Call it the xkcd for English majors. If nothing else, do yourself a favour and visit harkavagrant.com. Cycle through maybe five randomized comics on the site. If you latch on to even one of the literary or historical references, you’re probably the right audience for this collection.
A Nova Scotian cartoonist with a history degree, Kate Beaton’s work has been published in Harper’s, the National Post and The New Yorker. Her short webcomics take a page out of Canadian history, classic Victorian literature or some other obscure pop culture reference and give it a contemporary twist. This is her first book, compiling some of the best bits of her online bursts of hilarity.
There’s something immensely satisfying in seeing Hamlet’s Prince Fortinbras ask exasperatedly, “Is everyone in my new kingdom totally nutballs?” Or getting a tour of Second World War battalions only to come across H Company, or Hipster Company, complete with ironic headgear and a too-cool smoker’s pose.
Or there are the book cover reinterpretations. Taking vintage book covers, Beaton tries to decipher the novel’s story based on the cover alone. We see Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida playing what looks like an endless game of patty cake. Or Nancy Drew and The Mystery of Crocodile Island, where upon discovering that the island is full of crocodiles, she declares, “This was not a mystery that needed to be solved.”
Most of the laugh-out-loud punchlines are due to the artwork. Seemingly scribbled and dashed together, the looseness of the lines give way to acutely exaggerated eye bulges and dryly fitting frowns. Drawn with hard black lines and occasionally touched up with simple brushstrokes, there is no wasted ink. Every pen mark is used to maximize the visual component of the gag, capturing the essential bits of caricature and body language setting the stage for a well-earned laugh.
Certain strips also come with some commentary or write-up from Beaton, either a little bit of context to explain the gag, or the inspiration behind the strip itself. However, they are often only a few sentences at a time and appear sporadically, making them more of an afterthought than adding any real value.
But perhaps most spot-on are the Canada-centric comics. Sure, anybody can reinterpret Dracula or The Great Gatsby with a bit of absurdity, but there are few historical and political Canadian gag strips out there, let alone perfectly astute examinations of Canadian stereotypes (see the man who returns from work to his igloo home, only to find his wife in bed with another man, and all begin to apologize profusely).
It helps to have Google open while reading some of these, to find out what Laura Secord really did, or to refresh yourself on the patent wars between Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson. Beaton herself has said that if any of her strips encourage people to find out more about the subject, then she feels her work has succeeded.
And that’s the thing. It’s purpose-driven education. Doing your research, all in the name of a really good punchline. It’s just like academia. You get what you put in. Only, you know, with more swearing.