Kate Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant" is a collection of comic strips with subjects drawn from classical literature, revolutionary history and pop culture. It’s an endearingly strange mix; there are strips that crack jokes about calligraphist monks, and others that send up adolescents straight out of Kevin Smith’s cult film ‘‘Clerks’’. The style of the drawings and the bend towards Victoriana (Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker) recalls the grim art of Edward Gorey. Yet the tone, while unafraid of the macabre, is resolutely silly.
The result is an entertaining and anachronistic send-up of canonical texts. In her hands Jane Eyre's Mr Rochester is a melodramatic creep with not only a mad wife but also “underage smut and racist figurines” in the attic. Whenever his fiancée tries to express concerns about his past, he smothers her passionately in his arms. Beaton also winningly skewers literary tropes such as courtly love, in strips where a frustrated gentlewoman is continually stymied in her desires by a lover who can only express his feelings through poetry, fasting and lute-strumming.
Some of Beaton’s work is standard parody fare, such as cultural mash-ups that consider Victorian preoccupations from a contemporary perspective. This means we get the amusing “Suffragette and the City”, for example (“Men are so complicated!” “I vote against it!”). Another strip considers a Victorian family from an American sit-com angle, with an episode about a teenage daughter getting involved with laudanum, an opiate popular during the 19th century. But other ideas are entirely original, as in sections where she attempts to tell the plot of a novel entirely from its cover illustration. This works especially well with the intriguing artwork of "Nancy Drew Mystery Stories".
These are clever conceits, yet much of the humour is in the drawings. Beaton has a wonderfully evocative way of making these characters grimace, faint and lust after each other; a raised eyebrow serves as an efficient punchline. Given the many historical and literary in-jokes, it can feel as though Beaton is working through an academic reading list. But the results are so consistently charming that it would be churlish to criticise the formula.