When we were kids, my sisters and I devoured Archie comics. We literally had bags of them. People gave them to us as gifts, my mum would buy old ones at flea markets – we had hundreds. We read enough of them that now we can refer to specific Archie adventures when playing games like Taboo and not have it seem obscure. Eventually, though, we started running into more and more reprints and began to grow out of Riverdale. Archie is kind of a gateway comic, I guess, and after years of reading about his friends I moved on to Gary Larson's Far Side comics. After I got through those (probably around Grade 6) I didn't really read any comics (besides the ones in the newspaper) until I discovered webcomics a few years ago. Of those, Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant was one of my most favourite, and when she put out a book last year I was thrilled.
I am making the distinction here between comics and graphic novels, because Beaton's pieces are comics in the sense that they're written in strips. She has some recurring characters, and often does several strips on a particular theme, but her book is much like Larson's in that you can open it at random. Even reading it cover to cover is a little like opening at random, since you can go from several comics about Lester B. Pearson, to a few pages about "sexy Batman," and on to a strip about Queen Elizabeth at Tillbury. Clearly, Hark! A Vagrant is a little different.
Besides having a distinctive and hilarious drawing style (truly, the facial expressions of her characters are amazing and offer up at least half the joke), Beaton's comics are as silly as they are educated. Often her historical comics are accompanied by a little note on the scene's actual background (she has several comics about the French Revolution, for example) and the apparel of her characters is more detailed than you might expect. This aside, it's the combination of dialogue and drawing that make this book, and Beaton's sense of humour is amazing.
As much as I love all the historical comics, though, I think my favourite of Beaton's recurring features is her book cover interpretations, in which she uses three panels to offer the plot of a book based solely on its cover. She does this with covers that Edward Gorey illustrated, but my most favourite are her comics about Nancy Drew. As she notes, Beaton has read all the books (as have I), which really just makes turning Nancy into the crazy snooping person on the book covers way more hilarious, because honestly, she's a teenager in those books and somehow tracks down international kidnappers. Nancy Drew is an easy mark, I guess, but Beaton turns her satirical eye to Shakespeare, The Great Gatsby, and Les Miserables, among others, as well, creating comics that are hilarious and still really, really smart.
Hark! A Vagrant is an incredible first collection, because while Beaton's humour often verges on the silly, it is never mindless. I mean, you're laughing at jokes about Jean Valjean and Hamlet just as often as you are about hipsters and 1980s businesswomen. Maybe I connect with this book because Beaton and I are close to the same age and therefore have many of the came cultural touchstones, but I wasn't around during the Napoleonic wars and still find her interpretation of them hilarious. Don't let the illustrations fool you: Hark! A Vagrant is literature, and its at the top of its genre.
Hark! A Vagrant
by Kate Beaton
First published 2011 (cover image shown from Drawn & Quarterly edition)