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BEST ANIMAL TEAM OF 2009: Beasts of Burden

The ComicsAlliance Superlatives of 2009 continue with the Best Animal Team of 2009: Dark Horse’s “Beasts of Burden.”

Sorry, Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers, but there’s only room in my heart for one subhuman supergroup this year, and it is “Beasts of Burden.” Part animal adventure and part late-night horror flick, Beasts could be imagined as what one might get if Sam Raimi directed “Homeward Bound,” except prettier and with better gags due to the inimitable talents of artist Jill Thompson and writer Evan Dorkin.

The story of a group of dogs (and one cat) who fight supernatural evil under the noses of the ignorant, doomed humans they “belong” to, “Beasts” is shockingly effective at hitting the several seemingly contradictory notes it aims for. Dorkin’s well-renowned humor and Thompson’s fluid cartooning are a perfect fit for a straight “funny animal” story, but they’re able to turn on a dime and deliver real moments of shock and horror. Their world is also a thoroughly constructed fantasy, and the insights into the rituals and beliefs of the pets helps transform “Beasts” from a one-note, albeit funny, joke to something richer and deeper, with alll the loose energy of a B-movie or a pulp horror novel. Rat-king warlocks run the sewers! Cannibal frogs fall from the sky! Each issue is madder than the last.

“Beasts” started life as an Eisner-winning short story in “The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings,” one of publisher’s horror-themed collections of original shorts. Dorkin and Thompson teamed up for two more shorts before Dark Horse launched Beasts as its own mini-series, the final issue of which ships this week. Each issue is mostly self-contained, with minor plot threads weaving between them.

The stand-out story by far is from issue #2, a perfectly constructed done-in-one that starts with a mother dog asking the Beasts to help find her missing pups, and which strings the reader along from there with precision to a chilling and melancholy climax in the dark woods, to a simple yet surprising solution and an evil both dark and incomprehensible.

The shorts (which will hopefully be included in any collection) can be sampled online at Dark Horse’s website. But beware! Clicking that link will summon forces you can only begin to understand, and you will be doomed — DOOOOOOMED — to rush out and buy all four issues of this wonderful comic in order to sate the unnatural hunger that will grow in the pit where your soul used to be.

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