, or explore things deeper that you wouldn’t have been able to in the short stories?

Dorkin: We did have a set page count for the anthology stories, but they expanded with each installment until we ended up doing a 20 page story, which is nearly the length of a full comic. When we were discussing the series, Scott asked us to continue doing stand-alone stories, so it didn't feel like that much of a change from what we'd last worked on. But because there's an overarching plot – the main mystery behind all the events happening in Burden Hill – over the course of the series we've been able to develop and build on some things we weren't able to beforehand. And we could work with the characters a little more. I'd like to be able to take that a bit further, and slow things down from time to time, so we can spend some “quality time” with the characters. It's been difficult, for me as a writer who likes dialogue and bits of business, because with a complete story in each issue, we don't have that much room to slow down and get into too many smaller moments. My scripts tend to be packed, and on here I'm using fewer panels than I normally would to accommodate Jill's needs for her watercolors.   So we often have space issues already. Jill's had to expand two issues so far. If you gave me a hundred pages I'd still need two more, it's something I'm trying to work on, and something that I'm sure drives Jill and Scott nuts.  

Thompson: I found 22 pages to be quite limiting. But I've been working on things over the past few years that have been 56, 92 and up to 192 pages long. I think Evan was able to get more history and information to the reader in a way that didn't conflict with the main story of each issue. I know there's a treasure trove of history and back story and characters in Burden Hill that Evan hasn't had a chance to even touch on in the current miniseries.

Nrama: Evan, I've read that when this series was originally being planned, Dark Horse editor Scott Allie was angling for you to draw these stories in that first anthology appearance in Book of Hauntings with the story "Stray". Why did you think it wasn’t a good fit for you, and what led you to Jill Thompson’s door?

Dorkin: I wrote "Stray" with Jill's art in mind from the get-go, once I had the plot, I was seeing everything in terms of her style. I had the idea of the first story being illustrated with a bit of a storybook approach, something Jill's perfect for, something I couldn't do nearly as well, even if was adept at drawing animals and forests. Among other things. Jill's the perfect artist for the series, she brings it to life, she sells the idea that these animals can think and talk and all that crazy stuff.

Nrama: At first glance, the collaboration between you two might seem unusual – The creator of Milk & Cheese and the cartoonist of Scary Godmother. But why do you think it works so well?

Thompson: I've always loved Evan's work. I was flattered to be asked to collaborate with him. Why does it work so well? Geez? Cause we like each other's work? I don't really know, but it's a good mix.

I always strive to do my best whatever I'm working on, but when I collaborate with someone, I really want them to like it. So I work from the feeling that I get when I read the story and try and build on that as well as include what the writer has asked for. I like them to be pleased with it.

Dorkin: If people know more about our individual work than those two titles, the collaboration might not seem so strange. There are no emotional moments in Milk & Cheese other than stupid rage, and Scary Godmother is far more benign than what we're usually doing in Beasts of Burden. But we both have a range beyond what we've done on those series, and being aware of that, and being friends with Jill, I honestly never gave much thought as to how she and I would be perceived as a creative team. I think the comics speak for themselves and show what we're both capable of. Jill lends the work a sense of grace and beauty, and I make Jill draw guts and , um...dead puppies. Hmm. Okay, I see what you're saying now.

It works because we both like professional wrestling. Next question.

Nrama: Both of you came into this collaboration as people who primarily write & draw their own material – did the division of labor, so to speak, spark anything you wouldn’t have done on your own?

Dorkin: Well, I wouldn't have done any of these stories if Scott hadn't asked me to contribute to the Book of Hauntings, and I wouldn't have written, because of the art demands and my weaknesses.  

Thompson: Up until I created Scary Godmother, I spent most of my time illustrating other people's stories, so it was somewhat familiar to collaborate. However, it had been a long time since I'd done so and I was very used to my own pacing of a story.. So actually, it was hard not to 'edit' the story in my head. I always wished there were more pages because I wanted to open up certain scenes and make them last longer – or build up to them more. But that's just my storytelling style. I haven't worked on a 22-page comic in a while. We were limited by space more than anything else.

Nrama: In our previous interview, you talked about the casting of different breeds of animals for characters you had come up with. Turning that around – if Evan Dorkin were to appear in Beasts of Burden, what kind of animal would you be?

Dorkin: Some loud, runty stray mutt, destined to be run over by a car, thrown in the river or eaten by rats.

Thompson: I think you'd have to ask Evan about me. [laughs]

I'd automatically think of something red-haired, like a fox or something. But… match my personality to an animal? I don't know what I'd be. I'm a social animal, but I enjoy my solitude as well.

Nrama: We'll leave that one out for review. Since this book revolves around animals – can you tell us about the pets you have yourself?

Thompson: We've got Archie. he's an old gentleman cat – 19 years old; a wonderful lovey fellow. He's the last man standing out of a house of 4… sniff.

I love animals; always had cats, but – when you have cats, you kind of don't introduce a dog into the house, y'know? Or anything small that a cat might consider prey… I like cuddly animals. I'm not a fan of keeping animals that can kill you or swallow your dog or child… or squeeze you to death. Or poison you. No thanks!

Dorkin: We have two cats, an orange tabby named Crushy and a Maine coon-mix named Mimsy. Both were strays, Mimsy was rescued as a kitten by a woman in New jersey, we saw an adoption sign posted at a japanese shopping center and called up and arranged to get her. She's a peanut brain, and still reverts to feral mode more often than we'd like, but we love her. Crushy was an abandoned cat, these idiots several doors down from us adopted him from a shelter and then dumped him outside to fens for himself most of the day. He was always in our yard and I wanted to take him in very badly, I was crazy about him. He was underfed, stray cats were bullying him, and one day Sarah found him with his paw stuck in his collar, hobbling around in the rain. We used to call him “The Orphan”, which is where the the Orphan in Beasts of Burden came from. Anyway, we ended up taking him in when the idiot family abandoned him entirely. We used to have four cats, Pixie passed away about five years ago, Mr Jinx about a year after that. Pixie was our alpha cat, a great, sweet cat, he followed Sarah all over the house. Mr Jinx was my first cat, I got him from David Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis, I made him insane -- although insanity ran in his family, from what I understand. He was a great cat despite being crazy and being a jealous bastard as far as Crushy went.  

Nrama: With a lot of cats in your home, I have to bring something up. Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but as a self-described “cat person” … why are there more dogs than cats?

Dorkin: You're not the first person to ask why there aren't more cats in the book, some people have complained about it, which has been kind of weird and unexpected. Anyway, there's a simple reason for it. When I wrote the first short story I wasn't thinking in terms of developing a series, "Stray" was intended to be a stand-alone short story. Since the story was about a haunted doghouse, it called for a cast made up of dogs. I added the Orphan for variety, and because I thought it would be funny to have a cat used as bait to draw the dog ghost out. We've had more cats appear since then, Dymphna and the witch cat familiars, and The Getaway Kid and his gang of strays. Dymphna became a regular member of the cast in issue three, and if we continue the series I want to work in some other animals, but the dogs are the primary focus, simply because that's the way things worked out. I'm a cat owner, and I love cats, but I don't think it makes sense to twist the narrative just to throw more cats into the mix. I like monkeys, but I'm not going to bend over backwards to put a monkey in Burden Hill. I think.

Nrama: With the final issue now out and a collected edition on the way, what do you have planned next?

Dorkin: We've been working on the book collection, which will contain the first four short stories and the mini-series, which will amount to about 148 pages of story material, all told. I believe the book will also include Jill's covers and some development art and roughs, but we haven't locked everything down yet. The collection is going to be published as a hardcover, and I think it will be a really attractive package for both readers and retailers.   

Other than that, I'm working on a couple of Dark Horse projects, writing and drawing stories for Bongo's Bart Simpson comic, and slowly nosing along material for what will one day be Milk & Cheese #8 and Dork #12. When that day will be, I have no idea.  

Thompson: Well, I have quite a few irons in the fire. I have a second Little Endless Storybook that I'm working on for Vertigo; some short story stuff from Dark horse. And I think we'll be seeing Scary Godmother again – I'm getting the original books and stuff back in print. But there are new stories with her that I'd like to tell.

I'm interesting in doing some work at Marvel as well. There are some characters there I'd like to illustrate – and write. I have an adaptation of the Nutcracker that Iw ant to turn into a graphic novel… and there are pitches out on editors' desks that would be nice to see happen.

I wonder what people would like to see me do!

Nrama Readers – chime in! And before I let you two go, I got to ask about the future of Beasts of Burden. Could you see you two doing more in the future?

Thompson: I certainly plan on it!

Dorkin: Definitely. I'd be very disappointed if we didn't take it further, I've had material planned for future storylines for some time now, and the series occupies a lot of my thinking these days. A lot depends on how the collection does – sales for the series were below even my pessimistic expectations, but the response and word of mouth has been strong, and I'm hoping the book sells decently. And of course, Jill's schedule is a factor, it's a lot easier for me to write an issue than for her to paint it, and she has her own projects and commitments to work on. I'm hoping we'll be doing more stories, and that we'll be able to announce something towards that end as soon as possible.

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