Beasts of Burden: The Presence of Jill Thompson

Several dogs and cats and a crow are painted in red

The multiple Eisner Award-winning Beasts of Burden is back, with original artist and co-creator, Jill Thompson once again joining writer Evan Dorkin on the first book of a new two-part series from Dark Horse Comics. Originally published in 2003 as a short story in The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, Dorkin described the pitch as a non-traditional haunted house story. Thompson was approached to work with Dorkin on that short story, entitled “Stray,” and went on to handle the artwork until 2016, including a few years of lettering as well.

Though Dorkin wishes he could work on the project full-time, a steady publishing schedule has been delayed by Thompson’s busy schedule, but the series did eventually return in 2018 with Benjamin Dewey taking over the artistic side. Dewey is also the artist of the second book in The Presence of Others, which follows a team of paranormal investigators who disturb the grave of the “Master” in Burden Hill, triggering a chain of events that drag the Beasts into a deadly showdown.

In an interview with WWAC, Thompson expressed her happiness over coming back to help create the Beasts of Burden stories. “I love them as though they were my real pets!” Though she’s a cat person herself and based the character of Ace off of a dog named Ike that she knew during childhood, she explains that there are lots of dogs in her neighbourhood that serve as references for Rex, Jack, Whitey, and Pugsley. “I call all the beagles I see “Jack” and all the pugs I see “Pugsley”… Rex and Whitey are just drawn out of my head based on what Evan had envisioned. He’s added many lovely extras in the “Beasts” neighborhood. Lots of breeds of dogs covered.”

It’s hard for Thompson to choose a favourite since she loves all of them, but if she has to choose, Ace rises to the top of her list. “He has made me cry while drawing stories with him. I’ve cried so many times throughout the series,” as discussed in an earlier interview with WWAC.

If you’re new to the series like me, there is certainly character development that will be missed from not reading the previous books, but The Presence of Others can stand on its own, with Dorkin’s characterizations of each creature making them instantly endearing—Pugsley is an instant fave! The plot is established quickly and the action creeps to a frightening crescendo, with Thompson’s paintings bleeding bright, gorgeous colour and intense expressions across each panel.

Several dogs and cats and a crow are painted in red

Thompson’s unique style is distinguishable in her work on Beasts of Burden, though, she explains, her style can change based on the project she’s working on, “so, this is what came out when I started drawing the series. I’d say it’s fairly consistent as I work in watercolor most of the time.”

Nate Piekos has been lettering the series since 2018 after Jason Arthur, who took over lettering from Thompson, who had hand lettered her own work. Despite her love of hand lettering, which she feels “is very important for the composition and pacing of the story,” she no longer does it for two reasons. “One, I had really bad tendinitis in my hand and wrist from lettering and inking comics, and… Two, lettering done on a digital overlay makes creating foreign language editions much easier to do!”

Although she’s handed over the typographical reins, Thompson still makes use of her lettering experience. “I still place my word balloons on the pencil scans so the letterers know where I intend for the dialogue to be placed. I place it for acting and emphasis as well as for where your eye is supposed to move around the art and the page. It’s not ever just a random placement.”

The Beasts have been through many trials and tribulations over the years, and The Presence of Others promises more hardships to come before this short series is over. But Thompson hopes that one day, these characters will get their hard earned rest. “After all they have been through,” she said, “I really hope they get a trip to the dog park for a little disaster-free Frisbee or fetch, you know? Followed by lots of dog treats and belly rubs!”

Part one of the two part series, Beasts of Burden: The Presence of Others will be available on May 1, 2019.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.