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TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2009

JILL THOMPSON TALKS BEASTS OF BURDEN

By Ernie Estrella

SAN DIEGO -- Beasts of Burden, a four-issue mini-series written by Evan Dorkin with painted art by Jill Thompson and featuring a band of neighborhood pets who get in supernatural adventures, launches this week from Dark Horse Comics.

Beasts of Burden was introduced in four Dark Horse Book of anthologies (Hauntings, Witchcraft, the Dead, and Monsters).

The Continuum caught up with Thompson during Comic-Con International on the heels of eve of her winning another Eisner Award for Magic Trixie and while she was working on Beasts of Burden.

Question: This is the first time in a long time that you're regularly working with someone else, who is also a fellow artist. Could you talk about this collaboration?

Thompson: Evan and I have completely different styles of storytelling. [Laughs] It's kind of different going back and collaborating with someone, after I've spent years and years now, writing and illustrating for myself. Going back and working from a full script is interesting because unfortunately the first thing in my head when I read the dialogue I think, 'I could make two pages out of that one panel, I wonder if they'd let me open this sequence up. As far as other collaboration, Evan has all the stories in his head, it's not like I'm adding plot.' I get a full script from Evan, and I play around with layout, expression, and sometimes a little more pacing as I've said that I'll ask to open things up to slow down an emotional moment; or I'll make one panel into two because I want to show the steps building up to something or a reaction shot. But I'm not co-plotting this at all, Evan's writing it.

Question: With Scary Godmother and Magic Trixie, you don't have a problem drawing characters that are non-human, Beasts of Burden is probably 95% animals.

Thompson: Yes! Yeah with the rare exception of the second anthology Book of Witchcraft, that had witches' legs in it but they're the Dog-Peanuts equivalent where you don't see adults very much, you see cars and you hear about them, but you don't see them. Dogs are lucky, they've got eyebrows in the first place. Sometimes it's harder to make the Oprhan to have some expression than it is them. Naturally you're not even adding an extra human element to dogs because of the eyebrows. Like that! They manipulate you with [raising eyebrows and making sound effects], tilt the head, but I'm a cartoonist. It's easy to anthropomorphize things, you just have to keep it in the same facial structure.

Question: Right, with this story you have to keep the art to a more of a realistic style than being playful.

Thompson: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I sometimes exaggerate some their regular emotions but they're not walking on their hind legs. They do things like dogs. Evan and I have talked about this but I can show more expression and surprise by amping up when dogs get jumpy and excited, so Whitey is forever jumping up. I know when dogs get scared or intimidated their tails goes between their legs. So I crouch everyone down and put their tail between their legs. I watch dogs play how they fake fight vs. when they really fight. If dogs are confronting someone or some creature they'll get low to the ground, bolt and attack. You exaggerate the mouths because they do a lot of talking. I think I've done a pretty good job of it.

Question: You have, as seen by the preview art and the stories from the anthologies. Despite having a more realistic look, there's a lot of life and expression to each panel.

Thompson: You have to engage the reader. It's not just a painterly book where I'm doing portraits of people's dogs.

Question: What is the story going to be about in the Beasts of Burden mini-series?

Thompson: Each issue has a different story with a bad situation or bad creature. The first issue is the dogs visiting friends and it starts raining frogs. And they race back to tell Ace, who we last saw was chained up in the yard from the last story we did in Dark Book of Monsters. Evan likes to do the human interaction off panel. What happens if there's a crazy thing that happens in your yard and your house is destroyed? Well the dog is now chained, there's a new house, he has to heal because he was nearly killed, so Ace is still back there. The second issue called ≥Lost≤ and a mother dog needs help finding her pups because their missing. The third issue is the Orphan, which the cat, goes looking for Dymphna which is the mystical black witch cat in the Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft. He doesn't think she died at the end of that story and goes on an adventure to find her. That one has a cast of a 1000 rats, and I'm not even exaggerating on the number [laughs]. And the fourth issue I don't have yet, but I know that tells the history of the town, and I think you learn more about why the town is haunted and is supernaturally infested and why everything happens to those poor dogs.

Question: In today's landscape of animated films, in particular Pixar, shows it's not so much who's playing out the story but how it's told.

Thompson: I want to be a good storyteller. My focus is to tell a story that's going to touch people whatever the subject matter is, however old you are. I love this medium to tell stories. I talk about comics to groups of librarians or teachers or groups of kids, I don't say 'Here's the best superhero comic you should read.' I bring with me a giant long box of comics that show the diversity of this medium. Because of superhero movies people think that comics have to be, 'Biff! Bam! Pow!' and that's all you see in the box office headlines, but it's just another form of media to tell stories of all genres. Whether or not it's about anthropomorphic animals, technically it could be all humans, it's the personalities≠ it's much cuter if it's animals. [Laughs]

Question: Dogs do have personality.

Thompson: The personalities are set. The wise-cracking guy, the heroic guy, the cowardly or more reserved character; you got your everyman we can identify with [Jack the Beagle] and the outcast/rebel [the Orphan] who is fitting into a group he's not supposed to. The female dogs are wise and elegant. The mother≠Evan's been writing the story about the mother who has lost her pups and as a father it crushed him to write something like that, to think about what would happen if his child was missing. The story's about relationships and how people react in extreme circumstances whether or not they're dogs.

Question: So despite then the appearance of the cast, we can get a full sense of who they are?

Thompson: They're a really interesting cast, they're evolving, they're not just stereotypes. The wise-cracking pugs aren't just the wise-cracking pugs. Things happen that affect them and their attitudes. They're really rich characters.

Question: Since it's a neighborhood setting, are there going to be other animals brought into the fold?

Thompson: There's been a lot of dogs, in the third issue, we meet the Swifties, which is Orphan's gang that he hangs around with, or there happens to be a lot of other stray cats.

Question: If you have that experience of having pets and imagining their world away from you, that would probably be a good source of material for this series.

Thompson: Most definitely. I was the one who would be lured by the kitty and want to go play with it, even though I would be warned, "It's wild, don't play with that cat," and I would say, "No it's not, it has to belong to someone..." In a rough-and-tumble, Huck Finn type of existence I suppose. [Laughs]

Question: What would you say is a new challenge in Beasts of Burden that you're allowing yourself to explore.

Thompson: I would suppose it would be engage the reader into their lives to show as much emotion as I can, to have them act with subtle expression, to get people to forget that they're reading not just about dogs, but the main characters are the characters that they love. I want readers to love them like how they get vested into human being characters by the way I illustrate it.

Question: What are some examples of how you tackled this?

Thompson: The way I paint things to set the mood and try to incorporate what I learned in working in manga, how emotion is played up, and how pacing and interactive glances can build the tension or any other emotion that the characters might be feeling, without the symbolic manga constraints like the lightning bolts or drip of blood coming out of their nose. I try to do that with color wash or background. When something is shocking or there's violence I try to put red in the background. To me that's an emotional reference for the reader that's really intense or conveys anger.

Question: You were approached for Wednesday Comics, right?

Thompson: Yes, I was in the middle of Beasts of Burden and Mark Chiarello, he wanted me to do a Wonder Woman story. I was trying to figure out how I can do both of these things at the same time and then I realized I couldn't. I still want to do the story because it came so easily especially in that format in big beautiful eight or twelve pages that showed a certain type of story. That one would have been really fun to illustrate.

Question: Anything else you're working on?

Thompson: The third Magic Trixie book came out in June, I'd love for people to pick that up. Amazon's probably the easiest way to get that, and I'm really proud of that.

Question: What are your future plans with Magic Trixie?

Thompson: I've done all the Magic Trixie books that Harper Collins is interested in, so I've got a trilogy, and that's cool. I'd like to do more stories eventually, but right now I'm focusing on Beasts of Burden and looking forward to get Scary Godmother started back up. And when I finish Beasts of Burden I'm going to start working on another Little Endless Book, a sequel to the other one I did with my editor, Shelly Bond. I'll be writing and drawing that myself and will start that in the fall.

Question: Will that be released in the summer next year?

Thompson: Probably in the summer. There are things that I pitched and that I'd love to do but I just don't think they're going to happen. Like I've always had an idea of a Wonder Woman graphic novel, that's different than the Wednesday Comics project that I mentioned before. It would be a fairy tale that would be my take on the origin but not an origin story. It's a stand-alone story but it wouldn't have anything to do with the ongoing title.

Question: Once Beasts of Burden is collected, is this a series you think would be marketed to a different audience?

Thompson: You'd probably have to be interested in the supernatural because the stories are fantastical so it's not just everyday interactions with dogs, although you have some of that, so I think that would depend on the taste of the dog owner. But it probably crosses over into a lot broader spectrum. I suppose that people who got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer because they loved the vampire stuff, they got hooked in on the melodrama and then accepted all the fantastical stuff that was weaved into it, the same way as any other soap opera. That's probably why I like it. I like an intricate, multi-character story.

I don't know how Dark Horse is going to put out all of the Beasts of Burden, but at some point I know they want to release the stuff previously in the anthologies and then put a big book out with the mini-series altogether. I know there are talks of us continuing Beasts of Burden after that, and I'm fine with all of that.



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