Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Hark! A Vagrant is a collection of work made by Kate Beaton from 2007 to 2010 and published online as webcomics, gradually amassing an army of readers so enthusiastic that Beaton self-published two collections, Bigger Ruffs for Everyone and Never Learn Anything From History. This more comprehensive volume of strips and commentary became a New York Times bestseller, also featuring in Time magazine, Publishers Weekly and Amazon’s best-of-the-year lists. Beaton’s primary interest is in looking at famous historical and literary figures and their legacies through a highly sarcastic and irreverent contemporary lens. She often restages well-known events in ridiculous or pathetic ways that remind us everyone is human, with motives and desires that are embarrassing, juvenile or frivolous, and some of the noblest acts of adventurers, politicians, scientists and reformers may be powered by petty, self-important motives despite the lofty results.
Sometimes Beaton has a serious point to make, as in ‘Peary I Thought We Were Friends’: Edmund Peary always claimed to be the first man to set foot on the South Pole, but it was actually his driver Matthew Henson who did this. However, Henson was Black so this inconvenient fact was glossed over in Peary’s accounts of the trip. The very modern dialogue and silly tone of the two explorers wrangling back and forth manages to be both hilarious and then enraging when you read her commentary underneath. Other strips entertain by poking fun at aspects of people or situations that are generally treated with reverence. ‘Dude Watching with The Brontës’ features the sisters rating men who walk past – “So passionate,” says Charlotte. “So mysterious,” says Emily. “If you like alcoholic dickbags!” says Anne, frowning. “No wonder nobody buys your books” her sisters reply.
The informality of Beaton’s casual, dashed-off style of drawing is the factor that raises the wittiness of these jokes to special heights, as if she has just whipped them up spontaneously in a moment of silliness too funny to be carefully composed. The speedy penline has the effect of carrying you giddily along with her caricatured subjects, skewered by her drawings in stupid poses and exaggerated expressions.
This book will appeal most to readers who enjoy classic 18th and 19th century literature, history and culture but anyone with a general understanding of the western canon who also grew up watching Hollywood action movies and TV will enjoy these literate mash-ups. Hark! A Vagrant won a Harvey Award in 2012 for Best Online Comic.
This collection was followed in 2015 by a second book: Step Aside, Pops.