Hark! A Vagrant

Hark! A Vagrant cover

I wasn’t going to bother reviewing Hark! A Vagrant, because really, how many people do you need to tell you that Kate Beaton’s comics are hilarious as well as informative?

I am impressed, though, that something so distinctively unique has caught on so widely. If you’d told me that a collection of comic strips based on literature and history, drawn in a pen-and-ink style more reminiscent of mid-last-century editorial cartooning than other popular webcomics, would be one of the hottest books of the year, both popularly and critically, I never would have believed you. But it is, and congratulations to Beaton for so wonderfully doing her own thing. Not only is Hark! A Vagrant an entertaining read, it’s also an excellent example of how much the comic industry has changed and how varied the paths to success are these days.

Hark! A Vagrant cover

Perhaps that’s a bit much to put on a volume of hilarious popular culture and history mashups. After all, this is a book where the Bronte sisters scope out brooding jerk dudes and suffragettes are re-envisioned through the lens of Sex and the City and Watson complains about being treated as comic relief to Holmes. Beaton’s modern perspective puts Macbeth and Edgar Allan Poe and Andrew Jackson and Jane Eyre and romance in general in fresh new light that also makes many of these well-known elements more memorable. There’s also an angry Wonder Woman and a crazy Aquaman and a sexy Batman and an insane Nancy Drew, in case you want some more recent allusions and re-interpretations.

Best of all are the author’s comments under many of the comics. When they’re not telling us more about the comic’s inspirations, they’re making more jokes. Beaton’s style is rough and immediate, the kind where you think, “oh, I could do that” until you actually sit down and try, then you recognize how much imagination and practice it takes. The comments and art combined make this book feel like a goofy bull session with a very creative friend. There’s even an index in case you need to find the section on King Lear quickly next time you need to brush up on your Shakespeare.

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