Reviewed in this essay: Hark, a Vagrant, by Kate Beaton. Drawn and Quarterly, 2011. On the web at harkavagrant.com.
If you haven’t heard of Kate Beaton until lately you’re a little late to the party. Since Drawn and Quarterly released a collection of her work last fall, the cartoonist has exploded in popularity: a book tour across North America; interviews with CBC Radio, The AV Club and CTV News; and, props in Time Magazine’s best of 2011 list.
At this point, it seems fair to say that Kate Beaton is Canada’s most popular cartoonist, and with good reason. Her comic is charming, sharp, smart and far from a one-trick pony (although it employs a no-trick pony). And even if best known for its riffing on history, it’s far from a comic focused on the past, as many of the most enjoyable entries deal with culture: Canadian stereotypes, Wonder Woman and an unhinged Nancy Drew. This range is what is sets her apart. As Vancouver-based Ryan Pequin (of Three Word Phrase) puts it, “she can write a completely absurd joke about a duck eating bread crumbs one week and post a fairly thorough exploration into the themes in Wuthering Heights the next and both are able to get the same kind of laugh out of me.”
“What stands out for me,” says KC Green (who writes and draws Gunshow), “is the clear passion she has for the material that isn’t just a dumbing down of events from history or from the classic books she does. The Nancy Drew and Edward Gorey stuff, where she just riffs on the cover of the book…she isn’t distilling those stories to their basics, just fabricating what they could possibly be about based on the cover alone. They’re always bizarre and I like that in her humor.”
Her art is also a big part of her comic’s success. It has a deceptively simple look: uncluttered, with clear purpose to her line. “Kate’s art has a more classic style to it than what I’ve seen other comics on the web do,” explained Green. “Her expressions and line work are subtle but when it hits, it does in a big way.”
Pequin agrees with that opinion: “Her drawings aren’t overly laboured-looking because she has a good understanding of how much information is necessary in a drawing in order to put the right attitude or emotion across. She’s been drawing cartoon people for a pretty long time, so she knows how they’re put together, and that’s way more important than any amount of crosshatching or tiny fiddly detail ever could be as far as making a drawing ‘work’ goes.”
For fans, the book is a good way to get her stuff in printed form: a sturdy hardcover that looks nicer than her previous collection and doesn’t duplicate any content, either. And for those only just finding out about her, it’s a great sampling of her work: a solid cross-section that shows her range, but leaves you with an appetite for more.