Out this week is a brand-new story arc within the Beasts of Burden universe. (The series has already seen three collections and multiple self-contained stories since its debut in 2003.) Created by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, the newest series, titled Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory, kicks off its first issue with Dorkin and Sarah Dyer writing and art from Benjamin Dewey. It’s a gorgeous-looking story with a unique focus on its talking animal protagonists.
With eight Eisner Award wins, a great blend of fantasy and sci-fi, and a unique approach to the ongoing exploits of pet detectives, it’s a series that’s genuinely hard to ignore. And for that reason, and much more, I was lucky enough to chat with Dorkin about the series. We cover the 18 years of this series’ development, why the latest arc taps into the Japanese occult, and working with Dewey, among many other topics.
Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory #1 is out now.
AIPT: Beasts of Burden has been going strong since its inception in 2003. If you could go back to 2003, would you tell yourself to change anything or give yourself any advice on the series?
Evan Dorkin: Yes, definitely. If Jill and I knew we were going to continue past the first short story, I would have done several things differently, script-wise. First, I wouldn’t have included a panel where Jack the beagle is shown being able to understand human speech. We retconned that immediately with the second story so that ordinary animals only understand one another. Secondly, I would have not written a group of all-male animals. Even though the cast has expanded and there are more female characters in the series, that bothers me to this day. And I wouldn’t have named one of the dogs “Whitey.” I purposely gave the animals stereotypical pet names to go with the storybook feel of the comic, but I wish I didn’t go with that one for our little Jack Russell Terrier.
Otherwise, I wish we had been able to get more issues out after the first mini-series. I was reluctant to bring in another artist and I should have relaxed and let that happen so we could tell more stories while Jill’s schedule was too busy for her to work on Beasts. Water under the bridge, back issues in the bin.
AIPT: What drew you to bring the Japanese occult into this story?
ED: To make a long, not super-exciting story short, the series grew out of our wanting to put a Shiba in the comic because editor Daniel Chabon has a Shiba named Zell. It developed from a Shiba character in Burden Hill to a one-shot Emrys adventure and then finally a four-issue flashback series. Expanding the story allowed us to add more characters, action scenes, and yokai creatures that weren’t in the original plot. But with Shiba’s being from Japan, one thing led to another and that’s where the series came from.
AIPT: You told The Comics Beat recently you tend to write more depressing stories with your wife Sarah Dyer, after writing other Beasts of Burden stories with Sarah, (A Dog and His Boy and What the Cat Dragged). How does working with Sarah change the story and experience?
ED: The way that’s worked out in the past was that I would end up with a story that went into some dark or depressing places and I didn’t feel comfortable writing those without Sarah to collaborate and keep things on an even keel. For instance, Ace was originally supposed to die at the end of A Dog and His Boy, and Sarah argued me out of that and we worked that into something that was not only better, but set up the plot point of Ace being bitten by the werewolf. That gained dividends over the course of the series, and we managed to keep things depressing without going for a main character death.
“What The Cat Dragged In” was a weird situation in that I originally meant to write a Lovecraft satire, and it turned into a story about s----y childhoods and bad parenting. It became a companion to Lost, which was about a fear of losing a child or having something terrible happen to them. I was down a rabbit hole on What The Cat Dragged In, I asked Sarah to come in and work with me to fix the story structure and set it back on track. She has a clearer eye than I do, I can get utterly lost in a script, especially if I’m losing focus at the expense of the emotional stuff. “Occupied Territory” was a collaboration between Sarah and I from the start, though. We just wanted to write a fun adventure story with dogs running around dealing with yokai and monsters. And it’s a period piece, so that means a lot of research, which Sarah’s terrific at.
AIPT: I love Benjamin Dewey’s work. Was there anything he brought to this latest arc that surprised you or went beyond your expectations?
ED: Benjamin always goes above and beyond, he’s an absolute monster at making pages. We’ve worked on a few things now, including a Marvels Snapshot issue, and when his pages come in it just makes my day seeing how the script’s been brought to life. The same obviously goes for the work Jill put into the series, but every artist has their own touches and strengths. Benjamin is super diligent and hardworking and he really tries to give the readers and the script everything he can. He does a fantastic job with the animals as well as the yokai in this series, his action is spot on, the acting is rock solid and he’s terrific with the animals’ expressions.
As with Jill’s work, you forget you’re reading about talking dogs and monsters and magic spells and just accept what’s happening and go with it. That’s not an easy trick. I’m super happy with how Occupied Territory looks, I was a little worried because Benjamin switched from hand-painted watercolors to digital coloring, but I don’t think we lost anything, really, except for some texture. It’s a fully-realized world and looks great.
AIPT: I can’t shake the feeling Arthur is meant to look like Charles Dance. Which leads to the question, what’s your take on characters being drawn to look like actors in comics?
ED: You’re the first person to pick up on that, but, yes, that’s who Benjamin used as a model for Arthur Gannon – one of our few human characters. I’m not actually familiar with the actor, I’m about twenty years behind on movies and television because I mainly watch a lot of older horror movies that mostly suck. I like the idea of basing characters on actual people when it isn’t too obvious or distracting. But I’m not someone who’d want to have an easily- recognizable celebrity “acting” in a comic like Sting as John Constantine or Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury. I actually dislike that, it bumps me out of the reading experience because it’s so obvious and gimmicky. Character actors are a better way to go or even non-actors. You have a model to work with but not one that’s instantly recognized by everyone and stands out on the page like a neon sign.
AIPT: Given the years of adventures of Beasts of Burden and its successes. When might we see the movie adaptation, and do you have an ending in mind for the Wise Dogs for when the timing is right?
ED: There’s a planned ending for the main storyline, the events taking place in Burden Hill with Ace, Jack and the other apprentice animals. It’s been in my notebook for a long time, but there are still a number of stories I want to tell before we bring that curtain down. The Wise Dog adventures are ongoing, those characters serve as a sort of superhero team book, and the Wise Dog Society and associated animals operate all over the world. There’s plenty of room to tell stories about the Society as long as anyone is interested in reading them.
As far as a movie goes, we had Beasts in pre-production at Reel FX a while back, and like most film projects it didn’t go anywhere. Which is to be expected. And probably a good thing, because the script I saw was so bad I stopped reading after ten pages. I just worry about the comic, anything beyond that is up to fate. They can’t make a movie out of everything, even if it seems like they are these days.
AIPT: Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions!
ED: Any time. Thanks for the interest in Beasts of Burden. Hope you enjoy the new series. Charles Dance is in it for a few panels.
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