Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant (+ bonus review: a vulgar dictionary!)

I think that if my sixteen-year-old self could have transported into the future of now and been exposed to Hark! A Vagrant he would probably crush pretty hard on Kate Beaton.  There's a trifecta of humor, history, and smarts in her collection of web comics that would have knocked me over with a feather and tickled me into a giddy fanboy state. Not that any of this is wasted on the adult me, I've just grown better at keeping my fanboy crushing at bay. Mostly.

Armed with a college degree in history, and the righteousness to ask the tough modern questions, Beaton skewers events and people from the past, primarily from the 18th and 19th centuries. Military heroes, musicians, authors, politicians, and characters from literature all end up on the barbed end of her devilish cartoon pitchfork. Perhaps what makes these comics funny is that across the board they tend to talk a lot like modern young adults. Occasionally obscene, often snarky and irreverent, I not only would have eaten this up with a spork as a teen, I might have actually paid more attention in history in literature classes if I'd actually realized how fun it could all be. I did, after all, make a home movie when I was a teen that showed Beethoven riding a bike in Los Angeles, eating a falafel, and buying one of his symphonies at Tower Records.

I also think this collection speaks to what I find most depressing about modern comic strip artists who still appear in newsprint, that most of what passes for comics today are lame, safe, and simply lacking anything below the surface of tired one-liners. If someone wanted (I'm sure someone, somewhere already has) I bet they could blame the downfall of print news media on the comics that used to be the one sure draw a newspaper had at bringing up younger readers. But while I digress, my point is that the comics in Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant made me laugh out loud the way I once did. And about stuff like Nancy Drew acting somewhat clueless, Shakespearean characters pointing out their own ridiculous circumstances, and proper Victorian ladies with potty mouth.

click to embiggen
Beaton's drawing style is loose and unstudied though very assured, which is part of its charm. At times I am reminded of the early cartoon work of Arnold Roth. The facial expressions are simple but easily understandable, sometimes the entire humor rests on the eyes of a character. Dealing with historical figures and an ever changing cast of characters may make the enterprise more difficult than most strip artists who need to master only a handful of characters and expressions, but the rewards in the end are that much greater for the reader.

A three-page spread of Canadian Stereotype Comics is followed by a visit with St. Francis which in no way serves as a segue way for the story about The Nautilus being attacked by a giant squid. Actually, while the Nautilus crew is dealing with the squid – a squid who merely seems to want to make friends – Beaton includes a footnote on the page about how the text of the original story indicates the sub was attacked by an octopus despite its squid-like description. The comic and the footnote, as well as Beaton's scholarship, work off each other in a way that add another layer of humor. The footnotes throughout serve as a sort of postscript to the comics that skirt the edge of an artist who perhaps feels a little guilty for using their college degree for something so frivolous. A little like the smart, funny girl who can insult buffoons at a party and get them to laugh without them realizing that she's making fun of them, only here the buffoons are the people and characters of history. In the end everyone comes out laughing.

So while catching the Bronte sisters dude-watching or laughing at a mashup between Les Miserables and The X Files I still have one small, teensie-weensie little quibble, something I wish Beaton could do a little bit more with, and that's the language. Specifically, I would love to see her work in more historical slang and insults because I think that would lend itself well to what she is doing here. Which leads me to my bonus review of...

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence as compiled by a Captain Grose.

Teens love slang. Heck, I love slang. People who work retail get a kick out of it when they ask me how I'm doing and I say "Everything's Jake!" or "I'm swell, thanks." And that's just 1950s stuff. So just imagine what teens could do pouring over 200-year-old slang and resurrecting it for modern use. That friend of theirs who's always borrowing money or asking for parts of their lunch, instead of calling them a mooch or a bum they could call them a mung. Tired of calling someone ignorant or stupid, try looby. Couple a dictionary like this with a copy of A Clockwork Orange and see what happens. In all seriousness, this would be one dictionary teens would sit down and read for fun.

Though out-of-print the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is still available in used form. My copy came from a local bookstore's reference section, but its for sale on line and I've seen it in other places when I wasn't looking for it. If she doesn't own it already I think Kate Beaton would enjoy it, and if she doesn't own it I would be glad to exchange my copy for, oh, say an original cartoon drawing. (That didn't sound too fanboyish, did it?).

Hark! A Vagrant
by Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly 2011

and more comics online at
Hark! A Vagrant

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence
as compiled by a Captain Grose

1 comment :

The King's Library said...

Hi, I'm the librarian at a single sex boy's school in New Zealand and have been in love with Kate Beaton for ages, I've just womaned up and bought a copy for our school library. I am sure that you are right, our clever, interested in history and clever writing, witty geek boys will adore her as much as I do. I'm pitching Hark! A vagrant at the top English classes next year. After I have taken it home and roared with laughter at it again myself.