Hark! A Vagrant

By Kate Beaton. Released in North America by Drawn & Quarterly.

Kate Beaton is a very funny woman. This is the main reason to buy this collection. Her words are funny, her situations are funny, and her art is funny. That’s a triple-funny combo, folks, and it’s rare these days. People have been reading Hark! A Vagrant as an online webcomic for some time now, and I even have her original self-published book Never Learn Anything from History as well. This is the one to get, though, a handsome hardcover with a larger collection of stories, including all of her high points.

You should still go and check out the HAV archives at her website (here), as this is cherry picked to collect the best of her historical and literary humor, rather than the more random strip we see every week. We don’t get the strips about her own life, or a lot of the dashed-off sketches and earlier comics. There’s fun stuff there as well, including punchlines I don’t even have to look up to laugh about again. “It’s okay, you’re upset.” “Sometimes I pretend to be Neptune!” My own personal favorite, where Kate Beaton reads the letters of James Joyce, is also absent here.

But this strip is an excellent collection, and I have no issues with how it was cherry-picked. I mentioned remembering Kate’s punchlines, and that’s because she has an ear for dialogue that almost begs to be read aloud. It’s not necessarily accurate to its period – Dude Watching with the Brontes is funny *because* of the dissonance, and most of the historical sequences are done in modern tones – but its cadences are funny in and of themselves. They stick in your head, like the best kind of humor. “Jam!” is a classic example of a punchline that’s since become a meme.

Of course, this is helped along by the subject matter. Kate’s a smart cookie, and does not stop to explain the joke as she goes along. She trusts that you will know why Pearson vs. Diefenbaker is fun, and that you have already read The Great Gatsby in high school like the rest of us had to. I had worried all the Canadian strips would be gone, but there’s a large chunk of Canada here. Don’t get me wrong, the strips are funny even if you don’t know who Raskolnikov is, but if you *have* read Crime and Punishment it’s even funnier.

Lastly, Kate’s art is funny. This is sometimes forgotten in a medium where it’s frequently OK to just have funny words and have bland talking heads impart them. The art is caricature, but expressions are conveyed easily and succinctly. Anger and rage are particularly fun, as she draws an open mouthed angry moan that just elicits a giggle. Faces are clearly the emphasis here – Kate’s arms sometimes owe their influence to Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early 1930s – and the cartoons wouldn’t work without the words, but the art helps to accentuate each comic and bring out its best.

Drawn and Quarterly has done an excellent job here as well, with a nice handsome hardcover with a fantastic index at the back for the true history nerd in all of us who wants to skip straight to the strip about The Perfect Joy of St. Francis. It even has a sketch of a portly Napoleon on the cover, his attempt to look menacing somewhat undercut by also looking like he will squeak when he hits the ground like a child’s toy. If you haven’t experienced the fun of Hark! A Vagrant, this is the starting point. Go get it.

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  1. I had no idea how I would ever attempt to review the awesomeness that is Hark! A Vagrant, but you’ve done it so well I can just point people here instead. Dude-Watching with the Brontes is a classic.

  2. Ah! A fellow owner of the previous collection! Well if you say this collection is worth the price of admission for owners of the previous one, then I’ll be getting this after all. I wish she did a self-published or Topotoco collection of her family strips though…

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