This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character. The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are Underrated in some way. This week: the Dark Horse Comics’ hardcover collection Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of you have never heard of this set of stories. Until recently, I hadn’t either.
A few months ago, the proprietor of my Local Comic Shop told me that I should read a hardcover graphic novel called Beasts Of Burden. It was still shrink wrapped, so I had no idea what is was about other than it featured talking cats and dogs, and that it was apparently right up my alley. It took me almost two weeks before I finally caved and plonked down the $25 for the comic, an another week before I removed the shrink wrapped outer cover.
Upon cracking the cover and reading the small print (I like knowing what issues have been collected…) I found out that Beasts Of Burden Animal Rites collects eight stories from the series first appearance in the Dark Horse Book Of Hauntings released in 2003 to the first four issue miniseries from 2009, and tells the story of the pets of a sleepy neighbourhood called Burden Hill, and the adventures they get up to while their owners are asleep or at work. Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites may look like it’s geared toward a younger audience based on the colourful artwork adorning the pages of the trade, but there’s a distinctly mature feel underpinning the comic as the characters deal with subjects that may surprise you.
There’s more than 150 pages of story in the graphic novel (there may be upwards on 170, but the trade is upstairs and I’m not so I can’t verify the story to bonus materials ratio so I guessed conservatively), and I read them all in a single sitting.
Up until the owner of my LCS recommended the collected edition to me, I had never seen any talk about the series anywhere before, which is a genuine shame because Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites is a fantastic experience. Jill Thompson’s art won three Eisner awards, and it’s easy to see why she received the wins (the collected edition was also nominated for Best Anthology in 2007). Below is a sample from one of the early pages in the collected edition that will give you a feel of how good the artwork is.
You may notice the Orphan casually licking himself in the bottom left panel; it’s one of the numerous examples of the audience being reminded that these characters may be talking animals, but that they’re not just humans in animal form. Evan Dorkin infuses such personality into these domesticated little fluff bags with his writing, that by the time we get to experience the comic the resultant final product is frankly just phenomenal.
This collection is about as far from my typical comic book reading as you can get – the majority of my weekly reading is made up of spandex and capes – but there’s something refreshing about reading a collection of almost completely standalone stories featuring the same characters. There is some bleed over, and previous events do impact subsequent issues, but for the most part you could have happily read any issue of the series when initially released without reading the previous. This style gives the collection a really rewarding feeling as you go through it; you’ll notice subtleties to the art and writing that may not impact the stories hugely, but certainly add to the enjoyment of those who pick up on them.
Thematically, the stories touch on some very relatable topics, from acceptance, companionship and the need to help others, to the more supernatural side of things. Following the journey of these characters is incredibly rewarding, and at times touching, especially for those of us who have a pet at home (ironically enough my cat is sleeping on my lap as I write this). If you prefer a more typical-to-comics superhero style story, there is still something here for you; the Burden Hill gang feel very much like a classic super team where almost everyone gets along.
There’s genuinely something here for all walks of comic fandom to enjoy.
Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites can be found for between $20-25 at your local comic store, depending on where you are (I’m in Canada and the hardcover cost me $25ish – your LCS may have discounted graphic novels).
So why did I want to spend an entire Underrated talking about Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites? Because it’s one of the best collected editions that you’ve probably never heard of. I do not exaggerate when I say this was one of the best hardcover collections I’ve read, and held, in my hands in a long time – both because of the content and the presentation.
And that, my friends, makes it criminally Underrated.
Dark Horse Books presents Blackwood: Library Edition, collecting the two volumes in the series so far. Written by multi-Eisner award-winning author, Evan Dorkin, and illustrated by Veronica Fish and Andy Fish, Blackwood, the supernatural fantasy about a magical murder in a sorcery school, will soon be available in a deluxe, oversized hardcover format.
When four teenagers with haunted pasts enroll in Blackwood College—a school that trains students in the occult—their desire to enhance their supernatural abilities and bond with others is hampered by an undead dean’s curse, ghosts in their dorm, a mischievous two-headed mummy-chimp, a plague of mutant insects, and the discovery of an ancient evil that forces our heroes to undergo a crash course in the occult for the sake of the world.
Blackwood:Library Edition will be available at comic stores October 12, 2022 and in bookstores October 25, 2022. It is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at your local comic shop and bookstore. Blackwood: Library Edition will retail for $39.99.
The eight-time Eisner Award-winning comic book series blending fantasy and humor returns in a historical adventure blending Japanese and Western occult with Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory #1!
An elder member of the occult-battling pack of Wise Dogs recalls a harrowing mission–in U.S-occupied Japan after World War II, a mysterious curse creates an army of crawling, disembodied heads which threatens to overwhelm the region. Emrys and a team of canine companions attempt to solve the mystery, bringing them into conflict with shape-changing tanuki, evil oni, and a horde of vengeful demons.
Beasts Of Burden is one of those series that I was introduced to via my LCS heavily promoting the Neighborhood Watch trade paperback, and the subsequent books. so it is, then, that Beasts Of Burden: Occupied Territory #1 is one of the few entries to the series that I’ve read in single issue form verses the collected edition. While this is a follow up to the previous miniseries, other than the first page or three you don’t need to have read that as Occupied Territory takes places during the Second World War in a flashback told by Emrys.
Written by Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, with art by Benjamin Dewey and letters by Nate Piekos, the comic is absolutely beautiful. It reminds me of a painting in many ways and the style works incredibly well with the time period the comic is set in, with the art bringing to the fore the sense of dirt and grime and hopelessness you’d expect in a story that mixes World War Two and the occult. Being a flashback story, Emrys takes the time to frame his story for his audience, which has the added benefit of framing it for us, and especially for folks new to the series (which makes this a fairly good entry point to the world of Beasts Of Burden).
With this being the first issue, there’s a bit of a slow build to the inevitable occult madness, but Dorkin and Dyer set the pace of the comic really well – building slowly toward the following chapters where the shit (and probably blood) will surely hit the fan. Beasts Of Burden: Occupied Territory #1 is another fantastic entry into the series lore, and I cannot wait for the next issue.
Story: Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer Art Benjamin Dewey Letters: Nate Piekos Story: 8.6 Art: 9.4 Overall: 9 Recommendation: Buy
Dark Horse provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review
The eight-time Eisner Award-winning comic series, Beasts of Burden, returns blending fantasy, horror, and humor in a historical adventure written by Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, illustrated by Benjamin Dewey, and lettered by Nate Pieko, with an issue #1 variant cover by John McCrea, that marries Japanese and Western occult in Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory.
An elder member of the occult-battling pack of Wise Dogs recalls a harrowing mission—in U.S-occupied Japan after World War II, a mysterious curse creates an army of crawling, disembodied heads which threatens to overwhelm the region. Emrys and a team of canine companions attempt to solve the mystery, bringing them into conflict with shape-changing tanuki, evil oni, and a horde of vengeful demons.
Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory #1(of four) will be in comic shops on April 7, 2021.
2020 definitely felt like a year where I embraced comics in all their different formats and genres from the convenient, satisfying graphic novella to the series of loosely connected and curated one shots and even the door stopper of an omnibus/hardcover or that charming webcomic that comes out one or twice a week on Instagram. This was partially due to the Covid-19 pandemic that shut down comics’ traditional direct market for a bit so I started reviewing webcomics, trade paperbacks, graphic novels and nonfiction even after this supply chain re-opened. I also co-hosted and edited two seasons of a podcast about indie comics where we basically read either a trade every week for discussion, and that definitely meant spending more time with that format. However, floppy fans should still be happy because I do have a traditional ongoing series on my list as well as some minis.
Without further ado, here are my favorite comics of 2020.
10. Marvels Snapshots (Marvel)
Curated by original Marvels writer Kurt Busiek and with cover art by original Marvels artist Alex Ross, Marvels Snapshots collects seven perspectives on on the “major” events of the Marvel Universe from the perspectives of ordinary people from The Golden Age of the 1940s to 2006’s Civil War. It’s cool to get a more character-driven and human POV on the ol’ corporate IP toy box from Alan Brennert and Jerry Ordway exploring Namor the Submariner’s PTSD to Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, and Benjamin Dewey showing the real reason behind Johnny Storm’s airhead celebrity act. There’s also Mark Russell and Ramon Perez’s take on the classic Captain America “Madbomb” storyline, Barbara Kesel’s and Staz Johnson’s sweet, Bronze Age-era romance between two first responders as the Avengers battle a threat against the city, and Saladin Ahmed and Ryan Kelly add nuance to the superhuman Civil War by showing how the Registration Act affects a Cape-Killer agent as well as a young elemental protector of Toledo, Ohio, who just wants to help his community and do things like purify water. However, the main reason Marvels Snapshots made my “favorite” list was Jay Edidin and Tom Reilly‘s character-defining work showing the pre-X-Men life of Cyclops as he struggles with orphan life, is inspired by heroes like Reed Richards, and lays the groundwork for the strategist, leader, and even revolutionary that appears in later comics.
Fangs is cartoonist Sarah Andersen’s entry into the Gothic romance genre and was a light, funny, and occasionally sexy series that got me through a difficult year. Simply put, it follows the relationship of a vampire named Elsie and a werewolf named Jimmy, both how they met and their life together. Andersen plays with vampire and werewolf fiction tropes and sets up humorous situations like a date night featuring a bloody rare steak and a glass of blood instead of wine, Jimmy having an unspoken animosity against mail carriers, and just generally working around things like lycanthropy every 28 days and an aversion to sunlight. As well as being hilarious and cute, Fangs shows Sarah Andersen leveling up as an artist as she works with deep blacks, different eye shapes and textures, and more detailed backgrounds to match the tone of her story while not skimping on the relatable content that made Sarah’s Scribbles an online phenomenon.
I really got into Vault Comics this year. (I retroactively make These Savage Shores my favorite comic of 2019.) As far as prose, I mainly read SF, and Vault nicely fills that niche in the comics landscape and features talented, idiosyncratic creative teams. Heavy is no exception as Max Bemis, Eryk Donovan, and Cris Peter tell the story of Bill, who was gunned down by some mobsters, and now is separated from his wife in a place called “The Wait” where he has to set right enough multiversal wrongs via violence to be reunited with her in Heaven. This series is a glorious grab bag of hyperviolence, psychological examinations of toxic masculinity, and moral philosophy. Heavy also has a filthy and non-heteronormative sense of humor. Donovan and Peter bring a high level of chaotic energy to the book’s visuals and are game for both tenderhearted flashbacks as well as brawls with literal cum monsters. In addition to all this, Bemis and Donovan aren’t afraid to play with and deconstruct their series’ premise, which is what makes Heavy my ongoing monthly comic.
Writer/artist Katie Skelly puts her own spin on the true crime genre inMaids, a highly stylized account of Christine and Lea Papin murdering their employers in France during the 1930s. Skelly’s linework and eye popping colors expertly convey the trauma and isolation that the Papins go through as they are at the beck and call of the family they work almost 24/7. Flashbacks add depth and context to Christine and Lea’s characters and provide fuel to the fire of the class warfare that they end up engaging in. Skelly’s simple, yet iconic approach character design really allowed me to connect with the Papins and empathize with them during the build-up from a new job to murder and mayhem. Maids is truly a showcase for a gifted cartoonist and not just a summary of historical events.
In her webcomic Grind Like A Girl, cartoonist Veronica Casson tells the story of growing up trans in 1990s New Jersey. The memoir recently came to a beautiful conclusion with Casson showing her first forays into New York, meeting other trans women, and finding a sense of community with them that was almost the polar opposite of her experiences in high school. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the evolution of Veronica Casson’s art style during different periods of her life from an almost Peanuts vibe for her childhood to using more flowing lines, bright colors, and ambitious panel layouts as an older teen and finally an adult. She also does a good job using the Instagram platform to give readers a true “guided view” experience and point out certain details before putting it all together in a single page so one can appreciate the comic at both a macro/micro levels. All in all, Grind Like A Girl is a personal and stylish coming of age memoir from Veronica Casson, and I look forward to seeing more of her work.
Thai/Italian cartoonist Elisa Macellari tells an unconventional World War II story in Papaya Salad, a recently translated history comic about her great uncle Sompong, who just wanted to see the world. However, he ended up serving with the Thai diplomatic corps in Italy, Germany, and Austria during World War II. Macellari uses a recipe for her great uncle’s favorite dish, papaya salad, to structure the comic, and her work has a warm, dreamlike quality to go with the reality of the places that Sampong visits and works at. Also, it’s very refreshing to get a non-American or British perspective on this time in history as Sampong grapples with the shifting status of Thailand during the war as well as the racism of American soldiers, who celebrate the atomic bomb and lump him and his colleagues with the Japanese officers, and are not shown in a very positive light. However, deep down, Papaya Salad is a love story filled with small human moments that make life worth living, like appetizing meals, jokes during dark times, and faith in something beyond ourselves. It’s a real showcase of the comics medium’s ability to tell stories from a unique point of view.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (with colorist Jacob Phillips) are two creators whose work has graced my “favorite comics” list many times. And this time they really outdid themselves with the graphic novella Pulpabout the final days of Max Winters, a gunslinger-turned-Western dime novelist. It’s a character study peppered with flashbacks as Phillips and Phillips use changes in body posture and color palette to show Max getting older while his passion for resisting those who would exploit others is still intact. Basically, he can shoot and rob fascists just like he shot and robbed cattle barons back in the day. Brubaker and Phillips understand that genre fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum and is informed by the historical context around it, which is what makes Pulp such a compelling read. If you like your explorations of the banality of evil and creeping specter of fascism with heists, gun battles, and plenty of introspection, then this is the comic for you.
Music is my next favorite interest after comics so My Riot was an easy pick for my favorite comics list. The book is a coming of age story filtered through 1990s riot girl music from writer Rick Spears and artist Emmett Helen. It follows the life of Valerie, who goes from doing ballet and living a fairly conservative suburban life to being the frontwoman and songwriter for a cult riot girl band. Much of this transformation happens through Helen’s art and colors as his palette comes to life just as Valerie does when she successfully calls out some audience members/her boyfriend for being sexist and patronizing. The comic itself also takes on a much more DIY quality with its layouts and storytelling design as well as how the characters look and act. My Riot is about the power of music to find one’s identify and true self and build a community like The Proper Ladies do throughout the book. Valerie’s arc is definitely empowering and relatable for any queer kid, who was forced to conform to way of life and thinking that wasn’t their own.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: slice of life is my all-time favorite comic book genre. So, I was overjoyed when writers Sina Grace and Omar Spahi, artist Jenny D. Fine, and colorist Mx. Struble announced that they were doing a monthly slice of life comic about a brother, sister, and their best friend/ex-boyfriend (respectively) set in San Francisco that also touched on the gay and indie music scene. And Getting It Together definitely has lifted up to my pre-release hype as Grace and Spahi have fleshed out a complex web of relationships and drama with gorgeous and occasionally hilarious art by Fine and Struble. There are gay and bisexual characters all over the book with different personalities and approaches to life, dating, and relationships, which is refreshing too. Grace, Spahi, and Fine also take some time away from the drama to let us know about the ensemble cast’s passions and struggles like indie musician Lauren’s lifelong love for songwriting even if her band has a joke name (Nipslip), or her ex-boyfriend Sam’s issues with mental health. I would definitely love to spend more than four issues with these folks.
My favorite comic of 2020 was The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott , a debut graphic novel by cartoonist Zoe Thorogood.The premise of the comic is that Billie is an artist who is going blind in two weeks, and she must come up with some paintings for her debut gallery show during that time period. The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott boasts an adorably idiosyncratic cast of characters that Thorogood lovingly brings to life with warm visuals and naturalistic dialogue as Billie goes from making art alone in her room to making connections with the people around her, especially Rachel, a passionate folk punk musician. The book also acts as a powerful advocate for the inspirational quality of art and the act of creation. Zoe Thorogood even creates “art within the art” and concludes the story with the different portraits that Billie painted throughout her travels. The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott was the hopeful comic that I needed in a dark year and one I will cherish for quite some time as I ooh and aah over Thorogood’s skill with everything from drawing different hair styles to crafting horrific dream sequences featuring eyeballs.
Experience Black Hammer like never before in this exciting reimagining of the Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston created, Eisner-award winning series! Black Hammer: Visions is a series of one-shots bringing some of comic’s most exciting talent into the Black Hammer Universe including Patton Oswalt, Geoff Johns, Scott Snyder, Dean Kotz, Scott Kolins, Chip Zdarsky, Johnnie Christmas, Cullen Bunn, Malachi Ward, Matt Sheean, Kelly Thompson, Leonardo Romero, Mariko Tamaki, Diego Olortegui, Cecil Castellucci, and Melissa Duffy, with colors by Jason Wordie, Bill Crabtree, Jordie Bellaire, and Dave Stewart and letters by Nate Piekos!
Kicking off Black Hammer: Visions, Patton Oswalt joins artists Dean Kotz and Jason Wordie to explore the life of youthful super heroine Golden Gail on the Black Hammer Farm before the beginning of Black Hammer#1, and her struggle to maintain sanity as a middle-aged woman trapped in the unchanging body of a superpowered grade-schooler. This 32-page issue also features variant covers by Evan Dorkin with Sarah Dyer, and Gilbert Hernandez with Dave Stewart!
Black Hammer: Visions #1 (of eight) will hit comic shops on February 10, 2021.
Just as the Predators make their Marvel debut, fans can experience their original comics legacy in Predator: The Original Years Omnibus Vol. 1. Following the landmark 1987 film, the Predator franchise thrilled comic book readers with various series depicting terrifying encounters with the extraterrestrial hunters and exploring the dark history of their species. Both Predator aficionados and newcomers will be able to enjoy these classic tales in a hardcover format this July.
Nowhere is safe when the remorseless alien killers stalk the concrete jungle of New York City, leave a trail of death across the American Southwest and ignite the Cold War by landing in Siberia! Find out if the Predators came to Earth during Vietnam or World War I and see the hunters make a new enemy in Dutch’s brother, Detective John Schaefer. Read on as an Arizona prison becomes a slaughterhouse and witness a Predator vs. psychotic Predator showdown in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey! Finally, take a trip to 1950s Hollywood, where only a child with special glasses can see the monster in the midst of Tinseltown! It’s total carnage, Predator-style!
This unprecedented collection includes: Predator (1989) #1-4, Predator 2 #1-2, Predator: Big Game #1-4, Predator: Cold War #1-4, Predator: The Bloody Sands of Time #1-2, Predator: Race War #1-4, Predator: Bad Blood #1-4, Predator: Invaders From the Fourth Dimension, Predator: Dark River #1-4, Predator: Strange Roux, and Predator: Kindred #1-4 — plus material from Dark Horse Presents (1986) #46, #67-69 and #119; Dark Horse Comics #1-2, #4-7, #10-14, #16-18 and #20-21; and A Decade of Dark Horse #1.
Writers include Mark Verheiden, Franz Heinkel, John Arcudi, Dan Barry, Andrew Vachss, Randy Stradley, Evan Dorkin, Jerry Prosser, Brian McDonald, Jason R. Lamb, Scott Tolson, Neal Barrett, Jr., Chuck Dixon, Charles Moore, Terry Laban, and more. Artists include Chris Warner, Ron Randall, Dan Barry, Mark Bright, Evan Dorkin, Jordan Raskin, Lauchland Pelle, Derek Thompson, Jim Somerville, Mitch Byrd, Brian O’Connell, Roger Petersen, Leo Duranona, Enrique ALcatena, D. Alexander Gregory, Howard Cobb, and more.
Check out the cover by artist Iban Coello below, the direct market variant cover by artist Chris Warner.
The most non-heinous Eisner Award-nominated series, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Comic Book, has returned! This archive edition contains Evan Dorkin’s (Milk & Cheese, Beasts of Burden) entire 11-issue series run on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Comic Book and the Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey adaptation completely remastered and collected in a prestigious, full-color softcover at an all new value price! Experience the comic like never before with all-new bonus features, including original artwork, art commissions, alternate versions of previously published artwork, and behind-the-scenes process pieces from Evan Dorkin.
(W) Evan Dorkin, More (A) Benjamin Dewey (CA) Alex Ross Rated T In Shops: Mar 25, 2020 SRP: $4.99
Our tour through Marvel history continues, showcasing Marvel’s greatest characters from the Golden Age to today, all through the eyes of ordinary people! This time, writers Evan Dorkin & Sarah Dyer (Beasts of Burden, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Superman: The Animated Series) and artist Benjamin Dewey (The Autumnlands, Beasts of Burden) tell the tale of the ten-year high-school reunion of the Fantastic Four’s own Human Torch. His hometown of Glenville, Long Island is going wild, and we see it all through the eyes of the Torch’s ex-girlfriend Dorrie Evans and reporter Marcia Hardesty – the preparations, the Torch’s long history in town, the festivities and more. But there’s a strange distance between Johnny Storm and his old schoolmates, one Dorrie knows all too well and Marcia is determined to get to the bottom of. Featuring ex-villains, strange souvenirs, a weenie roast on the beach and, of course, the hulking Inhuman hound known as Lockjaw! Don’t miss the festivities!
Creators Evan Dorkin, Veronica Fish, and Andy Fish bring us back to the Blackwood College campus with the new four-issue series Blackwood: The Mourning After, starting February 2020!
The continuation of the hit occult fantasy series returns to where we first left off. Blackwood College is in mourning after the death of Dean Ogden and Dennis. The students have a lot to learn about these mysterious deaths and the repercussions left behind, but while they investigate a traitor hides in their midst looking to bury the rest of the school too.
Blackwood: The Mourning After #1 (of 4) arrives February 12, 2020.