'Hark! A Vagrant': Those broadsides were asking for it

Kate Beaton remains one of the most recognizable names in webcomics. Hark! A Vagrant began as humorous doodles posted to LiveJournal but has since become one of the most-loved webcomics in the world. It's been nominated for several awards, winning the Harvey twice for Best Online Comic. In 2011, Time named Beaton's collection (published by Drawn & Quarterly) one of the Top 10 fiction books of the year.

It's not difficult to see why Beaton's comics are popular: Her style is unmistakable; it's loose and deceptively simple, as if she just had a funny notion only seconds ago, and yet manages to be successfully comedic with its goofiness, bug-eyed faces and rubbery body language. Her love of history helps, too (she has a bachelor's degree in history and anthropology from Mount Allison University). There's a lot of life that goes into both the caricatures of royal dead dudes and the attention to detail on the period costumes. And then Beaton has them act and talk like a bunch of teens. It's a magical formula that combines goofiness with an air of respectability... like, say, a classy Victorian lady smoking a cigarette and talking like an urban tough guy. It's the sort of thing that gets her invited to participate in a diverse array of projects, from Marvel's non-canon superhero anthology Strange Tales to the notoriously sophisticated (and sometimes inscrutable) pages of The New Yorker.

Recently, one of her favorite gags deals with reinterpreting older artworks. It started with a collection of strips based on book covers drawn by Edward Gorey ... a pretty logical fit, as Beaton and Gorey have similar artistic sensibilities. It works a little like the historical comics, only this time the gag is about the book title and the illustration alone. Henry James' What Maisie Knows features your typically creepy Gorey drawing of an elegant couple with a little girl in the corner. Beaton turns it into a scene where the couple is implied to be engaged in rather filthy dialogue, with the girl getting more and more upset.

Beaton then ran with the same theme with book covers featuring Nancy Drew. The subject matter was a little more familiar. "When I was about 10 years old, I was put in the hospital for about two weeks," Beaton explains in her accompanying post. "The only things they had to read there were the entire collection of Nancy Drew books, and I think I must have read all of them at that time." Here, Beaton turns Nancy into a crazy detective that leaps to insane conclusions.

Her most recent inspirations, however, just may be the most obscure: illustrations for broadside ballads. These were basically clip art used as headers for popular songs published some 200 years ago. Beaton has a lot of fun goofing on the era's lowered restrictions regarding nudity (a guy making out with a girl is distracted by a naked Cupid hovering nearby), although she's also amused by the unsophisticated nature of these woodcuts. The bored expression on a woman being burned at a stake inspires the latest Beaton-ism: "I ain't mind these weak flames."

Man, historical people talking like cool teens just never gets old.

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