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A bumptious Bonaparte adorns the cover of Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant! collection. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Cartoonist Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant!" Finds Drollery in Drawing Rooms

by Glen Weldon
Sep 22, 2011

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Kate Beaton is funny.

Her hugely successful webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant!, which delights in imagining how great works of literature would look if their characters evinced contemporary sensibilities, and in imputing modern motivations to the sometimes puzzling behavior of famous historical figures? Funny.

The Hark! A Vagrant! collection published by Drawn & Quarterly, which will hit bookstores next Tuesday? Yep; ditto.

See for yourself:

Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea secured its berth in the book-group pantheon by interpolating an inner life and backstory for Bertha Mason, Jane Eyre's "Madwoman in the Attic."

Beaton's "The Rochester Wedding Party" strip covers much of the same ground — in six panels. And with jokes.

Click on the panel below to see a high-res version of the full strip.

As you can see, Beaton's cartooning style is deceptively loose, which has the effect of making her strips seem like doodles an easily distracted student might make in her notebook during a particularly deadly Comp Lit lecture.

(Beaton was just such a student. While getting a degree in history and anthropology, she started published cartoons riffing on literature and historical events in the student newspaper, and, later, on the web. Her cartoons have since appeared in places like Harpers, the New Yorker, and The Best American Comics anthologies.)

But if you really look, you'll see that Beaton's linework is actually very controlled. Notice how much work her facial expressions are doing in these two strips, even though those expressions are composed of the very simplest shapes:

See how she cuts back to Max at the end of that first strip, because she knows the heart of the joke lies not simply in what the Lame Thing says, but in the boy's muted reaction to it?

And man, do I love that expression on moustache-guy's face.

Beaton is the master of comic strip pacing; several of Hark! A Vagrant!'s funniest strips feature panels with no dialogue at all, just a character (Aquaman, say, or an unamused King, or Poe) regarding the reader with a hilarious slow-burn glare.

You'll be hearing a lot about Beaton's gift for historical and literary humor as her book tour starts up, because that aspect of her work allows people who'd otherwise sniffily dismiss the comics form to justify to themselves how much they're enjoying it. Hey, whatever works.

But one thing that shouldn't get overlooked is how funny Beaton can be even when she's not riffing on Roskolnikov or goofing on Gatsby — she's equally at home with gags about arrogant chickens, Hungry Hungry Hippos, or, in the two strips linked to below, the insidiousness of Sex in the City and how to gross out your kids.

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