This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character. The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are Underrated in some way. This week: the Dark Horse Comics’ hardcover collection Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of you have never heard of this set of stories. Until recently, I hadn’t either.
A few months ago, the proprietor of my Local Comic Shop told me that I should read a hardcover graphic novel called Beasts Of Burden. It was still shrink wrapped, so I had no idea what is was about other than it featured talking cats and dogs, and that it was apparently right up my alley. It took me almost two weeks before I finally caved and plonked down the $25 for the comic, an another week before I removed the shrink wrapped outer cover.
Upon cracking the cover and reading the small print (I like knowing what issues have been collected…) I found out that Beasts Of Burden Animal Rites collects eight stories from the series first appearance in the Dark Horse Book Of Hauntings released in 2003 to the first four issue miniseries from 2009, and tells the story of the pets of a sleepy neighbourhood called Burden Hill, and the adventures they get up to while their owners are asleep or at work. Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites may look like it’s geared toward a younger audience based on the colourful artwork adorning the pages of the trade, but there’s a distinctly mature feel underpinning the comic as the characters deal with subjects that may surprise you.
There’s more than 150 pages of story in the graphic novel (there may be upwards on 170, but the trade is upstairs and I’m not so I can’t verify the story to bonus materials ratio so I guessed conservatively), and I read them all in a single sitting.
Up until the owner of my LCS recommended the collected edition to me, I had never seen any talk about the series anywhere before, which is a genuine shame because Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites is a fantastic experience. Jill Thompson’s art won three Eisner awards, and it’s easy to see why she received the wins (the collected edition was also nominated for Best Anthology in 2007). Below is a sample from one of the early pages in the collected edition that will give you a feel of how good the artwork is.
You may notice the Orphan casually licking himself in the bottom left panel; it’s one of the numerous examples of the audience being reminded that these characters may be talking animals, but that they’re not just humans in animal form. Evan Dorkin infuses such personality into these domesticated little fluff bags with his writing, that by the time we get to experience the comic the resultant final product is frankly just phenomenal.
This collection is about as far from my typical comic book reading as you can get – the majority of my weekly reading is made up of spandex and capes – but there’s something refreshing about reading a collection of almost completely standalone stories featuring the same characters. There is some bleed over, and previous events do impact subsequent issues, but for the most part you could have happily read any issue of the series when initially released without reading the previous. This style gives the collection a really rewarding feeling as you go through it; you’ll notice subtleties to the art and writing that may not impact the stories hugely, but certainly add to the enjoyment of those who pick up on them.
Thematically, the stories touch on some very relatable topics, from acceptance, companionship and the need to help others, to the more supernatural side of things. Following the journey of these characters is incredibly rewarding, and at times touching, especially for those of us who have a pet at home (ironically enough my cat is sleeping on my lap as I write this). If you prefer a more typical-to-comics superhero style story, there is still something here for you; the Burden Hill gang feel very much like a classic super team where almost everyone gets along.
There’s genuinely something here for all walks of comic fandom to enjoy.
Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites can be found for between $20-25 at your local comic store, depending on where you are (I’m in Canada and the hardcover cost me $25ish – your LCS may have discounted graphic novels).
So why did I want to spend an entire Underrated talking about Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites? Because it’s one of the best collected editions that you’ve probably never heard of. I do not exaggerate when I say this was one of the best hardcover collections I’ve read, and held, in my hands in a long time – both because of the content and the presentation.
And that, my friends, makes it criminally Underrated.