Hark! A Vagrant hardcover
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Kate Beaton
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Price: $19.99 US/CAN
I was a bit late in the game when it came to discovering and appreciating Kate Beaton’s cartooning, as I’m not one to spend a lot of time checking out webcomics. It’s not that I have a problem with them; it’s just that I haven’t the time to read all of the printed comics that cross my path. I can’t imagine where I’d find the time if I expanded my purview to a wide array of webcomics. Still, Beaton’s work is the kind of thing that demands one’s attention. She’s been posting her comic strips online since 2007, and in just four years, she’s really joined an exclusive club of rock-star-level cartoonists and comics creators. Her quick success is a testament to the cleverness of her writing, the accessibility of her work and the simple appeal of her emotive figures. At first glance, Beaton boasts a crude artistic style, but it’s deceptive. This collection of strips — most polished, but some quickly dashed off — demonstrates how she brings texture and nuances to her cartoony cast of historical and literary figures. Hark! A Vagrant covers a diverse array of topics but always with the same inimitable sense of humor. Beaton is a unique talent who merits the acclaim and quick rise in prominence that have come her way.
Lady Macbeth wants to have a boner. Dracula’s a perv. John Adams needs to relax. King Lear’s bat-shit crazy. Canadians are polite to a fault. The French Revolution was icky and rude. Robinson Crusoe was a dick. Hipsters ruin everything. And much, much more are to be found in the pages of Hark! A Vagrant> All that’s missing is the meaning of “Hark! A Vagrant.”
Beaton includes a selection of quick, loose strips in this book, cartoons that she scribbled and sketched in a flash. they’re just as much fun as the others, but those rougher strips spotlight the hidden depth and texture of the strips she spent more time with. The artist employs grey washes of various tones and other methods to give a stronger sense of place, and more detail in the backgrounds and other elements. Despite the simpler leanings of her work, there are times when she even achieves a degree of realism. The seemingly basic nature of her work hides a strong eye for perspective, shadow and texture. Adding to the illusion is the loose, every-so-slightly ragged panel borders. Beaton abandons those clean lines, and it always maintains a carefree, irreverent tone in every strip.
A lot of the comedy in her work lies in the expressions. Her characters’ big eyes are inherently cute and comedic, but Beaton is able to get a lot out of these simple characters. There are subtler expressions that sometimes help to punctuate a certain joke or social commentary. I also appreciate how she strives to capture the proper clothing for the periods she explores throughout the book. Furthermore her character designs lend themselves to adaptation in other media, and I don’t mean animation. Wouldn’t you love to have a little Macbeth figurine? Stupid Watson? The Bronte sisters?
Beaton kept me laughing through the book, but I have to admit my favorite strips were those in the series about Macbeth. Finally, my arts degree with English major came in handy! Lady Macbeth and Banquo’s portrayals are both consistent with what so many have studied in the Play That Mustn’t Be Named, but at the same time, they’re portrayed as completely contrary to form. Beaton often turns to such contrasts for her humor and juxtaposing modern cultural references, dialogue and behavior in contexts where they just don’t belong.
One of the things I love about Hark! A Vagrant is how it’s unforgivingly Canadian. The Canuck creator could have easily left out the strips that were wholly Canadian in content so as to ensure her appeal to as wide an audience as possible, but she’s included plenty of material delving into the history of the Great White North. As a Canadian with a less-than-impressive educational background in Canadian history, I can attest the creator’s efforts to offer an accessible but intelligent glimpse into the field is quite successful.
Beaton’s work is generally categorized as being historical in nature, which is a fair description, especially when one sees how she views history. Factual events of the past and art are treated in the same manner. Authors, painters and fictional characters are all treated in the same way as the most noted (and some lesser-known) figures from history. Beaton’s point, intentionally or otherwise is clear: art and culture have has much to do with where we are today as politics, war and social conventions.
I find the choice of strip on the back cover of the book to be a telling one. In it, a low-brow jester performs for the king and queen, with the king intently absorbing his performance, saying to his dismissive wife, “Honey please! The man is an artist.” Obviously, the point is people often read too much into what is mindless entertainment. Now allow me to do the same. It seems to me Beaton is casting herself in the jester’s role, humbly presenting herself as a goofy cartoonist rather than an artist making profound statements on history and culture. Both characterizations of the cartoonists are valid, as far as I’m concerned. Her work appeals on both a baser level and an intellectual one, explaining the broad reach she’s had in a few short years online. 9/10
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