Having thoroughly enjoyed Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton’s first collection of wonderfully nonsensical and risible, yet somehow seductively educational comics (her foresworn history degree does not go unemployed in her new artistic career), I went about investigating her website of the same name where many of the strips first appeared and where many new ones continue to manifest, and yet I somehow remained clueless as to the derivation and meaning of the title she chose to bestow on her book and site.
After futilely cogitating along the lines of an anagram (“Hag Ark Ran Vat”) and musing on fellow cartoonist Sergio Aragones’s leitmotif of “mendicant” in his adventures of Groo, a parody of Conan, I was relieved to learn, via an interview between Beaton and Laura Miller, that the phrase was a random tag from an old comic. Whew! I had begun to feel as dumb as the knight in one of Beaton’s strips who, upon hearing his lady love exclaim that the cat had deposited a dead mouse in her slipper as tribute, did the same with the severed head of a rival. But with that puzzle aside, I can focus on Beaton’s marvelously droll funnies.
Beaton displays the giddy, surreal sensibility of the whole Monty Python crew, allied with the classicist canonical leanings of Robert Sikoryak, a cartoonist famous for reimagining Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the style of Bob Kane’s Batman. She can take the most clichéd items of highbrow or lowbrow culture and twist them, mash them up, or otherwise subvert them for laughs, before cataloguing them in the meticulous and sensible, yet somehow mocking index to her debut volume. No sacred cow of literature or history is safe from Beaton’s wit, which is both scalpel sharp yet affectionate toward her subjects. Madame Curie frustrates her husband by playing “radium eyes.” The Bronte sisters scope out all the cute sociopaths as potential protagonists. King Lear meets Lady Macbeth on the moors and is put off by her madness. Composer Handel at the piano is forced to endure audience requests for Billy Joel songs. Nancy Drew gets drunk, shoots friends, and is mean to her robot companion — not all at once, mind you!
Her marvelous, loose-jointed, lively and not over-perfected artwork, with its elegant greyscale washes, recalls that of Doug Allen and William Steig, Roz Chast and Golden Age New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson, Jules Feiffer and M. K. Brown. Radiating spontaneity, her drawings conceal much clever planning and care and craft. The faces she endows her characters with are as rich with amusing nuance as those of your closest friends. Most of her stories are only a few panels long, yet contain compacted narratives which other cartoonists would have drawn out to excessive lengths. For example: she condenses the essence of The Great Gatsby into nine strips of some 28 perfect panels, the penultimate of which reads: “Gatsby! Whenever you’re done in the pool, I’m starvin’ here!”
To read Beaton’s strips — many of which are accompanied by her prose commentary that is just as wry — is to realize that every bit of dullness received in one’s general education is merely an unburnished gem of silliness, awaiting her polishing skills.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.