HARK! is “pretty much the funniest thing ever” says the Yakima Herald

Book Scene -- 'Hark! A Vagrant' by Kate Beaton

FOR ON MAGAZINE    |    ADAM JONES    |    November 9, 2011

It's not very often that I wait with baited breath (or whatever clich sounds good) for a new book.

Don't get me wrong, I was ruined by TV and therefore have the impatience and instant-gratification issues of anyone my age. But there comes a point when too many books is too many books, you know? Especially when (1) there's always something new being hyped as The Next Jonathan Franzen by the industry and (2) the stack on your bedside table of things you were dying to read -- that is, until you went out and bought something else -- never, ever dwindles down.

However! As soon as I heard that Kate Beaton would be putting out a book, I started to get pretty excited. When it did arrive a couple weeks ago, I may or may not have done a little bouncy dance. I'm not some kind of "old school" Beaton fan or anything. I think I discovered her comics just this year, in fact.

She tends a website with the same name and some of the same content as the book, which is, to me, pretty much the funniest thing ever. The subject of her comics is usually historical or literary and, in one sense or another, quite serious. She'll write about undeservingly little-known episodes of history, or about a perplexing element in classic literature. The humor is in the surprise; she points out that, despite all the supposed romance, Mr. Rochester is really pretty demented, or how, as much fun as it may be to make a hundred short-people jokes, Napoleon wasn't quite the little elf we like to imagine. (Trust me, it's funnier in her delivery, OK?)

Her greatest hits are her Nancy Drew and Gorey series, where she writes a short strip about what the book could be about based solely on the cover. Her Nancy is a total paranoiac, and more than a little dim. With the Edward Gorey books (he illustrated the covers of a good number of classics for Anchor in the '50s and '60s), Beaton is able to poke fun at anyone from W.B. Yeats to Kafka. Her other forte is in her Canadian jokes (relax, she's from Nova Scotia), which I will not ruin by trying to explain them to you. They involve a good number of "soh-rys" and lumberjacks, obviously, but also some Bryan Adams, so there you go.

All in all, it's a lot of fun, and possibly just a bit enlightening.

* "Hark! A Vagrant" by Kate Beaton was released in September by Drawn and Quarterly. It retails for $19.95.

* Adam Jones has managed Inklings Bookshop since 2004. Among his favorite writers are Margaret Atwood, Amy Hempel and Alice Munro. Jones and other Inklings staff members review books in this space each week.

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