October 31, 2011 | 8:10am
In the graphic novel Hark! A Vagrant, which was released last month, artist Kate Beaton explains, "Some time ago I packed my history degree into a suitcase and said goodbye to the world of working in museums for low pay and limited opportunity, and said hello to the world of being a cartoonist, which as we all know, is lucrative and glamorous."
Turns out, in Beaton's hands mixing history and cartooning leads to pretty hilarious results.
Hark! A Vagrant is a collection of witty, original re-inventions of figures from history and classic literature. Beaton likes to take these characters and insert modern sensibilities into their choices. Like the strip "Tudorama," which begins with a panel that says, "This Week on Sexy Tudors, History Blows Unless It's Sexy!"
We see Queen Elizabeth giving her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, the business for not presenting in front of her with enough sex appeal. Or re-imagines the bro-mance between Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe.
In a breezy time-hopping way, Beaton's comics take on everything from the French Revolution, the Kennedys, and 15th Century Peasants, to the Bronte Sisters, Lindisfarne Monastery, and Robinson Crusoe, to name a few. Some of the historical references are totally obscure (I found myself hopping on to Wikipedia to get some context a time or two), but far from being tedious, this was a fun process of discovery in and of itself. There is also plenty of stuff in the book that is just plain silly.
The book is made up of a big collection of strips that first appeared on Beaton's popular website
where she has been posting comics and sketches since 2007.
Beaton's line work comes across as clean and loose, if not at times, simple, but look again, she is totally adept at caricature and her ability to distill human emotions - pouting, jealousy, befuddlement, pompousity -- into her character's expressions is top notch.
Also, below most of the strips Beaton has written pithy, punchy footnotes about how she came up with her concept, or to give a little background information, and many times these are as funny, and insightful, as the comics themselves.