Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton is awesome. If you have somehow managed to connect to the Internet and somehow find this review without knowing who La Beatonne is (gosh, I hope I have jurisdiction for that by virtue of being French), go. Leave. Check it out and then come back. She’s a Canadian cartoonist who merges her deep interest and knowledge about history with often clever and occasionally delightfully juvenile jokes and has become quite a bit of a sensation. Every fandom I stumble across has their very own “Oooh, Mr. Darcy” parody. While I knew her big-girl book (Beaton self-published a book before this through her website) was out, I didn’t dream for a second that my library would have it, but there it was, sitting on the shelf, telling me that I could now review her for the blog. Aw yis, to quote one of her most famous comics.
Hark, A Vagrant! collects most of Beaton’s output on her website—along with several comics exclusive to the book. In it, Beaton skewers history, stereotypes, and literature as lightly and cleverly as she pleases, pointing out the origins of hipsters, the insanity of Nancy Drew and Edward Gorey covers, and the competitive stupidity of war. As a Canadian herself, she also has special interest in playing with and mocking her own country’s stereotypes and history.
You cannot deny the value of having a similar sense of humor to someone. Everyone finds the same things sad, as the old saw goes, but not everyone finds the same things funny. I’ve always delighted in the juxtaposition of respected material and disrespected material, be something as simple as Victorian ladies cursing or something as complex as people not realizing that, yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (one of my favorite plays, incidentally) is fanfiction. Beaton, with her, let’s say, innate Canadian kindness (Beaton talks a bit about how she likes the idea that her country’s stereotype is niceness, of all things), manages to riot with these juxtapositions and not offend anyone. This is her great gift as a cartoonist. Not collected in Hark! A Vagrant are her comics about her encountering her childhood self, since they don’t relate to the general theme of skewered history and literature. Watching Beaton deal with her younger self and finding comedy in the gentle disconnect between child self and adult self is quite thought-provoking. I mean, personally, the main thought it provokes for me is “Thank God we don’t have time machines so I can’t go back in time and slap myself up the head so hard I never have to go to the chiropractor again”, but still, thought-provoking.
Another great strength of the comics focused on in Hark! A Vagrant is how Beaton marries the aforementioned respected material of history and literature with mundanity. Beethoven’s nephew, whom he has selected as his heir, doesn’t want to learn music; the hipsters of post-Revolution France; peasant courtship in the fifteenth century kind of completely sucked; and the eternal science fictional struggle between reality and social metaphor, as played out by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. And then, of course, there’s sheer, delightful lunacy derived from riding the logic train as far as it goes—Joe Kennedy lecturing a toddler Ted Kennedy on ambition, Pearson discovering the most experienced advisors in his political party are dogs, and Queen Elizabeth sprouting wings at Tilbury. And I haven’t mentioned 1980s Businesswoman Comics which, as you may have guessed, I loved. (“Let’s take this to the treadmill.”)
Reading the comics in a proper book format rather than online has given me some time to appreciate Beaton’s artwork. Like the subject matter, Beaton’s artwork can swing from incredibly detailed and gorgeous to simplified and more caricatured, often in the same comic—“Peril”, a comic about the Viking raid on Lindisfarne Monastery, does so over a two-page spread—and it’s incredibly effective. The linework is clean, even when Beaton’s rush leans towards sketchiness, and enhanced with a simple grey tones of watercolors. If you’re fond of Beaton’s work, this book is a great way to support her and decorate your coffee table with a barometer to see if people laugh at the same things you do.
Bottom line: Hark! A Vagrant is a lovely collection of Kate Beaton’s comics, which get great comedic mileage out of the juxtaposition of respected material like literature and history with mudanity and earthier realities. Worth a read, be it online or in this book.
I rented this book from the public library.