Year of the Artist, Day 83: Jill Thompson, Part 5 – Beasts of Burden #1
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jill Thompson, and the issue is Beasts of Burden #1, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated September 2009. Enjoy!
Despite her love of kids’ comics, Thompson still liked drawing horror, and Beasts of Burden is one of those, a wonderfully weird comic in which dogs and cats, who look like perfectly normal dogs and cats, fight horrific things. Thompson is tremendous on the book, but Evan Dorkin’s scripts are also very cool. Let’s see what’s going on!
Before the horror begins (actually, in the book it’s already begun, but I’m talking about this post), let’s check out the way Thompson draws the animals. Unlike most of her work for the past 10 years or so prior to this, she draws this very “realistically” – the animals all look like animals, and even the humans lack the angular cartoony style she’d been working with for years before this. So on this page, we get the dogs talking to each other, and they look like any dog you would find in your neighborhood. It’s a good choice by Thompson – her cartoony style was a bit more whimsical, even when she was drawing stuff like her Grendel work, and this comic is a lot of things, but whimsical it ain’t. The realism in the quiet scenes help create a sense of normalcy, which then makes the horror stuff – even though Thompson still sticks to this style – more horrific.
The dogs are nicely drawn, too. Panel 3 is wonderful, as Ace looks away sadly when reminded about “the boy.” Thompson narrows his eyes and makes his mouth turn down, and then in Panel 4, they all sit quietly, remembering sad days. In Panel 5, Jack breaks the tension by changing the subject, and Thompson draws him very well – he cocks an eye at Miranda, and he looks almost embarrassed to bring up a different topic, but he knows it has to be done. All of this body language is brilliant, because it looks canine but is also something we recognize in humans.
Thompson is still painting the pages, and she does a fine job. Brushes allow her to make the dogs furry without using heavier lines to draw attention to the fur, but for something like the short-haired cat, Orphan, she can use a thin black line around its body and finer brush strokes for its fur. When we get close-ups, like in Panel 5, she can just use water colors on Jack’s face, indicating he’s a short-haired dog. We’ll see more excellent coloring in this post, believe me!
All right, so that’s Fluffy, Orphan, Rex, Pugs, Whitey, Holstein, Jack, and Miranda, just so you know. A bunch of frogs fell from the sky, and then disappeared into the woods, so the animals go check it out. I love this page, because Thompson draws nature so well. The felled tree in Panel 1 has almost delicate roots, so they look much more like capillaries than wood, adding a bit of eerieness to the scene. In Panel 2, Pugs’s reaction as he tries to avoid stepping in the water is very well done – he’s a bit of a goofball, so of course he provides the comic relief in the panel. Whitey notices him, too, and his eyes show just enough impatience. In Panel 3, Thompson gives us a severed head, which isn’t too out of place in a horror comic. Jack’s face is really well done, as he’s grossed out by the brutality of the death, and Thompson foreshadows the appearance of the monster by putting goop on the deer’s horns. Note the panel borders – Thompson turns them into negative space branches, which is fairly clever. The colors on the page are what makes it marvelous, though. The browns and greens and blues are not as bright as we might expect, and it seems that Thompson might be implying the darkness that lurks in the forest. The gray and white in the stream is really nice – it gives the water a nice fluid look, and the similarly-colored rocks blend the two together, linking the earth and the water, while Thompson’s line work helps the rocks stand out. The ground around the dead deer is murky brown, stained by old blood, and the shadows extend in a wide area around the head, focusing the creepiness on it. It’s a horrible image, and Thompson does a very good job with it.
The animals discover that there’s a giant frog in the middle of the forest, and it’s not very friendly. Thompson gives it just enough of an eyelid in Panel 1 that it looks scornful of their intrusion, and then in Panel 2, she gives us a horrifying shot looking upward at it. The mucus ringing its mouth is perfectly done, and she gives it that giant yellow throat, painting it with just enough green tinges to make it look sickly and awful rather than bright and welcoming. Miranda challenges it, and Thompson narrows her eyes in Panel 4 as she gears up for magic. Panel 5 is nice – she whips Miranda’s ears back, tilts Whitey, and scatters some leaves around to show that when Miranda uses magic, the wind whips up. Once again, her coloring is very nice. The frog, with its ugly green hue and darker bands, blends in well to the trees, which have been sickened by its presence. In Panel 5, Thompson uses very light white paint to show wind whipping around the animals. Her brush strokes of the grass become shorter and less precise as the wind ruffles through it. I don’t know if she or letterer Jason Arthur designed the word balloons in Panel 5, but they’re pretty cool.
The frog beats up Miranda, but Ace, breaking his chain, comes to the rescue, and we get this very cool action scene. Ever since her Wonder Woman days, Thompson has been good at action, and she shows that here. The frog’s tongue swoops down from left to right, missing Ace but leading us nicely to Panel 2, where Ace chomps down on it. In Panel 3, we’re led from left to right, from the horrible frog to the dogs standing their ground, and then Thompson reverses the view so that the dogs are on the left, and the tongue leads us off the page, but the dogs on the right still keep the focus on the good guys. She also makes the animals move really well – Ace reacts like a dog in Panel 1, ducking away but raising his hind leg. The look on his face in Panel 2 when he bites the tongue is perfect, too. In Panel 4, as the dogs rush to help, Thompson remembers to flop their ears as they run, and Rex’s ears are already back against his head, which is where dogs put their ears when they’re peeved, after all. Once again, the frog is really nicely drawn. When its tongue explodes out of its mouth in Panel 1, Thompson remembers to coat it with mucus and show the goop flying off of it. In Panels 3 and 4, she makes sure it’s still dripping off the tongue. She uses a variety of reds to color the tongue, giving it an awful, bloated look, which matches the frog’s exterior. Once again, we see how she uses dark green blotches on the frog’s skin to make it look more sickly, even though frogs often look like that without being so horrific (of course, they’re not ten feet tall, either). Her use of paints makes the motion lines look more natural, so when Ace bites the tongue in Panel 2, the white lines on his forehead look like they’re part of his fur, blending in nicely but still making it clear he’s moving fast. Thompson uses a bit more white on this page, which seems to indicate more rushing, not from her, but in the scene itself. It’s a clever trick.
Orphan climbs on top of the frog and pops its eye, which causes the whole thing to explode. This is a beautiful if horrifying page, and Thompson shows how well she can switch her style to fit the story. Orphan’s face in Panel 1 is superb – anyone who’s ever owned a cat knows that look. In Panel 2, she shows that Orphan is about to slash the frog’s eye, so we get the raised claw and the reflection in the eye. Up above, we saw the frog’s eyelid making it look contemptuous of the animals, but the lid is gone, and the way Thompson rotates it upward shows its sudden panic. She uses white paint to show a ray of sun breaking through to shine off of Orphan’s claws, so we get the brightness descending upon the darkness of the giant, evil frog. Thompson doesn’t show us the eye popping, but she does give us a very nice Panel 3, where the dogs react to the eye popping. As I mentioned, Pugs is kind of the goofball of the group, so of course all the disgusting parts fly onto him as he stands on top of the tongue. I love the look Thompson gives him – he can’t believe he just got covered in eye gore. Then, of course, we get the explosion in Panel 4, as the frog bursts and scatters the dogs. Orphan leaps to safety on the left, and Pugs is upended in the bottom right, adding a bit of comic relief to the disgusting scene. Thompson gives us a riot of green and red, but look how well she controls everything – it’s not just chaos. She clearly lines the stump of the tongue where it’s severed from the head, and she puts it where it would be forced by the explosion. It would twist the way it does, because the dogs were, temporarily, anchoring the end of it. She draws just enough viscera that she’s able to spot the greens and reds, with varying degrees of darkness, so that while it looks awful, there’s a really nice design to the whole thing. Obviously, she’s not going to use too many lines in the explosion, so the rest of the frog is a bit more clearly lined. She still adds just enough yellow to keep the theme of sickness going, even as the background is a bit brighter green, perhaps showing that the forest is instantly returning to normal now that the frog has exploded. Notice, too, that the explosion escapes the confines of the panel border on the right, and Thompson gradually loses the bottom of the panel as she moves right, until the tongue and the dogs spill out of the panel and lead us onto the next page. It’s clever – on the left, things are “normal,” while on the right, the very edges of the comic book dissolve into chaos.
So that’s a look at some of Jill Thompson’s work over 30 years. She’s a fantastic artist and she’s always very happy to sign books for my daughter – I hope she’s in San Diego this year, so Norah can buy another one of her comics. She’s very versatile, and she’s always improving. Go find some of her art and enjoy! Tomorrow, I move on to a new artist, one of my favorite current artists. Who can it be? You’ll have to come back and find out! Don’t let the suspense stop you from looking into the archives!