Sunday, January 1, 2012

Comics Review: Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant, a wryly witty take on literature, history, and whatever else interests the cartoonist, has now been gathered in a welcome first book collection.

Webcomics, for the most part, are just the latest iteration of newspaper strips: short-form comics that present a scenario or gag in a handful of panels. Indeed, many current newspaper strips have, in practice, become webcomics. I wouldn’t be surprised if Doonesbury, to pick one example, enjoys more readers from its perch on than it does in the daily papers. Additionally, people I know are far more inclined to follow the current newspaper strips on the syndicate websites. But that said, the rise of Internet publication has opened the door to a new breed of strips. Just as the alternative-weekly comics of the 1980s marked a shift in the form--the better-educated readerships of those publications allowed for edgier and more literate content--the Web has given a platform to work that wouldn’t have been seen otherwise. There’s now a place for strips that editors would have judged too esoteric for their papers’ readerships. And it was only a matter of time before some of those strips enjoyed breakout success. One is Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, which has parlayed its online popularity into a commercially and critically successful book collection. (For Beaton's latest strips, click here.)

Hark! A Vagrant doesn’t feature continuing characters or storylines. It’s a showcase for absurdist and satirical jokes that take off from literature, history, and other sources. Beaton's favorite approach is to reimagine this material in terms of contemporary attitudes and behavior. In the collection’s opening strip, the Brontë sisters are shown scoping out men. Charlotte and Emily ooh and aah over the sort of creepy brooding-intensity types they feature in their novels. But Anne, whose work treated such men far more harshly, is shown reacting in disgust. Her sisters respond, “No wonder nobody buys your books.” In another, John Adams bids goodbye to his cantankerous ways and decides to kick back and hang loose. The other Founders realize how much they miss the old Adams, who they used to mock behind his back. The tables are turned. Now they’re the tight-assed ones, with Benjamin Franklin ruefully telling Adams, “I was cool until you started scoring more chicks than me.” There are a number of strips that get laughs at the inherent narcissism of medieval courtly love, and Robinson Crusoe through the eyes of Friday, and many other things. My favorites are those in which Beaton uses the covers of Nancy Drew novels and other books as a starting point for reimagining the stories’ content. She has a sharp, distinctive sense of humor. The collection is a breezy, enjoyable read.

My one caveat about Hark! A Vagrant is that it’s in danger of being overpraised. A reviewer like Time’s Lev Grossman is setting readers up for disappointment when he describes the collection with superlatives like “the wittiest book of the year.” (Click here.) The strip is a modest, fun diversion, and that’s what it should be approached as. It doesn’t have the wit, imagination, or depth of the greatest newspaper strips; people shouldn’t be led to expect that. What it does give us is clever and occasionally incisive jokes about things like King Lear, Lewis and Clark, and hipsters throughout history. I say it’s about time. Newspaper and syndicate editors have stood in the way of this sort of material for too long.

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