Things you might not know: St. Francis' bird friends brought him all sorts of things, like marijuana and cupcakes; the original commandment on Moses' tablets was "Get down, get down, get down tonite"; Dracula keeps up his ageless appearance with the help of hair dye and "just for men" skin cream; and Icarus was totally dared into flying too high by his loser friends yelling, "Ha ha, man, do it!"
These and many other revelations are available in Hark! A Vagrant (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95), the often hilarious second collection from Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton. Beaton combines a relentlessly nerdy interest in historical figures and literary characters with a flowing but precise pen-and-ink style. Her comics are usually just three panels each, although there are often several in a row dealing with the same subject matter: pirates, Macbeth, the French Revolution, Nancy Drew, the romantic lives of medieval peasants. And the punchlines are as apt to come from the looks on her characters' faces—a google-eyed baby facing the guillotine, or the pursed lips of "Sexy Batman"—as from her deployment of anachronisms and slang.
Sometimes Beaton is just silly, like in "Stupid Rooster Comics," which features a strutting bird trying to entice the henfolk with exclamations of "Awe yeah girl" and "You want dis." Other times the casual reader—particularly the casual U.S. reader—will need her helpful footnotes to even understand what she's talking about. A two-page "History Debate" features prominent Canadian figures arguing about why so many people think Canada is boring. Yukon poet Robert Service (you might know him from "The Shooting of Dan McGrew") sneers, "Well, it was damn interesting when I was alive."
Beaton, who grew up in Cape Breton at the eastern tip of Nova Scotia, has a lot of affectionate fun with her native land. In a strip called "Canadian Stereotype Comics," a crowd of angry lumberjacks and hockey players threatens to invade the United States after taking offense at American jokes about them. But the U.S. president heads them off by exploiting their secret weakness: politeness. Another strip has a Canadian prime minister shouting, "Get Bryan Adams on the phone!"
Beaton is 28, and she's part of a generation of cartoonists raised on the Internet. The new collection takes its title from Beaton's website and Livejournal, where the strips were originally published. Fifteen or 20 years ago, she would have had little hope for exposure outside of indie comic stores or alt-weekly syndication. But she has parlayed her work into, first, a self-published collection (2009's Never Learn Anything From History, also recommended) and now a hardcover from Drawn & Quarterly, the top-shelf indie publisher that is also home to Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, and Chris Ware. She has even had a few panels published in The New Yorker, which in recent decades has drawn increasingly on the ranks of what used to be the comics underground.
But calling Beaton an online cartoonist is, if not inaccurate, at least incomplete. Webcomics as a genre tend to emphasize quantity over quality, and often rely on rudimentary artwork, either digital or manual—for example, the stick figures of Randall Munroe's ubiquitous xkcd strip. Beaton, in contrast, is a terrific artist who takes her own sweet time about things. Depending on how busy she is with other projects, she updates her website every few days or weeks or whenever she gets around to it.
Her drawing has a free, loose, sketchpad feel, and some of her earliest strips look like rough drafts. But the new book shows a wide-ranging command of lines and shading and especially facial expressions—she has a seemingly endless array of eyebrow and lip configurations, denoting everything from insanity (a babbling King Lear) to unbridled ambition (a madly multitasking "1980s Businesswoman").
The book also wisely includes the commentary she often offers on her strips, mini-essays on the subjects at hand that provide context—in case you didn't know, Brahms really did fall asleep at a recital by Liszt—and daffy personal musings. Beaton is rarely autobiographical (except in the sketches she sometimes does online of her trips home to visit her parents), but her personality is ever-present in her strips. She is smart about history and literature, hip to pop culture, and warm-hearted even when she is making sharp political points about historical sexism, racism, and general barbarism. She is also, in case I didn't mention this, very funny.
You can read these strips online, and you should. But you should also buy this book. As any Canadian could tell you, it's the polite thing to do.