Inside Look: Beasts of Burden #1 - Part One

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With Beasts of Burden #2 in stores this week, Evan Dorkin drops by BF to lift the curtain on the first issue. And Evan wouldn't be Evan if he didn't have a lot to say. So, we present our first two-part Inside Look! The second part will be posted tomorrow.

Looking at the comments sections of some of the other First Looks, I noticed many of the comments seemed to come from people interested in the writing process. So, I've written this with those folks in mind who might be interested in my convoluted and overwrought thought process while working on a comic script.
Some Background

The first Beasts of Burden comic was an eight-page short story entitled “Stray”, published in The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings in 2003. At the time, neither editor Scott Allie, artist Jill Thompson or myself ever thought we'd be revisiting the characters, it was a one-shot story about a haunted doghouse, a group of neighborhoos dogs and a stray cat, and the Wise Dog who answers their call and helps them unearth the mystery.

I had written the story with Jill's artwork in mind – we're friends, and I'm a fan of her work – and I was incredibly happy and lucky when she agreed to illustrate it. The story went over well with Scott, and with the folks at Dark Horse, and a number of readers, and Jill won an Eisner award for her painted work for the year, including “Stray”. When Scott asked me if I'd like to do soemthing for the following year's Book of Witchcraft, I asked if we could do another story with the characters, because I had an idea for soemthing involving black cat familiars invading the neighborhood. This became a story called “The Unfamilar”, which did pretty well, as far as short stories in semi-obscure anthologies go, winning an Eisner for both Jill and I.

We ended up doing four short stories in as many years with the characters, upping the page count with each entry, adding characters and some basic continuity, as more paranormal events took place in the town of Burden Hill, forcing the dogs and cat to defend their town while the people living there remained unaware of what was taking place. You can read the first three short stoires, begiining with “Stray”, on Dark Horse's website.
While working on the fourth story, perhaps even earlier, we were discussing the idea of working on a dedicated series, although we still didn't have a name for what we were working on. We referred to the series as “the dog and cat stories”, there was no series title for them in the Dark Horse anthologies. Eventually we had a title and we had our schedules clear and we had contracts so we wrote and drew some more comics about animals fighting the supernatural, starting with Beasts of Burden #1 (duh).
Beasts of Burden #1 takes place in the Spring following the events of the fourth short story, “A Dog and his Boy”, which occurred over the previous winter. It involved a boy who was unaware that he was a werewolf, who our animals befriended and tried to protect. Things did not go well.  
In pages 1-5, we meet some of the regular cast members/spook-chasers: Rex (a Doberman), Whitey (a Jack Russell Terrier) and Pugs (um, uh...a Pug), who are visiting their friend Red's “house” by the woods. There are three other pets at the house, a Corgi named Pee-Wee, and two cats – a sarcastic type named Holstrein and another who's name we haven't learned yet. While the animals catch up on events, frogs begin to rain out of the clear blue sky. Some of the frogs then begin to eat their fellow, smaller frogs. Rex, Whitey and Pugs rush out to tell the rest of the “gang” about what's happened.
This issue went fairly smoothly, in terms of revisions, headaches and the like. That being said, its 23 pages instead of 22, because we needed some extra room for set-up and exposition, and I overstuffed page one. Jill opened it up into into two pages, including an establishing splash. Scott gave us an extra page because he knew we had a lot to deal with in this first issue – we're introducing a large cast, establishing the premise and trying not to load it down with too much exposition, and we needed to also establish a menace, take care of it, and wrap it up with the animals becoming a dedicated team against the paranormal menace facing Burden Hill.

All four issues of the mini-series are done-in-ones, which proved tough to do, especially given the fact that I was trying to limit the script to five panels per page. I tend to write pretty densely, sometimes using as many as a dozen or more panels on a page, and this meant I had my having to adapt my writing style to fit Jill's needs.

Because Jill is painting the series in watercolor, I can't load up the pages with a ton of panels and dialogue, as I do in my own comics. The pages need to be opened up more, and allowed to breathe, and so I have to try and keep the panels to five per page, with some give and take. Even so, Jill takes the scripts and changes things, adds panels, moves things around, highlights things. So sometimes we go past five panels, and Jill has to cram the images in, which I don't envy her.

Anyway, I'm rambling here, sorry. Let's get to page six and see if there's anything to discuss.
Panel 1 – Okay, what we have here is Whitey, Rex and Pugs arriving at Ace's yard with the news that it rained frogs over at Red's place, transition shot from Red's, etc. Whitey is a small, excitable dog, sweet, not too bright, so, he yaps. He's our innocent, immature, easily frightened dog, reverting to dog behavior easily, useful for some comedy relief or to ask questions the readers need answered. Already you can see how Jill works the dogs' features to express human emotion while they remain dog-like, not resorting to extreme anthroporphism to get her “acting” across. It's harder than it looks, I couldn't draw this stuff in a million years.
In panels 2-3 we're introducing the black labrador, Miranda, a Wise Dog apprentice. She showed up briefly in the previous story, but we're first learning her name here. The dogs bow to her to show their deference, and we learn a little bit about her personality and her position and allude to the Wise Dog Society having some history. There's a lot of information and character you can pack into even short pieces of dialogue,. It all adds up over time to reveal a larger picture. 

This isn't the most exciting revelation or dialogue, I'm just saying this is what I was trying to do here, fold the boring stuff – naming characters, mentioning the Wise Dog stuff , letting on quickly that Miranda isn't a stuck up type, etc. There's so little time and space in a 22-page comic, relatively, I find it difficult to collapse dialogue like that, I like to have my characters ramble –like I do in real life – but you have to get in and get out and keep things moving and work with the pictures, that's comics.
You can see the cat on the dog house in panel 2, it's a small thing, but we're always thinking of things for him to do to contrast him from the dogs. He's often perched above them, taking the high ground and keeping some distance from the others. He's the only stray animal in the group, so that sets him apart, sometimes he's not comfortable with others, and we try to show that subtly. I like background bits and character continuity that isn't pushed in the reader's face, if they notice it, cool, if they don't, no harm done, maybe they'll catch it over time or on further readings.

I'll often mention bits of business in the script, having the cats groom or a dog chase a butterfly in the background, but Jill is terrific capturing the body language of the animals, and she adds a lot of nice touches on her own, sometimes giving an ordinary panel something special to look at or an extra kick.
I love Pugs' hurt expression in panel 3. Jill does a particularly beautiful job with him. Pugs is our complainer, cynic, loudmouth, like Whitey he often helps out when we need some humor, or to question what's happening so we can spit some exposition out. Pugs is kind of like a powerless Ben Grimm in a dog suit, his dialogue is me dipping into my Brooklyn fanboy heritage.
So, yeah, basically, this is us getting the cast together, introducing some folks and getting a sampling of their personalities, and then sending them off on their mission, while giving time for things to happen off-panel at Red's.

I love how Jill isolates Ace in panels 1 and 2, okay, fairly standard stuff in panel 2 as I wrote it, through the doorway and alone and silent. But I like the solid dark color in panel 1 that separates Ace from his friends and makes things gloomier. Whitey is excitedly bounding out in the BG, not realizing Ace's situation, because he's a dope. A little unintended insult to injury. Jack hangs back, because Jack, the beagle, is our big hearted character, the emotional weathervane for the group. He pays attention.
Ace's being chained up and moody owes to the injuries he suffered in the fourth short story. Some folks were not happy with the way we handled the back-story, glossing over a lot of it and letting it flow. Originally, we were going to include a recap summary in the inside front cover of #1, but Scott decided against it, he felt it wasn't satisfactory and that “these dogs defend the town against spooks” and a link to the first three stories online would suffice.

So, we just jump in and some readers were unhappy with that, they felt some stuff wasn't adequately explained and that we didn't name the characters clearly enough, or establish their relationships. Some of that is my fault, I didn't want to lump people over the head with some Secret Wars-style exposition, where everyone mentions each other's names and repeats information everyone in the story already knows ad nauseum. I was thinking of the collected trade and how it would all flow together, I was trying to avoid stiff exposition, and I was worried about space.

Some folks were thrown off, and some annoyed. Others had no problem. And some folks were a familiar with the initial stories. I figured if folks didn't remember someone calling Ace “Ace” on page 7, they'd at least remember that the Husky was the chained up dog. Or something like that. I'd probably have the recap added if I could go back and change things. But people will catch up, I think, it isn't the X-Men with decades of events to figure out.
Jill set up panels 3 and 4 as one large panel cut into two, I like it a lot, we get Pugs reaction segmented off so it has a little drama, but still get the entire scene with all the information in there at once. Panel 4 called for a shot focusing on Miranda, but all the information from that panel is here, while allowing for a larger, nicer, and more interesting shot.
Panel 4 – Trying to punch up the dull stuff, the frogs have disappeared into the woods with Pee-Wee after them. The talk about Pee-Wee and the squirrel allows us to slide some information – Pee-Wee is the sort who would chase frogs into the woods – with a joke. Pee-Wee only appears in this issue, so I tried to establish him decently in a few instances, so readers would feel badly if anything happened to the little guy. Of course, we have an advantage using animal characters – people can feel badly over the loss of a dog or cat in a way they wouldn't over a quickly-introduced human supporting character.
Panel 5 – We get the Orphan named, name Fluffy, and quickly start to establish that there's something going on between the two of them. Great expressions on the cats from Jill.

To be concluded tomorrow...

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