Comic book series, written by Evan Dorkin, illustrated by Jill Thompson, and published by Dark Horse Comics.

You know so little about what goes on in your neighborhood and hometown. Yes, you may keep your ear to the social scene, to the workings of local government, to the prayers of the religious community. But you have not a single clue about the woods across the highway, or about the dark corners of the alleyways, or even about what goes on in your own backyard.

It's a good thing your pets are keeping an eye on things.

The series is set in the small New England village of Burden Hill and focuses on a core group of five dogs, Ace, Rex, Jack, Whitey, and the deeply cynical Pugsley, along with a stray cat called the Orphan. Though the animals can talk to each other, they're not otherwise anthropomorphized -- they don't walk on two legs or wear clothes -- they are, for the most part, normal pets. The animals in the neighborhood are aware of strange supernatural happenings, including ghosts, demons, warlocks, and monsters, that they feel ill-equipped to deal with, so they petition for aid from the Wise Dogs, the supernatural, shamanistic elders. One of the Wise Dogs, an older sheepdog, helps them from time to time, but he also trains them to take care of their problems themselves.

The series is the brainchild of Evan Dorkin, a cartoonist best known for the hyper-violent parody "Milk and Cheese" and his bleak, cynical, and deeply funny semi-autobiographical series "Dork," as well as a number of gigs writing superheroes for animation. Dark Horse editor Scott Allie had asked Dorkin if he wanted to contribute a story for an upcoming horror anthology called "The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings" in 2003. Dorkin hit on the idea of writing about a haunted doghouse and, being less than confident about his ability to draw animals, asked Jill Thompson, creator of the "Scary Godmother" series and illustrator of comics ranging from "Sandman" to "Wonder Woman" to "The Invisibles," to contribute her lushly watercolored artwork to the series. The result was a story called "Stray," about a group of domesticated pets who hold a makeshift seance to speak with a frightening but sad spirit of a dog buried beneath a doghouse.

"Stray" was quite well received, and Dorkin and Thompson contributed stories about the animals of Burden Hill in several other Dark Horse anthologies and a four-issue miniseries in 2009, sending the dogs up against a band of witch cats, a werewolf, a frog demon, a horrifying zombie invasion of roadkill pets, and even a team-up with Dark Horse's most popular character, Hellboy.

The series' greatest moment likely arrived with the second issue of the miniseries, with a story called "Lost." The group agrees to aid Hazel, a dog whose pups are missing. When the trail leads them to a deserted pond called the Devil's Well, the dogs unwisely attempt a summoning ritual, leading to several of the dogs being possessed by angry canine ghosts -- and then charging out and savagely killing a human boy. The boy had disturbing secrets of his own, but the images of some of the dogs driven to kill while their compatriots are menaced by swirling ghosts of dead dogs and cats are remarkably terrifying, and the issue ends with a final page that's both chilling and intensely sorrowful -- Hazel's body at the bottom of the Devil's Well, surrounded by the decaying corpses of hordes of tortured and drowned pets. It's haunting in every sense of the word.

The series has won several comic book awards, including several Eisners, a Harvey, and a National Cartoonist Society award. The series was collected in a hardcover edition called "Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites" in 2010.


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