Why I love Kate Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant"

On April 6, 1909, Robert Peary claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole. Of course, there were some issues with his claim. For one thing, Inuit had almost certainly been through the area before. For another, a guy named Frederick Cook said he'd reached the Pole in 1908. And, last but not least, the first person to the Pole out of Peary's own party wasn't even Peary—it was Matthew Henson, an African American explorer, sailor, and navigator who actually planted the U.S. flag at the Pole while Peary was stuck in a dogsled, too sick and/or frostbitten to walk.

This is why I love cartoonist Kate Beaton, whose second collection, Hark! A Vagrant, was published this week.

There are precious few artists who would (or could) turn the story of Peary and Henson into a hilarious comic strip. And even fewer who could do that with a style that combines careful realism and broad-stroke cartoonery. Would the strip be as funny if Beaton wasn't able to shift so effortlessly from serious Henson in the top right panel to the muppetish grin he wears in the lower right? I doubt it.

Really, the contrasting style of art Beaton uses kind of sums up Hark! A Vagrant as a whole. This is a comic strip that seamlessly blends the high-brow with the madcap. Sirens make MySpace ducklips at a horrified Odysseus. A tiny version of Gene Simmons sews glam shoes for a medieval cobbler. Jules Verne sends creepy fan mail to Edgar Allen Poe. Canadian politicians take their marching orders from the cheerful ghosts of dead terriers.

This is a comic about not taking anything too seriously—even the things we love to geek out about.

I you don't already read Hark! A Vagrant online, you should. If you've been reading for a while, buy this book.


  1. “Inuit had almost certainly been through the area before.” Really? I’ve never heard this claim before, and it seems pretty hard to believe. Anyone else ever heard such a thing?

    1. Good question. The Wikipedia page and related articles don’t mention any suggestions that Inuits had reached the north pole.

      I think it’s certainly possible that they did, but the arduousness of the journey and the lack of any clear evidence that they did make me think that saying they had “almost certainly” reached it might be stretching it. Is there more evidence than my quick searching was able to find?

    2. I’d file it under “possible, but unlikely”. I imagine they COULD have gone there, but WHY would they have gone there? There is no great discovery for them, they had no idea what a North Pole was. Marching off to the middle of the Arctic would have been a death wish.

      1. Why would they have gone there? Game. Inuit hunters did (and still do) travel long distances out onto the ice in search of game. Also, they wouldn’t have marched, they would have ridden (on sleds). I think the odds are very good that sometime between circa 1000 AD and 1909, a hunting party or two passed by.

        1. Mm – good point, but how much game is at the North Pole? Seems unlikely, but possible. But even if one were to travel that way in search of game, the odds of actually stumbling onto the actual pole is rather slim. It would have been a challenge to do so intentionally.

        2. Besides – the Inuit didn’t a flag. There is no way they could have claimed it without a flag.

          And fun fact about the last sentence of that bit, showing how knowledgeable Izzard is, the NRA DID lend rifles to the British during the onset of the war (1940 IIRC). They gathered them from private citizens and shipped them over, to help defend them from a possible German invasion.

    3. I hasten to add that I too love “Hark! A Vagrant.” In case anyone thought I was merely pedantic. I am more than my pedantry.

    4. I think he’s going on the logic that: 1) The Inuit had lived on the edge of the arctic ice caps for several thousand years. 2) They had the capacity to make the journey with the technology on hand. And of course 3) When people have the capacity to do something, they tend to do it eventually no matter how stupid or pointless.

      They may never have actually stopped at the north pole, not realizing where it was exactly or why it mattered, but it’s likely that someone ended up within a few miles of it at some point while trying to figure out whether anything interesting was in that direction.

      1. That’s correct, Ean. I mean, other than the part about me being a “he,” it’s spot on. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “almost certain,” but when it comes to places that have been populated long before white explorers arrived, I think it’s pretty reasonable to assume that the white guys were not the first people to ever be in an area. 

        It’s completely possible that no Inuit ever stood at the EXACT North Pole—it’s not a particularly noticeable place and they weren’t looking for it—but it’s reasonable to assume that there’s a good possibility they passed over it at some point. 

  2. “Canadian politicians take their marching orders from the cheerful ghosts of dead terriers.”

    You might include that under “not taking things too seriously”, however WLMK actually did have seances conducted where he believed he was conversing with his dead dog.

    1. Bugger! You beat me to it.

      Anyone want to tell me where the current PM gets his advice? Frankly, a dead dog might do a better job. :}

  3. Every time I see “Hark! A Vagrant,” I get this gut feeling like the phrase is a palindrome. 

    Anybody else get that?

    1. Ditto on this sentiment. In my opinion Dancing Bug tends to be a bit… blunt? Lacking in subtlety? He’s got some great ideas and characters, but I find his delivery to be on par with the average political cartoon.

      Hark a Vagrant is a much more clever, subtle, intellectual take on history and politics that seems like it would fit well on this site.

  4. I’m a huge Kate Beaton fan.  If I ever met her, I fear I would collapse in a fit of unconstrained squealing and sobbing, like a 12-year-old girl confronted with Justin Bieber.* 

    *If Justin Bieber is no longer a culturally relevant reference, please replace with contemporary equivalent.

  5. I would also like to take this opportunity to declare my swoony, dreamy-eyed admiration for the wonderful work of Ms. Beaton. She tells tha history storiez so lulzy!

  6. I feel like I’m missing something here. I’ve tried to find the appeal of Beaton but apart from Sexy Batman her comics fail to elicit much laughter from me. No snark, just dont get it. 

  7. I’ve been a fan for a long time – I came across her when she was first posting things online, back when I was into online comics a lot more than I am now. She’s probably my favorite… it’s the perfect combination of all the good things a comic should have (in my mind, anyway), and she couldn’t be a nicer person which is just perfect. My other favorite is probably Nedroid (Beartato & Reginald), for reference.

    If you like her stuff, it’s definitely worth following her on twitter and tumblr as she posts things that don’t end up on her main site all the time (same thing with Anthony Clark for Nedroid, BTW).

  8. Read Kenn Harper’s, “Give me my Father’s Body,” a book about a young Inuit brought back to New York by Peary.  An excellent read, and gives much insight into Peary’s psyche.

  9. If you guys are really interested a decent overview is True North.  In it Cook’s two guides mention that others in their tribe had traveled that far north at times.

    That said, I don’t personally think *either* of them made it.  Cook’s numbers don’t seem to add up and Peary, well, he was the only one who knew how to use the sextant (he refused to teach Henson) and he took about five minutes of readings before declaring they were there (compared to Amundsen’s two days at the South Pole).

Comments are closed.