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The Webcomic Overlook #108: Hark! A Vagrant

You tend to remember some of the strangest things your teachers tell you. Back when I was a younger El Santo and attending a Catholic school in Detroit, my teacher, who was a bit of a hippie, mentioned in history class that “American people have no cultural identity.” And, so as not to leave out our neighbors across the river, he added, “Canada has even less of an identity.”

It was a baffling statement to hear in the 8th grade. Now that I’m older, I can sort of see what he was talking about, especially in relation to history. The two neighboring North American countries don’t have the 10,000 year history of China or the 5,000 year history of Korea. Europeans, namely excitable message board trolls who have this need to snark on all things American, wonder what in the world is being taught in our history classes. I mean, what is there to learn over the span of 200-300 years of history?

However, the more I travel this country, the more I think that 8th grade teacher of mine was wrong. It’s a mistake, I think, to relate national character to longevity and to isolate a national experience from the continual progress of all humanity. You’ll notice that in most history books, the focus is on wars, one of the most cataclysmic events to occur to a nation. The US and Canada don’t have quite as impressive an inventory as other nations (though the US arguably wins this category).

But maybe the true measure of a national character, not reflected in any traditional history books, should not be measured on how many wars you wage but on how honorable your people behave. A Canadian history buff once said, “Our history is the march of thousands of people across a continent trying to make a life for themselves. How can it be boring?” That person is, of course, webcomic artist Kate Beaton.

So now, with Canada currently making global news thanks to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the time is ripe to revisit one of the most unapologetically Canadian webcomics of all time, Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant.

“What the HELL, El Santo,” you’re saying. “You already reviewed Kate Beaton’s comic. Like, two years ago! That is but a blink of the eye in terms of the glorious lineage of Chinese history!”

Well… yeah. But a lot has changed since. Beaton’s work hadn’t yet been consolidated under the Hark! A Vagrant banner (which, at the time, was merely the title of her LiveJournal). The comics were hosted on a different, less easy to navigate site. Beaton’s artwork and humor were more raw and less polished. Plus, since the site change, the links don’t work on my old review anymore. It was easier to start from scratch. Since I wrote my original review, Beaton has carved out a unique niche in the world of webcomics: that of a historian with a sense of humor.

Her most ambitious goal is to challenge the popular notion that Canadian history is boring. As I mentioned in my previous review, a lot of these references to Canadian history goes right over my head. Like, who is this George Brown cat? And is there anything I should know about the Canadian Mountie Sam Steele? And who is this old biddy? Do most Canadians know about these people?

Beaton covers these unassuming characters with the same love and enthusiasm that other chroniclers might find with conquistadors and generals. With a quick sense of humor, Beaton makes the case that these fine folks should be remembered because, hey, they might not have done things in the most explosive way possible but they did things correct. After all, as Will Durant once said: “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is what happened on the banks.” That’s not to say that Canadian war heroes don’t get their mad props as well, by the way.

If anything, Hark! A Vagrant is a great way to learn about Canadian history, especially with the helpful links and notes posted underneath. Fortunately, for those of you who find Canadian history a bit too obscure and/or not much of a laughing matter, you may be relieved to know that Kate Beaton is a fan of all nations’ histories. On any given day, everyone’s a fair target. And once you couch historical events in the right context, they are a poignant reminder that the people you read about in history books are not all that different from us.

The curious thing about history is that it tends to make its figures seem ridiculously larger than life. They’re always grand, noble, and unapproachable. It’s this very stature that makes them ripe targets for humor by simply taking them down to the level of a human being. Important figures are given contemporary spins. Titans of history act and talk like excitable fanboys, spoiled brats, giggly dames, and little children.

While silly, a lot of these strips do make you wonder whether or not Beaton has come close to divining the true character of several famous people. In one of my favorite strips, two of the Bronte sisters expose their awful taste in men, while the third and more realistic one suffers from lower book sales. Anyone who’s read Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights will wonder why you hadn’t come to the same conclusion before.

You will also see Joe Kennedy prepping his sons (including the infants) for positions in high office. Napoleon acting like an impotent crybaby. Among the most popular recurring jokes in Hark! A Vagrant is putting hip urban dialogue in the mouth of Pope John Paul II, who Beaton strongly admires. By the way, if you think the hip-talking pope is far too ridiculous, you should probably know that the Vatican is the sort of place that releases lists like the 10 Best Rock Albums Ever. Beaton may have been closer to the Pope’s true personality than anyone realized.

Beaton’s excellent artwork feels breezy and effortless. They’re often come off as uncomplicated as doodles, yet they’re packed with a delicate style that’s uniquely hers. Some strips benefit from her uncanny knack to draw goofy facial expressions, especially when her characters go bug-eyed. Others are brimming with simple elegance, and while the strip may be humorous the characters nevertheless move with grace and poise. It’s a blend off styles that comes off as remarkably consistent.

Beyond the historical content, Beaton draws tales of mermaids, hip mystery solving teens, and hot dudes playing beach volleyball. Oh, yeah, and a tubby Shetland pony that goes on adventures, which proves that you can get a lot of comic mileage out of a pony that’s shaped like a potato.

Since I last viewed Hark! A Vagrant, the comic has only gotten better. It’s more polished artistically, and it’s sacrificed none of the manic wit present in earlier strips. Hark! A Vagant is the best comic about history anywhere, and one of the best webcomics ever created.

Final Grade: 5 stars (out of 5).

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on February 18, 2010, in 5 Stars, comedy webcomic, historical webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. One of the things I really like about this comic is how, at least to me, it’s obvious she went through the same Nova Scotian educational system I did.

    I feel a cultural connection.

    Now if I were still living in Halifax I’d probably be embarrassed that our Maritimer world view was getting an airing-out like this. But travel makes you more appreciative of the way things are back home.

    Her art is amazing to me because it’s so free and dynamic. It lacks that stiff “animation cell” look of 99% of the gag strips out there.

    Anyway, this is currently my favorite webcomic. I agree on your assessment.

  2. Whenever I see Kate Beaton I always read it as Kate Bacon at first.

  3. “that’s uniquely her hers. ” Quick typo point out.

    yeah I love hark a vagrant. It’s really a fancy fantastic comic. Definitely one of my favorites.

  4. She deserved a second review. As one of the other commenters noted, her breezy visual style works really well for the strip and helps set her apart. Another win for Canada 😉

  5. Kate Beaton is one of the best, no question about it.

    I hope her comics find their way into Canadian history, literature and science textbooks. They’re very educational as well as funny, and entice the reader to want to find out more.

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