While Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch is the first I'd heard of these characters from Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, it became quite clear when reading this one-shot that it was not their first appearance. They originated in The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, wherein Dorkin hit upon the story of a haunted doghouse, and they've appeared throughout several other Dark Horse Comics compilations since then. This does appear to be their first solo issue, however, and it does not particularly suffer if you haven't seen their previous adventures. Come on, it's a bunch of dogs and an orphaned cat dealing with the supernatural. There is not a Byzantine tome of continuity at work here. It's the fun concept of pets as paranormal investigators.
Lest you think this is some fluffly Disney thing full of cute animals, I must needs remind you of the author. Dorkin is the man who gave us Milk & Cheese and the Eltingville Club and deeply personal works in his Dork anthology series. Of course, Beasts of Burden is nowhere close to those classics in tone, but Dorkin always brings something more to the table than you might expect on the surface. Case in point, the kid-show people who wanted to make a cartoon out of Milk and Cheese before finding out the characters were alcoholics.
Anyway, this issue is three stories long. The first tale, called "Food Run," is about Rex the dog and Orphan the cat trying to hunt down a goblin who has been stealing and eating chickens. The first thing that lets you know this isn't kiddie comix is Oprhan groaning about the singleminded clucking of the chickens in the coop, saying "Goddamn birds. I swear, they're dumber than mice." It's a thrilling little hunting adventure that establishes the nebulous world where humans are obviously unaware that the animals around them can talk to each other, and they're also oblivious to the fact that there are creepy goblins running around with skeevy goblin talk.
The second chapter is "Story Time," featuring a wise old sheepdog telling the epic medieval tale of the learned war dog named Bitan and his great battle against the nefarious monster known as the Basilisk to three curious and entranced puppies. It's hard not to thrill to the saga right along with them.
The final story is called "The View From The Hill," and it's the most unsettling one. Ace, Whitey, Jack, Orphan and Pugsley come across a herd of lost sheep and their guard dog Ben, only to learn a disturbing truth about them – a truth only Jack the beagle can see, and it's something by which he's deeply traumatized.
These are real and affecting little stories, and the fact that they're told from the perspective of animals only makes them more accessible. Thompson's great at rendering all of this wildlife in a very realistic way – about as true to life as you can illustrate talking dogs without being overly cute with the stylization. It makes for a very Norman Rockwell-looking world they live in, which makes the hauntings all that much more effective.
Here's hoping that Beasts of Burden can get its on ongoing series, as it would certainly be a refreshing change from capes, and a much more palatable form for dark stories to take than we usually get in comics.