ComicsAlliance's Complete 11 Best Comics of 2011

Comics Alliance    |    CA Staff    |    January 2, 2012

#6. Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton (Webcomic/Drawn & Quarterly)

Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant at first seems like an unlikely contender for comics superstardom. Beaton is a history nerd and a Canadian, and while her comics sometimes feature geek favorites like Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, they also tend toward figures like Matthew Henson, the historically neglected first man to set foot (and, according to Beaton's brain, do squats) on the North Pole, and Canadian prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. And Beaton's artwork is often aptly described as sketchy, favoring a loose, messy energy to clean and polished lines.

But there's always the sense when reading Hark! A Vagrant that you have somehow climbed inside Beaton's head and are looking back on the history of the world through her very unique lens. No event in Beaton's world is dry, no person stodgy.

It's great fun to imagine that every historical figure was as wild-eyed as Beaton imagines them; that Napoleon constantly had to correct misperceptions about his height; that Watson and Crick followed Rosalind Franklin around with schoolboy taunts ("Is it a scientific breakthrough in feelings?"); that Charlotte and Emily Bronte would spend their afternoons swooning over horrid men, with Anne groaning in the background; that Joe Kennedy forced his children to wrestle for his affections (and scolded an infant Ted for lacking ambition). Even if you're not familiar with the figures she's lampooning, each comic feels spontaneous and silly and, above all, human, and they're sure to send you to Wikipedia to suss historical fact from anachronistic goofiness.

Drawn & Quarterly's Hark! A Vagrant is actually the second collection of Beaton's work, after the TopatoCo-published Never Learn Anything from History, and it's very much a webcomics collection. Beaton occasionally wanders away from her historical roots, poking and playing with notions as diverse as Nancy Drew mysteries, Edward Gorey's book cover illustrations, Canadian stereotypes and sexy Batman.

Online, Beaton's impulse to pursue anything that captures her imagination is one of her great strengths; it keeps Hark! A Vagrant fresh and exciting, and these random riffs on her obsession du jour is yet another reason her comic feels so intensely personal. If Hark! A Vagrant had started first as a print comic, it's less likely we'd see these ahistorical tangents between the covers. The result is that the print collection closely replicates the gloriously messy experience of reading the comics as they appear online.

For folks who have long followed Beaton online, Hark! A Vagrant offers a bonus beyond merely collecting her comics in print. Beaton's comics stem from her genuine affection for history, and even the shortest and strangest comics are drawn from real historical events. In this print volume, Beaton adds her own witty commentary, putting each comic in proper historical context, so the less historical inclined among us can enjoy them on almost the same level that Beaton herself does.

-Lauren Davis

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