Honestly this selection should not surprise anyone. Ever since I first discovered Beasts of Burden, I have been a huge fan. The series tells the story of a band of dogs and cats who protect their town Burden Hill from nefarious supernatural entities. Over the course of a mini-series and several one-shots, writer Evan Dorkin has taken this fantastical concept and refined it into a compellingly humane narrative. What could have been fun one-off story (it all begin with the idea of writing a haunted dog house tale for an anthology) is instead something much deeper. Not that Beasts lacks levity, quite the opposite in fact. What makes it stand above every other comic this week is how well it blends the light-hearted with the poignant, all stunningly conveyed by Jill Thompson’s painted artwork.
The core of Beasts has always been based around a crew of canines with a lone cat, Orphan awkwardly tagging along. Previously Orphan had been featured in “Something Whiskered this Way Comes” (still one of the best title tweaks ever). This week, Orphan gets another turn in the spotlight, as he tries to determine why the feline Dymphna has been acting suspicious of late. Dymphna had previously been a familiar to a pair of witches, until she turned on her masters when their sorcery grew too malicious. Despite this act of heroism, trust issues remain. What is interesting is how the lack of trust comes more from Dymphna than Orphan. She has to trust herself to let her guard down. In previous installments, Dorkin had hinted at a developing attachment between these two cats, which he continues here. Dorkin and co-writer Sarah Dyer naturally tease out these emotional undercurrents in a resonant manner.
It turns out that Dymphna has been trying to get back into her former home. Managing this task requires more than magical mastery, which Dymphna has plenty of, but also fingers for turning the knob of the front door. Thus, Hoke the raccoon is dragged into the adventure. Hoke wants nothing to do with these cats yet ends up badgered into it by his mother. He is a fun addition to the cast, kvetching his way through the mission. As always, the writing revels a real knack for conveying animals’ personalities. “I wouldn’t pick through this gunkpit for chicken in apple juice,” is one of Hoke’s more choice observations, Despite all this grumbling, however, he is a brave soul who charges bravely, if blindly, into danger when the situation demands it.
In true horror tradition, Dymphna’s real secret is not the house itself but what is living in its basement. Dymphna herself was responsible for loosening this demonic force and her pangs of guilt form the emotional through line for the story. “What the Cat Dragged In” is about how anger can lead to rash decisions that can cause more harm than ever intended. Again, this is a common trope of conjuring tales, yet Dorkin and Dyer make the material fresh and compelling. Previously, Dyer had co-authored the Beasts story “A Boy and His Dog” a tragic tale of devotion between man and canine. “What the Cat Dragged In” ends with a similar sensibility. There is triumph, yet, it cannot alter the past or bring back lives already lost. These moments of reckoning after the conflict are the most poignant pages of any comic this week. They echo through the final page depicting a family’s reunion. The security of home now longer seems quite so definite. The issue’s last notes are more bittersweet than celebratory.
Much of the power of these final moments comes from the art of Jill Thompson. At this point in her career, Thompson has earned the right to be called a master of her craft. From her breakthrough work on Sandman to fan favorite Scary Grandmother to her artwork for Beasts, she has a distinct flair all her own. Her lush illustrations conjure an ambiance that perfectly matches the mood of the writing, blending the lighthearted with the horrific. The abandoned house is draped in an atmosphere of foreboding, while the creature haunting its spaces is aptly grotesque. Also noteworthy about her Beasts work, though, is her handling of the animals. Thompson has clearly spent time observing how animals move (she is a proud cat owner herself), which is reflected in their movements across the page. What is most impressive, though, is how she handles the animals’ facial expressions. She renders them fully capable of conveying complex human emotions without a trace of being anthropomorphic. Despite everything else, they never cease looking or acting like cats, which only increases their charm. If your heart does not melt at the sight of some of these panels, you do not have one.
This combination of poignant story with stunning art is an evocative mix. “What the Cat Dragged In” has humor, thrills and affection to spare. It is another fabulous installment in the ongoing Beasts of Burden narrative. And for that reason, it is This Week’s Finest.
Disclosure: Publisher Dark Horse provided a review copy of this comic to Nothing But Comics without any payment between the site and publisher or agreement on the review’s content.