Beasts of Burden, the Eisner-winning series created by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, is back for its latest installment next month. Co-written by Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, illustrated by Benjamin Dewey, and lettered by Nate Piekos, Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory tells a new story of the Wise Dogs Society, the group of canine elders who live outside of Burden Hill. Specifically, the series highlights an important chapter in the life of Emrys, the revered sheepdog member of the group, and a mission he undertook with his human companion during World War II.
The world of Beasts of Burden has steadily grown since the series debuted as a short story back in 2003, and the addition of stories featuring the Wise Dogs Society has expanded the universe of the series even more. Occupied Territory is the first Beasts series to delve into the past of this world, and highlights how limitless the storytelling potential of Beasts of Burden really is. It’s also the first installment of the series not to be fully painted in watercolors, and Dewey’s digital colors set the story distinctly apart from its predecessors while at the same time adding a new visual dimension to the world of the series.
The Beat had the chance to ask Dorkin about the latest Beasts of Burden series, how the Wise Dogs story fits in with the overall narrative of Burden Hill, and the evolving visual look of the series.
Joe Grunenwald: We’re back with the Wise Dogs again for this series. How much time has passed between Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men and Occupied Territory? Is that fire salamander a new permanent fixture for the series?
Evan Dorkin: The new series begins two days after the Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men series ended. But it mostly serves as a bookend for the main story, which takes place in occupied Japan, in 1947. The fire salamander’s future isn’t certain. I think he’ll be around, but not as an active player. In some ways the Wise Dogs stories are like a superhero team book, and there’s always a problem when a more powerful character shows up and throws off the balance of the team.
Another problem is logistics in regards to page layouts — it’s difficult to get a lot of four-legged animals into the panels and pages, [and] when we toss in larger or smaller animals it can make things a lot harder to work with. So, while the Salamander won’t be going into the field, he’ll probably be burrowed in somewhere near Arthur and Huxley’s house in case he’s ever needed.
Grunenwald: Your wife, Sarah Dyer, is co-writing this series with you. What has collaborating with her brought to the story as compared to other Beasts of Burden stories you’ve written solo?
Dorkin: The Beasts issues Sarah and I have worked on together have usually been the more depressing stories. I worried about my handling on those, I don’t want them to be too sappy or too morose. I would end up asking Sarah’s opinion on a lot of things, and if I’m asking Sarah to look over a script and she starts contributing ideas and we’re brainstorming together, at that point we’re co-writing and continue from there. Usually we’re collaborating on something from the get-go, like the Marvels Snapshots one-shot we did last year and with this new Beasts series.
On this one we pretty much wrote a straight weird adventure story, with a lot of horror and yokai elements. The story came about because of an in-joke between us and editor Daniel Chabon. We wanted his dog, Zell, and for some reason he wouldn’t give her to us. He said we should put a shiba in Beasts, instead. That led to a plot idea that Sarah and I built up into the four-issue series.
Grunenwald: Artist Benjamin Dewey is using a different coloring method on this series than he has on his previous Beasts of Burden work. Was that a decision the two of you made together? How do you think the visual difference impacts the story you’re telling?
Dorkin: Benjamin worked in watercolors on the first Wise Dogs series and then went straight into the second half of The Presence of Others. That’s over a hundred pages of dense work and it was a lot to ask for. Ben asked to color the new series digitally, and that was fine with me, as his coloring has a painterly quality to it and the transition looks very smooth and might not even be noticed by many readers.
I wanted Beasts to always follow [original series artist] Jill [Thompson]’s lead in regards to the artwork, but if the quality and overall approach is maintained, then I’m fine letting the traditional watercolors go. The difference in coloring didn’t affect the story or script in the least. And I think it looks terrific.
Grunenwald: Occupied Territory is the first Beasts of Burden series to really explore the relationship between a Wise Dog and their human companion. You’ve previously teased Jonathan Hope as a former companion of Emrys’s – what about their story makes it one that you felt needed to be told? Do you have any plans to tell other stories about other Wise Dogs and their companions?
Dorkin: It’s something I’ve been working towards, without knowing when and where it might get done. This story provided an opportunity to include Jonathan and see him and Emrys working together. Jonathan doesn’t have a huge role here, but you get a sense of their working relationship and history. I’d like to do more stories exploring the Wise Dog Society’s history if I get the opportunity. In the meantime, I just drop hints of other events and characters in the scripts and hope I can pick up on them later.
Grunenwald: Previous series The Presence of Others also featured human characters in a more prominent role than was typical of previous stories. Should readers expect to see humans more as the series progresses?
Dorkin: It depends on the story. The Wise Dogs interact with people more regularly as a part of their mission, so there would always be humans involved in their stories to some degree. Burden Hill stories work best if the animals are on their own. In The Presence of Others I wanted to deal with the human view on what’s been happening in Burden Hill. Enough weird shit has happened in the town that someone has to have noticed, so we touched on that by bringing in the Waysides, a troubled family of occult investigators. But in general, Burden Hill stories need to be about the animals being on their own.
Grunenwald: Occupied Territory is also interesting in that it’s a period piece set during World War II. We know the Wise Dogs are (or, at least, Emrys is) older than your average dogs. How much of their history do you have mapped out already? Should readers expect to see more stories exploring their past adventures?
Dorkin: I’ve concentrated more on the main storyline in my notebooks, rather than the world-building. The Burden Hill storyline has a definite ending, and if we reach it, I would like to branch out. I have some general ideas on the history of the Wise Dog Society but I haven’t done the research to really get all that in shape. The main thing is, if we’re doing a Wise Dogs story, that means we’re not doing a Burden Hill story, and I would have liked to have had that wrapped up long before now. I’m not getting any younger, and neither are our readers.
Grunenwald: Can you tease at all how the events of Occupied Territory might play into, if at all, what’s going on in Burden Hill with its escalating threats?
Dorkin: Occupied Territory stands as an isolated story. You learn more about Emrys but it doesn’t play into the Burden Hill storyline the way Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men does.
Grunenwald: What can you tell us about what’s next for Beasts of Burden beyond Occupied Territory?
Dorkin: There’s nothing to really tell right now. I have the next set of stories planned, but there are no plans to do them. Hopefully that will change before too long, one way or another.
Published by Dark Horse Comics, Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory #1 (of 4) is due out in stores and digitally on Wednesday, April 7th. The preorder cutoff date for the issue is next Monday, March 15th.