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.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.