Even if you’ve never heard of Kate Beaton, you’ve probably seen her work. Beaton, a Nova Scotian cartoonist and webmistress of harkavagrant.com, has quickly become a mainstay of Internet and blog culture, with her comics being re-posted around the Web and shared widely between bloggers, history buffs, and readers. Her sharp and somewhat absurd humor and casual riffing on history are instantly recognizable, and have earned Beaton a number of fans and accolades in the six years that harkavagrant.com has been online.
Following Never Learn Anything From History, Beaton’s second book, Hark! A Vagrant, collects a number of previously unpublished and web-published strips in a handsome hardcover volume. Beaton’s non-sequential comics already seem made for browsing and flipping through pages, so it’s a relief to finally be able to do so without tediously clicking back and forth on a website. The print medium really does justice to her art as well; the New Yorker cartoonist, for all of her Internet presence, is really an old-school artist, and the ink-and-paper route shows off the painstaking and hand-drawn nature of her work.
Beaton gleefully parodies historical events as well as classic novels and, more recently, other bits of literature (such as her “Strong Female Characters” riff on Charlie’s Angels, or a crass and snarky Nancy Drew). A recurring strip features old book covers and spins out a silly three-panel tale based on the cover art, while other strips take on the Brontës, Napoleon, Canadian diplomats, or The Great Gatsby. Another great running joke is the “Mystery Solving Teens,” an Encyclopedia Brown parody that features teen detectives fudging conclusions, lying to their parents, and overall acting like teens generally would in those circumstances. Whether it’s Jules Verne trying to be Edgar Allan Poe’s “bro,” or what was really going on with the Tudors, Hark! A Vagrant is fast, funny, and exceedingly literate.
You don’t have to be familiar with the source material to enjoy the comics, but it helps; Hark! A Vagrant is for all of us who wondered about a historical figure or literary character and what they were like outside of the given context. Beaton mines the lives of politicians and artists from comedy, and then includes a caption that, more often than not, reveals the historical basis behind the joke. This true-to-life (believe it or not) aspect adds something extra; in the end, not only have you laughed, but you’ve also learned a bizarre factoid about an obscure and probably forgotten time in history. Beaton’s former life as a museum employee translates well into the comics format; her work is casually educational but also hilarious and irreverent.
Beaton’s art is a treat as well, and needless to say, of a higher caliber than one would expect from a webcomic. Her hand-drawn and inked work is clean and expressive — a caricaturist’s look at famous figures that nonetheless makes them recognizable, human, and comedic. Some grayscale brush shading makes for a more distinctive look, but for the most part, Beaton’s art’s best achievement is its ability to carry off such absurd and varied comedy.
It’s not easy to make an argument in favor of a print book that’s based on a publicly accessible webcomic, but Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant (the book) really delivers the goods in a way that her site doesn’t. The wonderful packaging, clarity and readability, and previously unreleased material make this collection a must-buy for current fans and new converts. As for the comic itself, I have no idea what trope, figure, or event Beaton will take on next, but I’m excited to find out.