Post Hype Machine: The Quiet Resurgence of Beasts of Burden

The comic industry has
a short memory, as titles are hyped on the approach to their first issue and
often forgotten shortly thereafter. On to the next is the typical mindset, with
what’s new often leading the way for readers, comic sites and beyond. Post Hype
Machine is a recurring column on SKTCHD that’s going to move against that
trend, as it will exclusively be looks at – that’s right, I’m not calling it a
review, I’m calling it a “look at” – titles that are on their second arcs or
later. Today’s subject is a fair bit past its first arc.

It doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re telling: maintaining top of mind awareness in 2019 can be a very difficult thing to accomplish. Even achieving a high level of visibility is a tall task, but keeping it? Sheesh. You’re really asking for a lot.

The goes double in the world of comics, in which it seems it’s what’s new, all day, every day, as noted in the intro of this very piece. So being a comic that first debuted 16 years ago can make things rather difficult. Being one that hasn’t published a whole lot of issues over that timeframe can be even more so.

That’s the situation facing Beasts of Burden, a title that saw its characters and concept debut in a series of one-shot hardcover horror anthologies at Dark Horse. Its first story, “Stray,” appeared in The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings in 2003, and co-creators Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson immediately put us on notice with it. It was a gorgeous, alluring, unexpected and dark debut, and a title that was immediately unlike anything else on the stands.

It was all about the titular beasts, a crew of five dogs and one cat – although the cast has since expanded a fair bit, especially as we’ve gotten into the world of the Wise Dogs – that act as paranormal investigators in their home of Burden Hill, a quaint township that doubles as a hotspot for the supernatural. While many titles can be tough to come up with an elevator pitch for, Beasts of Burden is a breeze because its concept is so pure. Here’s a quick trio off the top of my head. “Think Stranger Things, but if everyone was a house pet and extremely competent.” “It’s like Scooby Doo, but if everyone was Scooby and had Velma’s abilities.” “The Goonies, but if they were all paranormal investigator dogs and the adults were cool.”

Pugs and The Orphan from Beasts of Burden: The Presence of Others #1, art by Jill Thompson

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, it’s a comic that has a real identity. That’s why it’s always been an easy sell for me when I pitch it to friends. Odds are the average person will either like supernatural stories or animals, and if they like both, even better. It’s a lovely, engrossing series even when the subject matter gets dark, and the team has managed to endear readers to its cast members like Ace, Jack, and above all, The Orphan 8 over its relatively limited amount of releases. Pair that with its towering bonafides – the series has won eight Eisner Awards since it started, with four of those going to Thompson – and we have a title that lives in rarefied air. So why does this easy to pitch, award-winning series not have a higher level of awareness in 2019?

It goes back to what I mentioned earlier: its limited amount of releases. When you only appear roughly once a year on average – depending on how you count, it only released about 15 “issues” worth of story over its first 15 years, or 11 in its first 9 if we start with the first Beasts of Burden mini-series – it can be tough to maintain momentum. 9 Seemingly, that slow rate of release stems from Thompson’s in-demand nature and the fully painted interiors she brings to the book, but whatever the reason, it hamstrings the title from gaining real traction. In fact, between 2013 and 2017, only two issues were released, both of which won the Eisner Award for Best Single Issue/One Shot. That right there is a microcosm of the series as a whole. It’s a beloved, brilliant title, but also one that is rarely seen. That’s a tough position to maintain heat from.

But quietly, Beasts of Burden has been on a roll lately. It started with 2018’s Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men, a four issue mini-series that focused on the mentors of the core cast, widening the gaze of the story and building up an overall threat that looms near. Then it continued this year with Beasts of Burden: The Presence of Others, a two issue jaunt that returned us to Burden Hill and our main pals. That’s six issues released over a 10 month period, with an additional four issue mini-series already in the works. That’s more like it. And even better? It didn’t see a drop off in quality despite its relatively aggressive schedule.

What changed, you might ask? How did a series that labored for years all of a sudden mostly solve its release schedule problem? It’s simple. A new artist stepped in to fill some of the holes created by Thompson’s schedule. She’s a tough act to follow, of course,m as the amount of comic artists who paint their own work and excel at drawing animals is a rather limited list. The good news is they found the one person that resided at the core of that atypical Venn diagram: Benjamin Dewey.

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  1. At least for me.

  2. For a little context about how long it has been since this title started becoming “hot,” I believe I first heard of it in Wizard Magazine.

  3. At least for me.

  4. For a little context about how long it has been since this title started becoming “hot,” I believe I first heard of it in Wizard Magazine.

  5. Minus the anthropomorphic nature of its cast.

  6. Dorkin already revealed Dewey will be drawing the next mini-series as well, which is fine by me.

  7. On my reread, I realized they alluded to this before then, but I didn’t connect what would happen because of said gift with the action until later on. I was in shock! Sue me!

  8. At least for me.

  9. For a little context about how long it has been since this title started becoming “hot,” I believe I first heard of it in Wizard Magazine.