Some creators may find returning to a successful long running series a burden at times; maybe even a beast of a burden, one could say. However, one creator who would never say that is Evan Dorkin and the series he would never say that about is “Beasts of Burden.” That is why Dorkin and his writing partner Sarah Dyer, artist Benjamin Dewey, and letterer Nate Piekos are returning to the series this April with “Occupied Territory.” I know that was a long way to get there, but we did it!
The new four issue mini-series will focus on “an elder member of the occult-battling pack of Wise Dogs” and his “harrowing mission—in U.S-occupied Japan after World War II.” Emerys must face “a mysterious curse creates an army of crawling, disembodied heads which threatens to overwhelm the region.”
We spoke to creator Evan Dorkin to learn more about the new story, why he loves “Beasts of Burden,” what else the series has to offer up in the future, working with Benjamin Dwyer, and more. A big thanks to Evan for taking the time to answer our questions. To read the series and get even more questions answered, make sure to look for “Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory #1” in stores and online this April 7th.
Written by Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer
Illustrated and colored by Benjamin Dewey
Lettered by Nate Piekos
”For pet lovers and enthusiasts of supernatural mysteries, the series is an absolute must… ” – USA Today
The eight-time Eisner Award-winning comic book series blending fantasy and humor returns in a historical adventure blending Japanese and Western occult!
An elder member of the occult-battling pack of Wise Dogs recalls a harrowing mission–in U.S-occupied Japan after World War II, a mysterious curse creates an army of crawling, disembodied heads which threatens to overwhelm the region. Emrys and a team of canine companions attempt to solve the mystery, bringing them into conflict with shape-changing tanuki, evil oni, and a horde of vengeful demons.
For those familiar with the “Beasts of Burden” crew, where does “Occupied Territory” fall into the larger story?
Evan Dorkin: This is a follow-up to “Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men,” which was about Emrys, Miranda and the rest of their pack going up against a survivalist cult. “Occupied Territory” takes place directly after that series, with most of the pack recovering from various injuries. Emrys is telling the others about an adventure he had in post-war occupied Japan in 1947, when Emrys and his human companion Jonathan Hope were brought in to investigate the deaths of several soldiers stationed at the American base in Ogawara. The deaths seem to be the result of a supernatural plague, which threatens to spread into the local villages, affecting the local animals and yokai as well as the humans in the area. It was co-written with Sarah Dyer, my wife, who has worked on three “Beasts of Burden” stories previously. And Benjamin Dewey and Nate Piekos are back on art and lettering.
There is a pretty established miniseries/one shot approach that the series and Dark Horse often works in; do you try to approach each entry with a first-time experience for some readers baked into the story?
ED: I do. We’ve tried to make every story be something a reader could come to cold and still be able to follow. “Beasts of Burden” first appeared in an annual anthology and those short stories all needed to be self-contained. Jill [Thompson, co-creator and original artist] and I continued working that way on the first “Beasts of Burden” miniseries, each wrapping up a separate plotline while pushing the overarching story along. The “Wise Dogs” series are the only ones that have used all four issues to tell a complete story. All you really have to know about any of them is that it’s about dogs and cats fighting supernatural evil.
With “Occupied Territory” looking at a piece of the “Wise Dog” mythos, is there any other part of the “Beasts of Burden” world that you have not yet got to explore? Additionally, stepping away with a “Wise Dog” story, were you able to try anything new with your approach to the series previously?Continued below
ED: Most of our stories have been about the Burden Hill cast, who are operating in a small, isolated location. We can’t open things up much through them, they’re largely ignorant of the outside world, and they’re amateurs when it comes to the occult world and the history of the Wise Dog Society. Which means in many ways we’ve been neighborhood building rather than world building. But the Wise Dogs allow us to travel outside that bubble and follow older, more seasoned investigators. With them we can jump around in time to show their past exploits, and pretty much go anywhere in the world. This also allows us to use folklore from different regions that we couldn’t use in Burden Hill. In Occupied Territory we have yokai creatures such as tanuki, jorogumo and tengu that would be out of place in America. So, the Wise Dog stories allow us to open things up and have more involved adventures. If you’re into table top RPGS, I like to think of the Burden Hill stories being like Call of Cthulhu, while the Wise Dogs stories are more like Pulp Cthulhu. The Wise Dogs have wilder powers and abilities, they’re more like occult canine superheroes.
A lot of styles of storytelling seem like they are harder to pull off in comics. I often feel horror and comedy are two big ones because they rely so much on timing, pace and tone. Not only does “Beasts of Burden” utilize both those genres but it relies on animals giving dialog and emotion. I know a lot the emotion/acting comes through with Jill or Benjamin but as a writer how do you make these animals feel real while still grounding them a bit as animals facing “people” challenges?
ED: We know that the concept sounds silly to people when we describe it to them. “Dogs and cats fighting the supernatural” almost always gets a laugh out of people, it doesn’t sound serious. And I get that. I never set out to work on a talking animals comic. But, hopefully, if people read the actual comics, they see that our approach is to take everything as seriously and matter of fact as possible in order to keep things believable. Humor is part of it, but it’s not at the expense of the stories or events. We try to draw people in so they accept the goofy concept and just go with it. We try to be as emotionally honest as possible, we want to show real friendship and loyalty among the characters, as well as real fear, pain and sorrow when tragedy takes place. Grounding the animals is the hardest part of the comic, and certainly a lot of that is on Ben and Jill. The acting and expressions do a lot of the heavy lifting to keep things believable. Both of them are super talented artists and adept at character expressions, which is especially hard to put over with the animals. The backgrounds and settings are also important to keeping things grounded and believable. It’s a difficult art job I wouldn’t wish on anyone, to be honest, drawing believable animals is tough enough, let alone making them believable as characters. And not everyone has the ability to draw distinctive backgrounds that have real place and personality.
On my end of things, I just try to write the characters the way I feel they should be written so everything feels “right.” The animals should each have their own voice. Individual voices help create individual characters beyond their visual design. Beyond that, there are certain rules I stick to to try to avoid hitting a false note. The animals shouldn’t use pop culture phrases, they shouldn’t refer to aspects of human culture they wouldn’t know about, they are often wrong about their perceptions of people and things. And they have their own expressions and beliefs peppered into their speech to hint at a shared animal culture. The idea is to work towards a sense of verisimilitude, because talking dogs and magic spells and monsters don’t invite reality. It’s pointless to aim for actual reality in these things, I think you should just try your best to make your world feel “right” and believable.Continued below
This is a series that, from the very beginning, expressed your love for creating and desire to continue to return to it. Why is this series, these characters, and this world one that you want to keep returning to as a creator?
ED: How could I not love writing dogs and cats fighting monsters? Seeing the art come in is always a treat, and every printed comic is like a small victory. The only awful part is knowing what will happen to some of the characters.
You’re a few years shy of the 20-year mark of the launch of this series and I remember the original idea at the time being so different, neighborhood animals investigating paranormal mysteries, that it grabbed me instantly. You have continued to build on and evolve the story with the animal characters without feeling stale or too reliant on the original hook. Have there been a lot of changes in the series you have made since your originally kind of mapped out the larger story? How do you feel you have been able to grow the series arc to arc an into “Occupied Territory?”
ED: I can only think of one specific change we’ve made in the series, early on. In the first story, “Stray” we have a panel which shows Jack, the beagle, reacting to something a pet psychic says. We dropped that with the next story, the dogs and cats can’t understand plain human speech. When we did a second story and it looked like there would be others, I started a notebook, and doing a lot of reading for reference and inspiration, horror fiction, ghost stories, folklore, cryptozoology, non-fiction about animals. As we did more stories, we developed a continuity and because of the slow schedule I didn’t have to rush the scripts. Since we’re not pounding these out, I have plenty of prep time to figure out how a new story will slot in and relate to the previous material, and look for ways to connect details and drop hints of future events. If an idea isn’t right for Burden Hill, it might work for a Wise Dog adventure. Basically, it’s no different than any continuing series, work creates work and ideas create more ideas. And the characters need answers to the problems you’re throwing at them. You build up your narrative and look for angles that keep it from getting stale or predictable or boring. It helps if the readers connect to the characters, you can spotlight different members of the cast and think about what kind of story or incident would be good for that character’s situation, or how to develop a backstory or whatever. It’s a juggling act, I guess. You want to try not to repeat a certain kind of monster or plot, come up with different obstacles and ways for the heroes to defeat the enemy. Sometimes they don’t win the day, or they win at a terrible cost. Sometimes they mourn their dead or see something that changes their perspective on the larger world. It doesn’t always have to be fight scenes.
Jill’s shoes are almost impossible to fill but Benjamin Dewey is one artist who comes close; maybe has his own amazing looking brand of shoes. What does Benjamin bring to his “Beasts of Burden” stories and for you as a writer does the story change at all based on if Jill or Benjamin is doing it to highlight their distinct styles?
ED: It’s very hard to follow Jill as an illustrator as well as the co-creator of the series, and I’m thankful we have Benjamin. And I have Steve Lieber to thank for our getting him on board. I considered Benjamin but assumed he was busy on “Autumnlands,” and wrote him off as unavailable. I’m not good at contacting people and asking questions, so, that didn’t help. But Steve pitched me on him after I asked if he knew of anyone that might be a good fit for the series, maybe someone through Helioscope Studios. And obviously things worked out. I think Daniel [Chabon, Dark Horse editor] contacted Ben, I’m honestly not good at that sort of thing. And now we’ve worked together on nine issues of Beasts and a Marvel one-shot. Also, with Sarah co-writing. I think we’re a good team and I hope we can continue to work together. I always assume Ben’s going to blow up with fans, because he deserves to. As far as my scripting goes, we write what the story calls for. Because we have four issues, I do like throwing in some larger panels for Ben. He and Jill share a lot of similar talents in handling animals, expressions, settings, atmosphere. I think Ben’s less squeamish about any gore we use in the Wise Dogs stories, Jill can go there but she usually has a more Val Lewton-esque approach overall, as I like to put it. Inferring certain things rather than showing them. But the Wise Dogs is more action-oriented and Ben has a great sense of motion and movement with the animals. I think he and Jill balance out really well. In both cases, getting the pages in is always a treat. The book doesn’t breathe until that art comes in, and it doesn’t speak until Nate gets done. I can’t wait until people see what the new series has in store for them.
What do you hope readers take away from this arc and the Occupied Territory adventure of the “Beasts of Burden” series?
ED: That “Beasts of Burden” is a really engaging comic worth reading, worth talking about and worth supporting. That support is how we get to keep telling stories.