In the film 101 Dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita howl for help once their puppies have been stolen. It is an interesting concept, this use of howling and work because any dog owner can believe it. Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson start their excellent series about a group of dogs the same way. The dogs of Burden, however, do so to call on the help of a wise dog.
Wise Dog = Merlin or Gandalf, he is an English Sheep Dog after all.
In Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites (the first four issues as well as a short story) chronicle the beginning adventures of Ace, Jack, Whitey, Rex, Pugsley, and their cat friend Orphan. The story starts as the friends with the help of the Wise Dog, investigate why Jack’s dog house is haunted.
Apparently, Burden is the Sunnydale of the dog world because there is quite a bunch of weird things going on.
Over the course of the first volume, the group of friends becomes wise dogs in training, guardians of the area, tasked to protect it. Like most fiction involving super hero teens, owners (the de facto parents) are largely absent and a dog owner sometimes wonders what is going on with these people. Yet, despite that wobble (and necessary plot hole. To be fair, owners do make some appearances), the series is pretty darn good.
In part, this is due to the dogs and cats remaining dogs and cats. It is also because of the strength of the storytelling. Animal Rites is in many ways, an origin sequence. But the stories are heartfelt, and while not having the lecture footnotes of Atwood’s Angel Catbird series, the stories do comment on how we treat animals and each other in the world.
At first, the group is seeming to be entirely male, but female characters in the form of a dog and a cat are added. In many ways, too, the dogs act like their respective breeds (though my Dobie was braver than Rex). This isn’t a story for children, there is death of some pets (but not of the major characters), and the dogs sometimes are a bit, well, fierce. It would be fair to say that the series is in part horror story from a dog point of view. It actually remembers me a bit of Wayne Smith’s Thor.
The issue Neighborhood Watch contains stories that are referred to in the later part of animal rites. Included are a story about a chicken stealing goblin and a flock of strange sheep. Honesty, the sheep story is one of the spookiest I’ve read in a long time.
Hunters and Gatherers and Issue #0 seem to occur after Animal Rites. Issue) details the story of one the cat characters in greater detail. It is also a story about family. IN the closing panels, you can easily see why the series has won awards. Hunters is an adventure tale that does seem to change Watership Down in part. The crossover with Hellboy is also very good, making Pugsley more than simply a downer. It was both funny and touching.