For the last two years, Kate Beaton’s web comic “Hark! A Vagrant” has been part of my morning reading before I settle down to work. Not only is the comic centered on literature and history, which happens to be my favorite reading material, but Beaton approaches both from a distinctly Canadian viewpoint as I do, as opposed to the usual American or English one. So naturally when her first collection came out, I pre-ordered it.
Naturally, too, my productivity went out with the garbage the morning it arrived, as I eagerly read cover to cover.
So far as I can figure, the collection includes all of the comics posted on the web from March 2009 to June or July 2011. They are all available online, of course, but I believe in supporting artists whose work I admire. Besides, the reproduction on the page is far better than on the screen. And, unless I’m mistaken, Beaton has taken the opportunity to clean up the comics and rearrange them by subject matter – although even online, she tends to publish small bursts of comics on the same subject at one time.
Another advantage of the book is that it allows me to appreciate Beaton’s work more. In particular, until reading the book, I don’t think I fully appreciated how much her loosely rendered style owes to Edward Gorey. It’s by no means a slavish copy of Gorey’s work, being less angular and less-detailed in the background, but the resemblance is obvious when you look at their work side by side. Beaton indirectly acknowledges the influence by devoting a number of comics to the impression that Gorey’s dust jackets give of the contents of the book they adorn; clearly, she knows his work well.
Reading Beaton’s comics in batches also helps me to pinpoint her sense of humor. It’s broader than Gorey’s, and less straight-faced, at turns sarcastic (Jane Eyre telling Mr. Rochester at the end of the story that “We are equals now that I am totally superior to you! Now I can love you”) and willfully literal minded (Nancy Drew telling men seen through a crack in a wall that she will rescue them, and their reply, “we could just walk around”), and more likely to be carried by the words than the drawing.
At times, the humor drifts in to the absurd, as with Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech, in which her words “I have the heart and stomach of a king” is continued with “and the wingspan of an albatross” and “the left hook of a heavyweight champ.” Often, the humor comes from a juxtaposition of modern and historical outlooks, such as Americans telling the French during The Reign of Terror that “We think your revolution is super creepy” or the Brides of Dracula terrifying Jonathan Harker, not with their sexuality but their desire to vote and own property, and go to university.
There’s no denying that “Hark! A Vagrant” is a geeky comic. It isn’t buttressed with the elaborate footnotes of Sydney Padua’s “2D Goggles,” but, without a knowledge of the historical events or the fiction she is riffing off, the jokes are much less funny, if they work at all. In particular, I can’t help wondering how much non-Canadians can grasp of jokes about people like Lester Pearson, William Lyon Mackenzie, or John Diefenbaker. Beaton’s assumption that the readers have prior knowledge might very well limit her audience, but for those of us who know what she is talking about (I get about 90%), her work is an acquired taste that leaves us hungry for more.