Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites (Dark Horse, 2010)

I've been enjoying Evan Dorkin's wild comedies for so long that I raised an eyebrow about his latest project, a supernatural horror story. It didn't help that it follows a gang of neighborhood dogs - sorry, but dogs are my least favorite animals - and that it was illustrated by Jill Thompson, whose previous pen-and-ink work I've never embraced. Turns out I was quite spectacularly wrong on every front.

As for the artwork, it turns out that whatever I thought of Thompson's linework, as a painter, she is quite superb. Not only is her comic storytelling very clear and well-designed, but she captures the emotions of her characters very well. These pages really look terrific, and leave me curious to see more from her in this style.

Her style is the perfect complement to a fascinating, really intelligent take on horror which could have been very silly - the premise is ridiculous - but, played straight, ends up being very dramatic and occasionally chilling. A group of neighborhood pets is charged with joining a wide-ranging animal defense of our world from supernatural threats. That Dorkin is able to rein in what could have been goofy and turn it into something frightening really impresses me.

The stories collected in this book originally appeared as one-offs in various anthologies released by Dark Horse Comics before it got its own four-issue miniseries. Each chapter is its own stand-alone short story with various subplot threads developing the background and increasing the tension as the book continues. Probably the most amazing is a chapter in which a new mother dog comes to our heroes for help finding her missing puppies. If the last page of that story doesn't chill you to your soul, you're lacking one.

Dark Horse has done a wonderful job packaging this collection in a reasonably-priced hardcover. It's fleshed out with sketchbook material from Thompson and notes from Dorkin and just oozes quality. I highly recommend this for all readers, and expect to reconsider it in December as a potential book of the year nominee. I was very, very satisfied and am sure you will be, too.

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