HARK! and THE DEATH-RAY on Newsday Bookshelf

Bookshelf: 'Hark! A Vagrant'

Newsday    |    Sam Thielman    |    November 20, 2011

Remember, at the very end of "Hamlet," when Fortinbras, aghast at the pile of corpses produced by the play's final scene, turns to the only other surviving character and says, "Tell me honestly, Horatio, is everyone in my new kingdom totally nutballs?"
Then you've made the terrible mistake of not reading Kate Beaton's hilarious "Hark! A Vagrant," the long-running Web comic now collected in book form (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95).
"Hark!" may be the most intellectually fertile cartoon on the Internet -- certainly the most literary. With a keen ear for the absurd and an astonishing command of historical minutiae, Beaton tackles subjects ranging in tone and seriousness from
"The Great Gatsby" to her childhood notions of what an '80s businesswoman would act like on a date, and always comes away smiling.
Along the way, you'll notice particular things that push Beaton's buttons: jerks who steal all the credit (Thomas Edison from Nikola Tesla, among others), the predominance of white dudes (like, say, Lewis & Clark) in areas where women (such as, oh, Sacagawea) did just as much good. It's heady stuff for a cartoon with a lot of silly jokes about needing to go to the bathroom and a sidesplitting extended sequence called "The Adventures of Sexy Batman." Be warned, future historical movers and shakers: Step out of line on Beaton's watch, and people will be laughing at you for years to come.

Speaking of offbeat superhero books, the protagonist of Dan Clowes' "The Death Ray" (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95) might be the least appealing superhero in the history of the genre. He's a guy whose superpowers come from smoking cigarettes, he possesses a gun that can obliterate a person or animal without a trace, and he's kind of antisocial. But he's certainly a hero -- at least in his own mind. Clowes' obsession with the pettiest characteristics of a character can wear pretty thin at times, but in this brief, beautifully drawn volume, he casts his jaundiced eye on a guy who would be either a lot darker or a lot lighter in another cartoonist's hands. Yes, Andy, who wields the death ray, has powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men, but does he have morals beyond those of mortal men, as well? Can you love humanity and hate people? Clowes takes only 48 pages to provide answers, and they may be the highlight of his career so far.

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