Every now and then in life you read something you’re convinced was made especially for you, as if it’s been tailored specifically to your personal sensibilities. I almost always feel this way when reading Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant web-comic but, given its increasing popularity, I’m guessing that more and more people are starting to feel this way too.
Published by the Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly this past fall, Hark! A Vagrant is a compilation of comics Beaton has published through her website: harkavagrant.com. The web-comic series revolves mostly around jokes made at the expense of historical figures or pieces of popular literature. There’s not a ton of explanation or introduction to the book but those who get the style will be able to jump right in and enjoy the absurd silly-smart humour. Comics that are particularly dependent on knowledge of historical affairs often come with a brief commentary from the author, though usually not much more than a few sentences.
Often in Hark! Beaton will tackle a topic from several different angles. There are, for instance, segments of the book dedicated to the French Revolution, Dracula, the Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Canadian stereotypes and Hamlet, among others. A quick look at the book’s index and you’ve got yourself a murderer’s row of people, places and things that Beaton has made a comic about. Aquaman 84; Cladius 158; Jackson, Andrew 103-105; Oliver Twist 163; Riel, Louis 8-9; Thundercats 51; and so on.
One of the greatest accomplishments of Hark! A Vagrant is its ability — as a book and a comic — to be both smart and silly, witty and delightfully stupid at the same time. Take one of Beaton’s Gatsby comics for example; in three panels Jay Gatsby is being rebuked by a couple of upper-class snobs for not coming from old money. “Well, how old?” asks Gatsby. One of the snobs squints his eyes, furrows his brow and replies “Old as BALLS.”
The writing is certainly funny in HAV but the real legwork is done by the comics themselves. Beaton’s illustrations of faces and figures are so spot on in their comedic placement that they’re often good enough to sell the joke totally on their own. Consider the concerned look given by Edgar Allan Poe after he reads a love letter from Jules Verne or the intense stare of the 1980s businesswoman trying to decide between two different sets of shoulder-padded blazers.
By now many have already been turned on to the greatness that is Hark! A Vagrant, but for those as yet uninitiated this book serves as a great, if slightly abrupt, entry point to a great comic series. I personally can’t wait for the next instalments, whatever they might be.