I’m a die-hard digital comics convert, for many reasons. I’m not going to get into them all now, but I will let you in on one particular reason. You get to discover series’ that you might miss otherwise. Such is the case with Beasts of Burden, which I came across one day while going through the Dark Horse Comics App Store. I took a chance on the first issue about the town of Burden and its supernatural investigators, consisting of dogs and cats, and completely fell in love with it. Written by Evan Dorkin and illustrated by Jill Thompson, the series is a fantastic horror tale, one of the best I’ve read in forever. With talking animals as your stars, you might think Beasts of Burden would be all cutesy. How wrong you would be.
Evan Dorkin was kind enough to answer some questions via email about Beasts of Burden – where it came from, his collaboration with Jill Thompson, and much more, including his other work appearing in the legendary anthology series, Dark Horse Presents.
Andy Burns: I was a late comer to Beasts of Burden, having first discovered it on the Dark Horse Digital App. For Biff Bam Pop readers who might also just be discovering the series, could you give me the background on how Beasts of Burden was developed?
Evan Dorkin: In 2003 Scott Allie asked me to contribute to a horror anthology called The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, and I came up with an idea for an 8-page story about a haunted dog house and how the neighborhood animals help solve the mystery behind it. I had Jill Thompson in mind for the art, specifically her watercolor work, which I knew from her Scary Godmother books. Jill agreed to illustrate the story, which was called Stray, and which got a nice reaction. Stray was done as a standalone story but when Scott was putting together a second anthology, The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft, we ended up doing a follow-up with the characters dealing with an invasion of black cat witches familiars in their neighborhood. Then we did two more stories for the Book of the Dead and the Book of Monsters, by which time we realized we were developing a series with a continuity about these dogs and cats dealing with the supernatural. That led to a mini-series, which is when we actually started calling it Beasts of Burden. The series developed in fits and starts into an ongoing concern, and Jill and I work on it whenever schedules permit. We’ve done twelve stories so far, the first four anthology appearances, a four-issue mini-series, a one-shot crossover with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and three short stories in Dark Horse Presents. The first eight stories were collected in a hardcover book called Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites which is currently in a second printing. That’s probably more than any of your readers wanted to know, but there it is.
Andy Burns: For some, the idea of cats and dogs investigating the paranormal might imply some sort of cuteness to the story, but Beasts of Burden is far from cute. There’s some sad and shocking moments throughout all the stories you’ve written. Were you ever met with any preconceived notions as to what the stories might be as opposed to what they actually are?
Evan Dorkin: If you’re dealing with dogs and cats there’s no way you’re not dealing with cute. Especially if Jill’s painting the dogs and cats. That cute factor was built into the first story – which was supposed to be the only story – it ends with a cat and a dog curled up asleep in a doghouse, which is just disgustingly cute. That being said, these are horror comics. There’s humor, and fantasy, and even some romantic stuff, but at it’s core it’s a horror series. The characters may be cute but a lot of not-so-cute stuff happens to them. I don’t show the comics to my young daughter, there’s zombie roadkill and animal torture and characters get eaten. We know there are readers who approach the book with trepidation if not outright hostility because they think it’s a kiddie book with cute animals doing cute things. If we can get them to actually check the book out we tend to get a good reaction. I understand that talking animals is a deal breaker for a lot of people. I never planned on writing a comic about talking animals, that’s for sure. But dismissing the book as talking animals misses the point. Plus, you have to read something to know you actually don’t like it.
Andy Burns: The characters returned most recently in a few issues of Dark Horse Presents. Does your approach to writing Beasts of Burden change at all when writing longer stories (ie the mini-series) vs the shorter pieces?
Evan Dorkin: The only real difference is in working towards the shorter page length. Obviously you can’t write as much business, especially since Jill’s watercolors means I have to try and keep the pages down to five panels at the most as much as possible. I chopped down the cast for the stories, or gave most of the cast a more passive role than they would have had in a longer story. But whether I have 8 pages or 22 I try to get as much story in as possible. I want every page to count for something. I wanted the three DHP stories to be complete on their own while also layering in texture and details that pick up on stuff from previous stories or set up stuff that we’ll come back to in the future. They’re not super-ambitious stories, but I think we get a lot more done in 8 pages than most modern genre comics do in 22. My general writing approach is different on all my Beasts scripts, because my own work tends to be very dense and cluttered with many panels on a page and a lot of dialogue and characters and details. So every Beasts script is different for me because I have to rein in all my OCD tendencies. We work hard to give the readers their money’s worth every time we put something out there.
Andy Burns: Jill Thompson’s art is as much a part of the beauty of the series as your writing. Could you talk about how the two of you collaborate? Is there much interaction between the both of you in developing the stories?
Evan Dorkin:For the most part, I write the stories and Jill tells them. We talk about upcoming plots so she can get ideas going on visuals and designs and stuff and make suggestions. Jill’s contributed plot points and business to the scripts and she’s played around with the layouts and panels, extending sequences and cutting stuff. She’s the one who suggested putting a Pug in the cast, she worked out a stronger ending for the Hellboy crossover, the last section of the werewolf story works as well as it does because of her re-staging it and extending it. The scripts aren’t written in stone as far as the layouts or storytelling goes. I have complete trust in Jill’s talent, we don’t see layouts from her except for covers. What she paints is what we print. We have plans for a holiday special we’d like to do that we’d co-plot, Jill had some ideas and I worked up some notes for it and hopefully someday we’ll get that going. It would be a more lighthearted story, I think it would be a lot of fun to do.
Andy Burns: All of us at Biff Bam Pop are always interested in the creative process of a writer. What was the process like for you writing The View From The Hill? How long did it take to craft? Do you listen to music at all when writing?
Evan Dorkin: I almost always listen to music while writing, what I listen to depends on my mood and what the project is like and whether I have a headache or not. Sometimes I pick specific music for what I’m working on, when I was working on a Metal Men series (which was canceled) I listened to nothing but electronic music, Goldfrapp, Gary Numan, Ladytron, Kraftwerk and whatever. I listen to classical fairly often when writing Beasts of Burden. I’ll often switch from punk and power pop to big bands and standards to classical all in the same work shift. Sometimes I’ll just put on favorite shows on WFMU.org or listen to archives of my favorite deejays and run them all night. When I draw I listen to a lot of old radio programs, mysteries, horror, crime and comedies, mostly. It helps keep my company while I’m making all those marks on paper.
Evan Dorkin: The series has a definite ending and, fingers crossed, we’ll get to that point before too long. So, yeah, there will be more Beasts of Burden, but it takes a while for us to get the material out there, as our readers have learned. Hopefully we’ll be able to announce some new stuff soon.
Andy Burns: What are you currently working on?
Evan Dorkin: I just finished up 24 pages of comics and gag pages for Dark Horse Presents #10 – 12, five pages of Milk and Cheese, a Murder Family story, an Eltingville Club story and six pages of four-panel gags, all colored by Sarah Dyer. I also just turned in a short script for Bongo’s Bart Simpson comic, I might be doing some more stuff for them this year if all works out. Sarah and I just did some work for Mad Magazine. The next thing I’m doing is a bunch of scripts for an an unannounced project, after that I guess I’m going to be looking for work.
Andy Burns: And finally, are you reading anything, comics or otherwise, that Biff Bam Pop readers should check out?
Evan Dorkin: I’ve been reading old Spider pulp reprints and Phil Dick books and a lot of manga lately, mostly Tezuka stuff, Blackjack, Princess Knight, Book of Human Insects. I was borrowing Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto from the library and finally finished that up, I really enjoyed it. I started reading 20th Century Boys, which I really like so far, but I’m stuck waiting for volume 8 or 9 and forgot half of what I read already. A Drifting Life was really good. I’m mostly reading escapist stuff before passing out after work, nothing too heavy. These days I can barely remember the Donald Duck comics I read five minutes after I put the book down.
Thanks for Evan Dorkin for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! And, as always, thanks to Aub Driver at Dark Horse Comics for helping make it happen. To check out Beasts of Burden and Dark Horse Presents, head on over to Dark Horse Digital.