Book Review: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton's comic book, Hark! A Vagrant is filled with historical and literary jokes. Although some of the jokes, such as her series on Canadian manners, are immediately accessible to any reader, others are much better if you're familiar with the novel or historical anecdote behind them. It’s a wonderful gift for curious adults who don’t mind doing a bit of targeted Googling while they read.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly, 2011
Genre: Comic Book
Format: Print
Source: Purchase
Link: Hark! A Vagrant website

Hark! A Vagrant is an uproarious romp through history and literature seen through the sharp, contemporary lens of New Yorker cartoonist and comics-sensation Kate Beaton. No era or tome emerges unscathed as Beaton rightly skewers the Western world’s revolutionaries, leaders, sycophants, and suffragists while equally honing her wit on the hapless heroes, heroines, and villains of the best-loved fiction. She deftly points out what really happened when Brahms fell asleep listening to Liszt, that the world’s first hipsters were obviously the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses from eighteenth-century France, that Susan B. Anthony is, of course, a “Samantha,” and that the polite banality of Canadian culture never gets old. Hark! A Vagrant features sexy Batman, the true stories behind classic Nancy Drew covers, and Queen Elizabeth doing the albatross. As the 5600.000 unique monthly visitors to harkavagrant.com already know, no one turns the ironic absurdities of history and literature into comedic fodder as hilarious as Beaton.”

From the book description on Goodreads

Two years ago, we moved from Chicago to California just as my daughter’s fifth grade school year was supposed to begin. The timing of the move meant that she ended up missing the first two months of her fifth grade year. She didn’t mind so much, but I felt guilty about it. Steps needed to be taken.

I have never thought of myself as someone equipped to assume full responsibility for a child’s education, but at the time I thought I could handle a couple of months. Me being me, the plans for our two-months of home-schooling rapidly got out of hand. I wasn’t going to just teach history. I was going to give my daughter the most memorable history class she had ever had.

My hypothetical and utterly mind-blowing history curriculum began with a copy of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant. To structure our two months-long quirky history class, I planned to pluck one comic each day from Hark! A Vagrant, share them with my daughter, and then have us read about the history behind the joke.

I still think this would be an amazing plan for either a history or a literature course, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pull it off. Part of this was due to the fact that when I flipped through Hark! A Vagrant I realized that most of the comics aren’t actually suitable for fifth graders, so finding ones I could use would take a bit longer than I had planned. And part of it was due to being distracted by this little thing called “Moving from Chicago to California in four weeks.”

I set my unwieldy plans aside, and handed my daughter a copy of John Lewis’ graphic novel about his time in America’s civil rights movement, March, to read while I packed instead.

What I thought about Hark! A Vagrant

Two years later, I have finally had a chance to finish reading Beaton’s book, and while it is still laugh out loud funny, I’m feeling better about not using it as the core of my fifth grade history lessons all those months ago. These are clearly comics for adults.

Many of the comics have little notes from Beaton explaining a bit of the history or the rationale behind the jokes. In one of my favorite series (that also happens to be totally inappropriate for fifth graders), Beaton reproduces some of Edward Gorey’s book covers and then proceeds to speculate madly about their contents based on the covers alone. As Beaton points out in her little footnote “…that’s just how books work.”

Most of these involve jokes that aren’t suitable for a family-friendly book review blog, but thankfully I found one I could share.

In this black and white comic, a man sails to America, but is denied entry because he can't spell "America" right. He misspells it "A-M-E-R-I-K-A". The final block shows him with a tear in his eye as he is forced to sail home.
Part of the Goreys series of comics that begins on p. 71 of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant.

As with all of Kate Beaton’s comics, this one gets better if you read it equipped with the right fact. Amerika was Kafka’s first novel. He never finished it, but it was published posthumously in 1927 anyway. But the fact that really makes this comic sing is the fact that Kafka himself never did set foot in America.

Hark! A Vagrant is filled with historical and literary jokes like that. It’s a wonderful book for curious adults who don’t mind doing a bit of targeted Googling while they read.

Who would enjoy this book?

  • Adults who enjoy quirky history and/or literary jokes

About Kate Beaton

Although Kate Beaton stopped drawing her best-selling Hark! A Vagrant webcomic a few years ago, she is still working away on comic books, magazines, and illustrations. Most recently, Beaton has begun writing picture books for children. Her picture book, The Princess and the Pony, was selected as an ALA Notable Children’s book. Beaton lives in Canada with her husband.

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