by Jarrod Jones. In our comfortably hum-drum lives, the things that go bump in the night are typically our pets—the dogs lazily shifting in our beds, the cats going absolutely ape at 3 in the morning (because the moon is high and so are their vicious little hearts). In Beasts of Burden, Dark Horse Comics’ prestige horror series, the things that lurk in the dark have long been the primary concerns of our furry friends, and peril is the name of the game. But in the series’ latest installment, Ace the husky, Pugsley the Pug, Dymphna the cat, and the other members of our motley crew have allied themselves with a family of paranormal investigators to explore the latest hauntings that have besieged the town of Burden Hill.
Beasts of Burden co-creator Evan Dorkin lays out the premise for us. “The idea for Presence was that enough weird stuff has happened in Burden Hill that someone has had to have noticed,” he tells me. “Someone does, and calls in a paranormal team to look into things. The dynamic between the two groups [the animals, the humans] is what’s important in this story, it’s a new experience for them both.”
A new experience for the eponymous pups and felines, and a chance to continue a collaboration that began with the series’ acclaimed 2018 mini, Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men. Co-creator and series illustrator Jill Thompson set up The Presence of Others with a beautiful Part One entry (out May 1), and Part Two will re-team Wise Dogs and Autumnlands artist Benjamin Dewey with Dorkin and letterer Nate Piekos. For Dewey’s part, the responsibility of creating a fluid experience for readers while keeping his craft in harmony with Thompson’s was a paramount concern.
“It’s funny because I went from finishing Eldritch Men right into this,” Dewey says. “I was all ready to jump into a digital format—which will speed up my workflow propitiously—but I’m painting one more issue because I want it to feel consistent for the readers who had become accustomed to what the series was like when Jill was working on it.”
With Part One of The Presence of Others hitting shelves on May 1, DoomRocket took occasion to speak with Dorkin, Dewey, and letterer supreme Nate Piekos about the latest installment of this fan-favorite horror series, one that has spent the better part of two decades making us go “aww!” as often as we said “eww.”
1. Evan, Ben, Nate—‘Presence of Others’ brings you all together for the first time since ‘Wise Dogs and Eldtrich Men’ was released last year. What’s changed for our pack between series and what’s changed for you as a team?
Evan Dorkin: We finished up Wise Dogs and then moved right onto Presence #2, so there hasn’t been any real break. What’s changed since we started working together is that we’re past that initial period where everyone gets used to one another and everyone’s individual approach to making comics. I think on Wise Dogs #3 everything really started to click with me and Ben, we needed to talk fewer things out, we had fewer revisions, things that usually happen when you work with someone for the first time. I love Ben’s artwork and how he approaches the stories, especially how he handles the animals and locations. Like Jill, he keeps the world real enough that you believe what’s happening, but fantastic and attractive enough that it’s not stiff or ordinary.
Nate lettered the Calla Cthulhu series I wrote with my wife, Sarah Dyer—and which Dark Horse collected a little while back, and I was already aware of his work before then. Nate’s terrific. He can be a page-saver when there’s some difficulty or I’m worried I’ll have to rewrite something because sometimes you get a panel that doesn’t behave. It’s interesting, because I was against working with anyone else on Beasts for so long, and now working with Ben and Nate on the book feels completely natural to me.
As far as the characters go, nothing’s changed since they last appeared. Wise Dogs featured a different cast, it’s related to the main series but they only appear in one or two cameos. That’s the only short answer you’re going to get out of me today.
Benjamin Dewey: It’s funny because I went from finishing Eldritch Men right into this, so it feels like the same timeline. I was all ready to jump into a digital format—which will speed up my workflow propitiously—but I’m painting one more issue because I want it to feel consistent for the readers who had become accustomed to what the series was like when Jill was working on it. I don’t remember who asked me but either Daniel, our editor, or Evan asked if I would do the second issue of Presence and I knew I had to get out the watercolors one more time. Just when I thought I was out…
As for our dog buddies, they seem to be growing, getting wiser and encountering all those shifts in perspective that come with maturation. I love Evan’s work on this series for the same reasons I love sci-fi and fantasy: you can dive in to heavy subjects with more leeway from an audience because they’re already suspending disbelief. It makes it possible to do the rooftop scene in Bladerunner with replicant Roy talking about his existential dilemma. In the case of Beasts, because we care about them so much, the pets provide that leverage.
Nate Piekos: As a team, we’ve fought a battle of the bands to save our school, taught the local bully a lesson, and blossomed into mature, responsible teens that you’d let stay out past curfew. But seriously, I don’t think much has changed for us as a team—we mesh really well and when that happens, you can jump right back into a creative collaboration without many hiccups.
2. Evan, you’ve said that ‘Beasts of Burden’ wasn’t originally meant to be a continuing series, yet here we are sixteen years after their original appearance. What is it about this particular horror story that seems to consistently lure you back to it?
ED: The first story was a one-shot, but when Dark Horse continued the anthology it ran in, editor Scott Allie asked Jill and I to contribute something, so we did another story with the characters. Things slowly snowballed from there; we did two more after that, each one longer and more complicated than the last, and kind of all realized we had a comic book series on our hands. By that point I already knew I wanted to write as many Beasts of Burden stories as people were willing to read.
It’s hard for me to articulate what’s hooked me into the project the way it has. I mean, I like animals, but I can’t draw them, so I never thought about using them as characters before. On the other hand, I’ve always wanted to write horror and supernatural stuff, but was too anxious to really jump in, and that first story about a haunted doghouse helped me jump in. And the haunted doghouse meant using dogs, so that was how that started. Now I’m caught up in this fictional world that’s become very “real” to me, with characters I’ve become very fond of. I just want to keep telling these stories. Also, I need the work. There’s always that.
3. Shifting artists in the midst of a series can sometimes mean finding a new rhythm in order to keep things apace. Nate, in what ways have you adjusted your approach in this second chapter of ‘Beasts of Burden: Presence of Others’? How has your application of Evan’s scripts to the art differed between Ben and Jill?
NP: Very little change, really. I tried really hard to make a simpler, more traditional lettering style guide when I came on board for Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men, and it’s worked really well with both artists. They both have a very organic style, so I guess I just lucked out!
4. Ben, you’re not new to this particular pack, nor are you a stranger to realizing the fuzzy features of this series’ protagonists. On other projects I find your art to be clean, ornate in places, almost ethereal in others. Now, horror. What approaches in your craft have to shift once it comes time to get bloody?
BD: I had the benefit of drawing a wide variety of puppers in Eldritch Men and I got to draw this original animal team one time in that series (issue #2 in flashback), so I’m not totally green. That prepared me a little to take this one on. Thanks for that description! I’m always trying to figure out ways to make the story clear and get out of my own way. Doing horror was never on my list of ideal genres but it can be good to get out of your comfort zone and to challenge my own sensibilities. It’s tough for me to draw animals in distress because I feel anxiety when I’m drawing it but I just try to infuse that emotion into the expressions and action. I try to avoid gore for its own sake but I will make choices with color and shape that give you as much as you need and no more. I learned that lesson from the original Predator movie; it’s great because it doesn’t roll around in the blood. It’s over the top but in manageable and intentional bits.
5. Horror books, even the kinds with cute furry types, requires a sense of foreboding. Nate, what challenges do you face when it comes time for layouts during a particularly harrowing scene? How much more involved is the dialogue pass between you, the writer, and the artist become in these instances?
NP: I find horror lettering in general benefits from a more painterly approach. Particularly sound effects; the more wet and organic they look, the more suspense and pay-off they create. Evan’s scripts are so incredibly comprehensive, that there are almost always extensive notes on what the characters are thinking and feeling, so I don’t have to bother anyone with emails or questions all that often.
6. ‘Beasts of Burden’ finds interesting new ways to spin a crafty yarn with every subsequent entry. This time around, the eponymous darlings team with a family of paranormal investigators in their bid to unearth an ancient evil. In terms of story, how dramatically does this human addition change the already established dynamic between critters such as Pugs, Ace, Whitey, etc.? Or does it?
ED: It doesn’t. Sorry! What happens going forward is where we might have some issues, because things don’t end on a very happy note. The idea for Presence was that enough weird stuff has happened in Burden Hill that someone has had to have noticed. And someone does, and calls in a paranormal team to look into things. The dynamic between the two groups is what’s important in this story, it’s a new experience for them both. The animals worked with someone sort of human in the Hellboy crossover, so I figured they’re a little more willing to trust these investigators. Which might not necessarily be a good move.
7. In ‘Beasts of Burden’ there are light moments, sad moments, scary moments, outright gross moments. Ben, how do you conjure mood in your art? More importantly, how do you balance it so that one mood doesn’t cause the whole production to topple over?
BD: Moving from scene to scene and shifting tone is handled well by Evan in the scripts. These dogs feel like dogs but also a bit human too, and we’re kaleidoscopic in our moods. I think that’s why we bond so well as species. We get that they can be happy and playing around one minute and growling the next; we do that too sometimes. Life has those shifts you mentioned and I just try to remember what that pendulum swing feels like and do my best to draw it. Good art should give you a sense of what it’s like to be in a place, experience a thing or feel an emotion. I aim for the goal of evoking and remember Lucian Freud’s take on the distinction between just rendering and capturing when he said of his work “I would wish my portraits to be of the people and not like them.” Shift the subject matter from people to pooches and you get my art-equation.
Comics are these amazing little microcosms where a ton of ups and downs can play out in twenty-two pages. I love the form for that reason. I get the chance to pull eyeballs this way and point them that way. In the best of circumstances, I want to ride those waves of mood and not fall off the board. Thanks to Evan and Nate, I know I have collaborators who share similar impulses and it’s like being in a band where everyone just wants to rock out. It’s great.
8. Pets, as I’m sure you know, take their perches in varied places. One of the charms of ‘Beasts of Burden’ is how, well… pet-like these characters are, and how they carry themselves—cats are generally off on their own, sniffing or cleaning, dogs pace back and forth or circle around, etc. Nate, have you come across any layout challenges when it comes time to apply dialog to our mercurial friends?
NP: We’ve got so many characters, who often all have conversations that it can get tricky during placements…but that’s rare. Ben’s always thinking about that in his layouts, so he’s a pro when it comes to leaving me plenty of room to get my groove on.
9. Evan, you’re corralling cats and dogs and other fauna both domestic and wild—you don’t just direct where they go, you’re dictating how they behave. As an effect, these ‘Beasts’ have become reader favorites over the years. How do you feel about them? When your story hits a moment of violence, is there a guttural reaction to shift these characters away from it?
ED: It’s something we deal with. Bad things happen to good animals in the series, and that kills us. We’ve done some stories that end sadly and they’re a bummer to write and I know those were a bummer for Jill to work on. We react to animals in danger differently than we do people, even children, and we’re aware of that and we try not to depict that in a cheap or exploitative way. I know we have people who won’t read the book because they don’t want to see animals getting hurt. And I get that, I wrestle with it because we’ve done a few stories that were very depressing for me to work on when they went there. At this point we haven’t had any of our main characters die, but I dread writing the first casualty. I started crying in my car once over a character’s death while thinking about it. It happens. Which felt really weird, but I guess if you’re not invested in your characters, you can’t expect the readers to be. Maybe I’ll put it off so I die before any of them do.
10. When you sit down to create a horror book, what’s on? A preferred TV show, film, album? What gets you in the eldritch mood?
ED: I usually have music on when I work, not necessarily anything to get me in the mood to write, because nothing gets me into the mood to write except fear, guilt and debt. Sometimes I’ll listen to classical music or horror soundtracks. Sometimes I have this online station called Horror Theater on, which plays new and old radio shows. Over the years it’s become something like Muzak, I can let it drone on in the background. But mostly I listen to non-eldritch stuff. I’m not really an eldritch mood kind of person. And please don’t take it personally, but “What gets you in the eldritch mood?” has to be the worst Dragon-Con pick-up line ever.
BD: If I’m thumbnailing from a script, I can’t have anything with narrative or regular human speech. I will listen to bands Like Big Wreck, Mastodon and Priestess. I’ve also really been loving the Paramore record “After Laughter” because it captures my headspace at the moment of candy shell over reluctant cynicism. When I’m inking or painting I like to have a mix of news podcasts like Rachel Maddow for the horror (of the everyday news cycle) aspect, Role-play shows like Critical Role for escapist adventure, and all things McElroy to make me feel hopeful. I gotta mix it up because I was only listening to the news and after a while it’s like pouring water into a glass that’s already full and the overspill is human tears. Was watching a ton of Great British Bake Off while I did Eldritch Men so it might be time for a rewatch. I just love Nadiya, and seeing her bake is to witness the lows and highs of the creative process but always with light at the end of the tunnel.
Working on the series makes me want to watch Hot Fuzz, Stranger Things and the first three Alien films because they have that same range of relatable feelings and grisly horrors! I think I’ll take a break when I finish this last painted issue and dive in to all of those as a treat.
NP: I’ve been listening to John Carpenter’s movie themes and instrumental albums lately. I also live within spitting distance from where H. P. Lovecraft lived and where he’s buried. Those tentacles run deep.
‘Beasts of Burden: The Presence of Others, Part Two’ drops June 5. You can pre-order it now. (Diamond Code: APR190309)
Enjoy this 5-page preview of ‘Beasts of Burden: The Presence of Others, Part One’, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics!
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