Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Sixteen: Hark! A Vagrant

Sometimes silliness and absurdity are fun for their own sake. Sometimes it’s nice to pursue an academic interest and expand one’s horizons. And sometimes, the combination of those two things is absolutely perfect. Taking a serious academic subject and treating it in the silliest way possible is a tendency that runs strongly in Hark! A Vagrant.

The subject matter of Hark! A Vagrant varies wildly. It is frequently historical, though there are often takes on established media franchises and occasional depictions of the author’s life experiences. While there is little consistency in subject, the tone is consistently congenial and absurd. I never know what to expect next in the comic, but I’m certain it will be fun, engaging, and above all, very very silly.

Hark! A Vagrant will often take some fascinating academic premise, and twist it in the silliest way possible. Comics about historical events feature anachronisms and complete insanity. Comics about fiction will introduce elements from entirely inappropriate genres. People will behave in absurd ways and encounter impossible things, while somehow remaining more true to the spirit of reality than most commonly-heard accounts. Much as The Daily Show is a satire that is often more informative than straight news shows, Hark! A Vagrant is sometimes a satire that is often more informative than a straight history text.

While there is no set format or subject, there are a few types of comics and particular characters that will recur.

For instance, you’ll encounter the Mystery Solving Teens, who are markedly different from, say, the mystery solving teens I told you about last week, because they don’t actually give a crap about solving mysteries, or anything else for that matter.

These sorts of recurring characters represent the only continuity you need to worry about in Hark! A Vagrant. For the most part, each comic stands completely on its own. Not only does the joke not rely on you having read previous comics in the archive, the setting and characters are likely to only show up in that one comic. Even when characters do show up multiple times, the jokes are still clear and easy to understand without having seen the previous appearances of those characters.

Lately, one common type of comic involves extrapolating the contents of books based on their covers. I honestly don’t know whether these are better or worse if you’re actually familiar with the books in question. I haven’t read most of them, so I can’t actually offer an educated opinion, but I can tell you that, not knowing anything about most of these books, the little hypothetical views into their contents are delightfully absurd.

The archetypical Hark! A Vagrant comic involves a very silly joke about an obscure historical event. I’ve mentioned in my discussions of Lackadaisy and Family Man that I don’t know very much about history, and that I enjoy learning pieces of it from comics. Hark! A Vagrant has introduced me to historical events, concepts, and people that I’d previously had no idea even existed.

I mean, have you ever heard of Dr. Sara Josephine Baker? She was amazing! And I would still be completely unaware of her if it hadn’t been for Hark! A Vagrant.

In addition to teaching me about aspects of history of which I’d been completely unaware, this comic makes me see other aspects of history in a new light. For instance, I’d never considered the possible influence of Edgar Allan Poe on Jules Verne, though Poe is one of my all-time favorite authors. (I’m not as familiar with Verne’s work, so maybe that explains it.) But forever more I will picture Verne as a total Poe fan boy and imagine them being best buds and that image is so much better than whatever happened to them in real life. (I only really know about what happened to Poe, and it wasn’t pretty.)

There aren’t just lots of silly jokes about famous real people. There are also find lots of silly jokes about famous made-up people. The comic plays with perceptions and assumptions about various fictional characters. You’ve seen the play on Spider-Man up above. There are also takes on classical characters. Possibly my favorite thing from Hark! A Vagrant is the following comic about Holmes and Watson.

Also check out the follow-up. I like it possibly even more than the first one. I think I could read these comics about all the different versions of Watson hanging out indefinitely and never get bored. I’m going to move on to a different subject now, lest this become a blog less about comics than about how much I love Sherlock Holmes.

I’ve shown you historical figures, and established characters, and now it’s time to introduce you to new characters, whom you won’t see in history texts or classic literature. Please awkwardly try to figure out where your eyes should focus in appreciation of the Strong Female Characters.

Note: Strong Female Characters are not to be confused with Strong Female Protagonist.

The Strong Female Characters are an expert skewering of women’s representation in media. They may be tough, they may be powerful, they may kick ass, but they are actually extremely weak characters. Like Sherlock Holmes, female characterization is something I could go on about for longer than would be appropriate here. It’s an issue I think about a lot, and I’m glad to see it receiving this kind of treatment. Both because these comics are absolutely hilarious, and because it’s possible someone will read them and rethink their treatment of female characters. I like it when satire feels like it could actually effect some good in the world.

One more thing I should touch on is that this comic is Canadian. I mention this because it’s very important. A lot of the obscure historical jokes involve Canadian political developments that are probably much more familiar to my friends north of the border. (Some of the non-Canadian history jokes are pretty damn obscure too though so I don’t know.) Canadian history, current Canadian events, Canadian stereotypes, these are all common subject matter for Hark! A Vagrant, and they are all marvelous, regardless of whether you know anything at all about Canada. (They are probably funnier if you are more familiar with the subject matter. This is just a guess.)

Read this comic and you’ll get ridiculous takes on a variety of subject matter, from history to literature to pop culture to childhood reminiscence. It’s all rendered with a gently laughing tone, as if the whole world is just sitting there begging to be gently mocked. (Or harshly mocked, in some circumstances.) You’ll also enjoy the occasional appearance of St. Francis of Assisi, who I previously hadn’t realized is totally awesome.

Hark! A Vagrant is written and drawn by Kate Beaton and updates irregularly. I typically check in every month or so to see if there’s anything new.

Before we’re done, check out just how very badass Queen Elizabeth I truly was.

oh yeah

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