Any review of Kate Beaton's first officially published book has to discuss her meteoric rise in the cartooning ranks. She became a webcomics superstar within a year of her debut in 2007, drawing huge lines at events like SPX—to the general puzzlement of the print comics world. Hark! A Vagrant has sold out at conventions across the country and entered the New York Times "Graphic Hardcover Books" Best Sellers list at #1 the week of its debut. It currently at #2 after five weeks, trailing only the graphic novel version of Twilight. Needless to say, these aren't numbers that are typical for a niche publisher like Drawn & Quarterly and it will likely go through many printings for quite some time.
That said, it's very much a D&Q book. Beyond the sophistication of Beaton's art and her genuine wit, Hark! A Vagrant at its heart is a very Canadian book, and D&Q has always made a point of publishing Canadian cartoonists who write about Canadian issues. This elicits the question of why on Earth Beaton is so popular? She writes gags about literature, history, and Canada. Her line is scratchy and her comics often look muddy. Her sensibility and aesthetics are far closer to The New Yorker than a newspaper comic strip page. What is it about her that has drawn such a comparatively huge audience?
I think the answer is not that she has a huge audience in comparison to mass cultural phenomena, but rather that she has reached and maximized her particular audience. That audience is educated, literate liberal-arts types who love history and literature and love an intelligent cartoonist bagging on them even more. Beaton is also skilled enough a cartoonist to provide just enough context in her strip to make her punchlines intelligible even to readers who aren't intimately familiar with the historical or literary references that she makes. The other key to her success lies in how she relate these gags via modern slang and genuinely funny (and occasionally lowbrow) drawings. Beaton has a way of injecting anachronistic characters and speech as a way of heightening punchlines, as for example, depicting Handel being harassed by a heckler who wants him to "play some god damn Billy Joel." Another go-to gag for Beaton is rendering serious historical and literary figures as sexy or coquettish, like in the strip where Jules Verne sent fan mail to Edgar Allan Poe (with a supine Verne, much like a teenage girl, writing a letter while lifting one foot into the air). It must also be said that Beaton is a fantastic letterer. She heightens emotion by dropping punctuation marks or doubling the size or thickness of her letters, a move that helps emphasize her use of anachronistic language.
As a collection, Hark! A Vagrant wobbles at times. Suites of strips about a single subject tend to be the strongest in the book, but some of the one-offs simply don't measure up to her best work. That's especially true of the strips that focus on popular culture, which rely on easy punchlines that border on laziness, like some of her Sex and the City gags, or jokes about hunks in TV and movies. Some of the strips feel hastily dashed off, as though they were straight from her sketchbook. It's one thing to post those on your website for free, but they can seem jarring in this context. Drawn & Quarterly tends to use a loose editorial hand, but this is one book that could have used stronger editorial guidance to tighten it up a bit.
That said, Beaton's hit-to-miss ratio is pretty high, and there are inspired sequences throughout. For example, her interpretations of Nancy Drew and (obvious influence) Edward Gorey book covers are hilarious, mostly because of how she takes the image as the catalyst for an improvisation exercise in silliness. Her extended riffs on The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, the Brontë Sisters (especially the way Charlotte & Emily glorify terrible characteristics in men), Jane Austen, and Crime & Punishment all land some solid jokes. However, it's her historical strips that are funniest. Her Canadian strips are great (especially those about nebbishy former Canadian PM Lester Pearson), but Beaton also has great insights into the weirder and sometimes less savory aspects of American history, such as the story of Andrew Jackson, the dubious merits of Lewis & Clark, and odd traits of various Founding Fathers.
Beaton sprinkles author's commentary throughout the book, providing further context to her strips but also adding any number of bon mots. There's a distinctly feminist drive to this book that avoids stridency though the strength of her jokes. For example, her strip about how Rosalind Franklin's contributions to DNA research were most likely outright stolen was put into the context of portraying Watson & Crick as two snickering frat boys dismissing her research to her face with comments like, "Is it a scientific breakthrough in feelings?" After Franklin leaves, they eagerly read the report, of course.
I think the ultimate reason for Beaton's success is that she is very much doing a work of historical and literary analysis in her own way, and is advancing her theories through a particular rhetorical framework. There's a point of view to be found here, one that privileges the underdog and calls into question the traditional historical record.
It also helps that Beaton occasionally draws ridiculous things like "Sexy Batman" to lighten the mood. I was left wondering if there is an event she is interested in enough to do an extended riff of more than a few pages. She's perhaps wise to not try to write a joking textbook, given that many events lose their punchline potential fairly quickly, but I'd love to see her apply that keen wit and point of view in an extended manner. There's no question that she occupies a rare space in humor comics (Robert Sikoryak treads in it, too, though their connection is otherwise tenous). I get the feeling that the best is yet to come from Beaton and that as she moves forward in her career, this book will be seen as a comparatively raw harbinger of her future.