Book Review

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

What's the difference between comics and cartoons?

Photo on 17-02-2017 at 12.13 #2.jpg

Well, what I’ve learnt here is the difference between cartoons and comics. I always thought the difference was negligible, y’know, almost as if the two words were synonyms rather than anything more rigidly separate. That is not true, because Hark! A Vagrant, written by Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton, is not a “book” in the traditional (non-literal) sense of the word, rather it is a collection, an album, an amassed trove, of (mostly) unlinked cartoons, spanning several years of this artist’s creative life.

Click here to have a look at Beaton’s cartoons, I’m not really certain I have much more to say about them than can be captured by actually reading.

I feel like shit, I feel rough, either genuinely ill or still on the fucking booze withdrawal, a full week of sobriety under my ever-wider (except for when I’m not drinking) belt. The thing about cutting booze is that I immediately begin to see a weight loss, but I also start feeling incredibly physically unpleasant, ill ill ill ill ill. I’m sick [but i’m pretty, jk, no i’m not any more], sick to the skull sick to the brain sick to the heart. There’s not much left of me any more, not in between books and bottles, sadness and regret. I don’t really know where the narrative of my life is going, I’m confused and sad, angry but powerless. I want to go far away and never come back, I want to trip into the canal and get my sleeve caught on a fucking trolley so that I drown, accidentally, accidentally. I just went and did my first session of therapy for about 18 months, and it was GREAT. Gave someone ten pounds and I got to cry and talk to them as if I was a real person again. It was the most alive I’ve felt for months, the most real I’ve been in London in ages. Engaging with a human who treats me like a human, who tells me that the sad things I say are actually sad, who doesn’t try to trip me up when I discuss being literally penniless but not actually poor, it was great, for an hour I got to behave as if I had a friend or something, god I missed therapy, I-

Beaton’s cartoons are fun and often funny. They’re regularly included in the New Yorker, which I think tells you everything you need to know: i.e. some of them make you feel stupid for not understanding, some of them make you feel smug (for the opposite reason) and some of them are – to be fair – genuinely funny. Reading a book length collection of these things isn’t the way they’re meant to be consumed. This is a coffee table book, a toilet book, something to have in the back seat of a middle class car, y’know: it’s not for reading, it’s for looking at from time to time. I, because I’m an idiot, read it like a book, constantly expecting (until I was well over three quarters of the way through) that something would happen to link everything together. It – obviously – didn’t.

This is witty, droll, humour, based on historical and literary characters, but with the language and concerns of the modern age. It brought to mind (to me) nothing so much as the CBBC series Horrible Histories, which the earliest of these cartoons definitely pre-date. It is sketches, reimaginings, humourous takes on things like the Brontë sisters discussing how ideal men behave, on Canadian and American historical figures I’d never heard of using contemporary (well, this decade) slang… Hipsters in history, mythical figures behaving as teenagers do, old politicians being like modern politicians, jokes about infant mortality in the industrial revolution alongside sophisticated interpretations of literary tomes… The humour is broad, is sometimes dark, sometimes playful, sometimes crass, sometimes intellectual. Sometimes we are laughing at historical figures because of things they actually did, other times we’re laughing at the idea of these historical figures doing funny, contemporary things. This is a collection of around 200+ short jokes, so I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that the tone of humour varies.

There’s a lot to laugh at here, it’s true, but this is little more than a joke book, and as such not really suitable for dissection, not really suitable for review. I enjoyed it, it’s funny. If I was middle class enough to have a downstairs toilet with books in, I’d put my copy there. Right now, though, I’m not, so it’s going to sit deep in the midst of my massive read books pile, until I either get more shelf space or arrange a way to sell books I’m not going to reread in a financially beneficial way (i.e. not in bulk). Good for what it is, yeah, but not really my kinda thing. Going to get back to a nice, hefty, novel soon. It’s been too long.

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