Thursday, September 15, 2016

These Compelling Beasts Aren’t for Kids

I doubt that the 1998 Wesley Snipes vehicle Blade lands high on anyone’s “best of American cinema” list. Broad and bloody, it somehow spawned a franchise with an increasingly steep decline in quality that ended in a TV version dubbed (appropriately enough, I guess) Blade: The Series. Still, one quote from that first film has stuck with me over the years. Early on, the titular vampire hunter has saved a doctor from a supernatural assault and explains that existence isn’t the simple, naturalistic thing everyone believes it to be. “You better wake up,” Blade intones. “The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it—the real world.” Not the most elegant metaphor, but I like it because it encapsulates the fundamentals of urban fantasy. Fiddle with it however they may, authors of the sub-genre keep returning to the world-beneath-the-world idea, and Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s episodic graphic novel Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites is no different. It cleaves to that basic idea like honeymooners to one another on a Caribbean getaway. What distinguishes it, though, is how it replaces typical urban-fantasy protagonists with a cabal of adventuresome house pets.

You see them every day, scampering down the street, scarfing down kibble from their bowls, barking and whining as they beg and bicker. They’re frank Pugsley and brave Ace, kindly Jack and occasionally cowardly Rex—the neighborhood’s dogs. (Oh, yeah, and the Orphan, but he hardly counts since he’s a cat and all.) You hardly take note of them, which is to be expected since you’re only human. But this motley, mostly canine crew does more than simply howl at the moon and chase each other through the woods. Evil forces skulk around the periphery of the community (and sometimes even beneath it), and the only thing standing between you and destruction is often that furry member of the family whom you took for a walk this morning.

Beasts of Burden is a great example of a concept that improves with every iteration. The first tale, “Stray,” clocks in at a mere eight pages and feels more like a plot treatment than a proper narrative, a way to roughly graft classic ghost tropes onto a canine world. (I imagine the pitch going something like, “But what if it was a haunted doghouse?!”) “The Unfamiliar” mars an otherwise serious story with goofy humor and a silly looking main monster. But Dorkin and Thompson started ratcheting up the horror in subsequent issues, and the compilation ends up better for it. Poignant sacrifice turns stale zombie conventions into something compelling (“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”), grue lends added impact to a werewolf riff with a surprise ending (“A Dog and His Boy”), and a grim beauty inhabits a dog’s search for her missing puppies (“Lost”). That being said, vivid watercolors make the blood really seem to splash, so consider yourself forewarned: As compelling as they may be, these Beasts aren’t for the after-school set.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Isengardt)

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