Are you looking forward to a new comic book but it’s impossible for you to wait for its release before you know what we thought about it? That’s why there’s DoomRocket’s Advanced Reviews — now we assess books you can’t even buy yet. This week: ‘Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men’ #1, out August 22 from Dark Horse Comics.
By Arpad Okay. The world of Beasts of Burden is Evan Dorkin’s strongest work to date. Underneath all the writing in his storied career lay power lines, running a charge of humor and passion, darkness, an unabashed love for books, comic books, and culture. Beasts of Burden is a poignant and subtle synthesis of all these things. Magic dogs in a cursed world trying to do right, to protect humans from the fearsome edges of night. The lit, the empathy, the macabre is all there making the motor run, and for the reader, the comic book flows effortless.
By “effortless” I mean for us, not for the creative team. The story carries you easily on its quiet current, but the infrastructure that built it is as dense and noisy as a Milk & Cheese rampage. There’s a distinct vision of world, character, and mythos fully formed in Dorkin’s head that he, Benjamin Dewey, and Nate Piekos have no trouble communicating as a fairly straightforward adventure yarn. Adventure, like the exciting ultraviolence you’d expect from an arcane superhero comic: burning cryptids, lurker hordes, hedge wizard magic traps. But Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men makes it meaningful with real characters, roots and repercussions.
One of Dorkin’s innate gifts has always been a knack for characters with personality. These Wise Dogs, they’re gruff, or somber, a little skittish, or too headstrong, or sweet. They’re more than just high-level wizards, though you should expect lightning bolts and aura shields, too. Something that comes with time and experience (and one of my favorite techniques in storytelling) is how we perceive these layers of character—not through exposition but interaction. It’s all there already, revealed (instead of told) to the reader through their conversations with each other, or how they handle trouble. No roll call, just saving throws.
It’s a great comic, full of gaiety and terror, courage and devotion. Dog stuff. Dumb questions, hating the rain, pulling a rope without considering what it’s attached to. Look, anybody can write a talking animal book. We already anthropomorphize everything, especially domestic pets, taking that next step and making them people has been done. A truly unique book like Beasts of Burden (or Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Jaime Grant, and Todd Klein’s heartbreaking miniseries We3, or Richard Adams’ novel The Plague Dogs) keeps the animal nature and doggly concerns of its characters while endowing them with the ability to speak. The Wise Dogs are still, first and foremost, dogs.
Benjamin Dewey is hugely successful in making this come across. He nails the expressions and body language of the beasts. He makes the magic seem otherworldly. The runes look like they were marks made with intention. The goblins from under the earth, with their weird gray manes—a little detail I am willing to bet the farm is a Dorkin touch—they project inhuman menace and they also look awesome when getting crisped up or electrified. Also, Dewey draws a snappy skeleton.
His muted watercolors hearken back to the aesthetic of Jill Thompson’s work on the main series, but Dewey lays in a surrounding layer of ink that feels right for Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men. His solid contours and impenetrable shadows are perfectly suited for this book; they solidify the super-powered, neo-classic feel that makes this mini something different. It’s the details that really get me. The color of a fire’s glow on fur, curling a shaggy dog’s hair in humid air, the oily texture of guts. One of my favorite panels in the book is the moon reflected in a puddle. Daredevil-esque extrasensory circles. Dog hubris as a mouthful of trouble and a stance. A salamander’s kiss.
Nate Piekos’ crystal clear lettering, with a minor curve that feels like natural penmanship, and Dorkin’s penchant for bold emphasis in his dialog really seals the classic comics deal. Wise Dogs doesn’t look old in any way, but feels like forever.
Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men is a story meant to tell us why the world of Burden Hill and surrounding territories is the way it is. This story and the main series are connected but hidden from each other, a deliciously frustrating writing tactic that again speaks to Dorkin’s veteran comics creator status. That said, these dogs can and do stand alone. Wise Dogs is a debut that shows us who’s who amongst the wyrd canine cognoscenti and lays out a sound mystery for them to tackle. Compelling and fun, it’s a worthy new addition to the pantheon of classic fantasy that gets all the significant details down pat.
Dark Horse Comics/$3.99
Written by Evan Dorkin.
Art by Benjamin Dewey.
Lettered by Nate Piekos.
9 out of 10
Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men hits stores August 22.