Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Beasts Of Burden: What The Cat Dragged In. Written by Evan Dorkin (The Eltingville Club, Milk & Cheese) and Sarah Dyer (Action Girl Comics, Mad Magazine) with art by Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother, The Sandman), this one-shot tells a deeply personal horror story starring a cast of talking animals. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
It’s always a pleasant surprise when a new Beasts Of Burden story is released. Two years have passed since writer Evan Dorkin and artist Jill Thompson last checked in with the animals that protect the town of Burden Hill from supernatural evil, but that time away hasn’t diminished the quality of their work in the slightest. Dorkin’s writing for this series has been consistently exciting and engaging, and he enlists the aid of his wife and occasional writing partner, Sarah Dyer, to craft Beasts Of Burden: What The Cat Dragged In, delivering an emotional gut punch of a story rooted in the series’ recurring themes of family and loss. Those emotions are amplified by Thompson’s rich painted artwork, which mines an impressive range of expressions from the animal characters while creating a meticulously detailed environment to draw the reader deep into the foreboding world of Burden Hill.
The title of this week’s one-shot is literal, and the plot explores what happens when the witch cat Dymphna discovers the consequences of a summoning she performed after her coven was taken out by the book’s central team of paranormal investigator pets. Joined by fellow felines Scout and Orphan and a raccoon named Hoke, Dymphna makes her way back into her old home and finds that it has been infected by the harrow she magically dragged up from hell in a moment of vengeful anger. The structure of the house is rotted, Dymphna’s den mother is dead, and the surviving members of her coven are being kept alive in a state of perpetual agony because of her past actions. The script delves deep into Dymphna’s guilt and sorrow as she comes to terms with what she’s done to the people and place she loved.
Beasts Of Burden has built its reputation on how it deftly uses horror elements to tell powerful, personal stories about its talking animal characters, and this winning formula is applied once again in What The Cat Dragged In. Dorkin, Dyer, and Thompson also have considerable experience with more light-hearted comics, and they recognize the value of humor in a story. They include moments of comedy at the top of the issue to ease the reader into the story, and while the general tone of the narrative is ominous, these smaller moments of levity introduce some contrast that makes later events in the issue hit even harder.
Through Dymphna’s experience, the creative team looks at the corrosive effects of hatred on a family and home, and the harrow is that hatred given form and color (a bright green that radiates toxicity on the page). Hate consumed Dymphna’s heart on the night of that summoning, and while she never meant for anything like this to happen, unforeseen dilemmas often arise when hatred is the driving force behind action. In the context of this supernatural story, those dilemmas involve the rapid deterioration of a home and its inhabitants, but the more grounded moral at the heart of the issue is that the cost of hatred can potentially be everything you care about. Dymphna does irreparable damage to what remains of her coven in her attempt to seek vengeance on those that hurt it, and banishing the harrow does nothing to alleviate the guilt that will haunt her for the rest of her days.
Over time, Dymphna leaves her hatred behind, but when hatred takes root, it continues to corrupt. That corruption is immediately visualized by the first shot of the group entering Dymphna’s old home, painted with a messy mix of grays and blues that adds a layer or rot and mold to the otherwise cozy space. That coziness is part of the tragedy of this issue, and Thompson depicts an environment that was tended with love and care before the harrow took hold of it. The detail she puts into the décor tells a visual story of the lesbian couple that used to live here with their cats, and the fullness of the home’s design makes it all the more devastating when the house gets destroyed at the end of the issue. Thompson’s work in this regard shows how a strong setting can be used to amplify emotional storytelling, and Dymphna’s loss is more pronounced because the reader has a detailed impression of what she used to have.
Thompson has an extremely difficult task in depicting distinct expressions from the animals while staying true to how these creatures act in reality, and while there’s certainly some exaggeration in the facial expressions and body language, these characters don’t stray far from their natural appearance. Maintaining that balance is a challenge that Thompson rises to again and again, and she conveys a huge amount of information in her delicate handling of the cast, particularly in the final moments of the issue.
The banishment of the harrow means that the magic keeping Dymphna’s old friends alive is no longer in effect, and the sequence where the cats’ flesh dissolves from their bones is the most painful moment in the issue. The body language of the decaying cats is essential here, and as their flesh turns to dust, their skeletons begin to slouch down like they’re preparing to rest. There’s something touching about them finally finding peace, but it’s also incredibly sad when that release is paired with such morbid imagery.
That sadness is carried through to the final page, which shows Hoke making his way back to his mother, clearly rattled by what he’s just experienced. Hoke says nothing, but his facial expressions fully convey his fear, which lingers even after he’s firmly in his mother’s embrace. As his mother tries to comfort him, Hoke sullenly stares ahead, and the aggressive bravado he had at the top of the issue has been broken by the horrors he’s witnessed. That moment makes for a heart-wrenching conclusion to the issue, and seeing Dymphna lose her family gives Hoke a new appreciation for his own, as well as a new understanding of just how frail their lives really are. It’s heavy subject matter for a talking animal comic, but the skill with which Dorkin, Dyer, and Thompson handle these themes within this specific context makes for a remarkable reading experience.