BEASTS OF BURDEN is a miniseries from Portland publisher Dark Horse that concludes this week with its fourth issue. The series, which originated with a story in the anthology The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, follows a band of dogs (and, in the interests of diversity, a token cat) as they fight supernatural forces in the picturesque town of Burden Hill. "Some unknown entity is at work here, attracting other malevolent forces to this territory," an Old English Sheepdog explains. "This evil needs to be tracked down and destroyed." And it's left to this scrappy band of animals—a whiny pug, a brave husky, all apprentices in the canine equivalent of Dumbledore's Army—to destroy it.
So.... Oliver & Company guarding the Hellmouth, or maybe a Halloween edition of Watership Down. Got it. Writer Evan Dorkin (best known for the comedic indie comic Milk & Cheese) knows how to pitch and pace a story, even if the subject matter feels at times benignly derivative. (It's true there's no real corollary in the world of grownup lit, but animals-fightin'-evil is no great shakes in the world of kids' entertainment.)
It's artist Jill Thompson's painted panels that make the series a must-see—her work here is just plain gorgeous, whether rendering ghost puppies in plaintive wisps, or a giant carnivorous frog nearly thrumming with malevolence. In the third issue, which features two cats battling rats in the sewer system, watch the way the cats squeeze between panels as they flee a giant, murderous rat. When the king rat bursts through a pile of rat soldier bodies, bloody and terrible, and the cats make a skin-of-their-tails escape, it's gory, thrilling, and thoroughly creepy, all at once—just like this comic, at its best.
ONE OF THE MORE well-received comics of the year, John Layman's Chew is set in a world much like ours, with a few minor modifications. Three years before the events of the book take place, an "avian flu" swept the globe, killing 23 million people in the United States, and 116 million worldwide. The source of the flu, according to health officials? Chickens.
And so chicken is banned, a black market immediately springs up, and FDA agents find themselves on the frontlines of a national War on Poultry.
That alone is a great premise—gun-toting FDA agents scouring walk-ins and busting underground chicken restaurants (cluckeasies?). But Chew writer Layman isn't done—his protagonist, FDA Agent Tony Chu (get used to the food puns) is a cibopath, a made-up term presumably deriving from the Italian word for "food." That means that he can "take a bite of an apple, and get a feeling in his head about what tree it grew from, what pesticides were used on the crop, and when it was harvested. Or he could eat a hamburger, and flash onto something else entirely." When Tony's powers were discovered, the FDA recruited him to their special crimes division, where he has only to take a bite out of a perpetrator or a witness to unlock a crime's secret.
Black-market chickens and cannibalistic FDA agents—Chew, drawn by Rob Guillory, is peerlessly imaginative (and occasionally just downright disgusting). Image Comics just released a trade paperback collecting the series' first five issues, a story arc called "Taster's Choice"; the seventh issue of the comic hits stores this week. It's a good time to get on board with one of the year's most interesting new titles.