HARK! A VAGRANT!

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Hot bananas, Kate Beaton’s new book comes out tomorrow. Or today, if you’re reading this tomorrow. Or “some time ago,” if you’re reading this farther in the future than one of those two choices. Regardless of your place in the spacetime continuum, Kate’s book will come out, rest assured, it’s Fated.

I thought I’d take this Fated opportunity to talk a bit about how much I like Kate’s comics in general, and this book in particular. I like Kate too; she’s very nice and her hair looks like a shampoo commercial cubed, but I’m going to concentrate on the comics, which I am more qualified to talk about than shampoo. I use Head & Shoulders Dry Scalp myself.

I was lucky and got a copy of the book a few months ago–my old boss Shelton Drum kindly grabbed one of the 300 Drawn & Quarterly brought to San Diego and sold through in about 7 or 8 hours. Here’s the thing: I don’t really have much/any money. So why buy an advance copy of a book filled with comics I’d already read a million times, a whole other earlier book collection of which I already own? Not to mention that I could have gotten a sweet discount by just waiting for the book’s official release?

Well, it’s a very good book. I like webcomics–heck, I make webcomics–but I prefer reading comics in book form. I read them better on paper, I absorb them more. And it’s hard to think of a modern cartoonist that’s been more of an influence on me over the last 3 years than Kate: these are comics I don’t want to just read, I want to study. And the new Hark! A Vagrant book is a really well-made collection for just that purpose: the strips are carefully chosen, the design of the book is nice, and most importantly, the strips have room; they’re not all crammed in there disrespectfully, mashed together in the same messy apartment. There’s room for the strips to breathe a little, room for a rhythm to be set up. Especially with so many disparate subjects, it’s nice to let each have it’s spot.

Here’s the thing (different thing from before): Kate is good at a lot of things that other cartoonists are not good at. In fact, Kate is good at nearly ALL the things that other cartoonists are not good at. Her figures are lively and lithe and convey as much information as any four overwritten captions. It’s partly because her drawing style is so gestural and high-energy, but I think that it’s more because Kate has great delivery. In the same way a comedian can sell or kill a joke just by changing a single word’s inflection, Kate sells her jokes with her delivery. Most cartoonists–myself included–drive themselves nuts worrying about texture and perspective and weird compositional ideas and all kinds of Comics 101 malarkey, and then take all that worrying and apply it to some dumb idea that wasn’t very good to start with, and is hardly improved with our wooden art and all its overly careful artifice.

But what Kate’s really good at, maybe better than anybody at, is observation. Observation! That bygone talent, that mostly-lost province of the New Yorker gag cartoonists. It’s not so much that Kate is really good at doing comics about history or Macbeth or Jules Verne or whatever–it’s that she’s so good at observing, at identifying the fulcrums that large ideas balance on, and then directing her attentions there. She’s a keen observer of ideas, of the ideas behind ideas or events or stories or whatever it is she’s interested in. And she’s a keen observer of herself, her audience, and the world that she’s carrying some of these observations into.

And so often that’s where the crux of a strip will lie: in the connection it makes between disparate elements, ideas in tension. Or, just as often, the connection it makes to another strip of Kate’s. This is another thing I really enjoyed about reading the book–remember the book?–I took my sweet time reading it, and by the end I was full of references and meta-references and a web of connections, like some kind of weird, swear-filled Beaton-verse.

There are a lot of things that set Kate’s comics apart, but the one I am always most impressed by is this talent to see dots and connect them, whether between old and new, staid and eccentric, literature and reality, or just between an idea and it’s graceful execution in cartoon form. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’re already familiar with Kate’s comics. But on the off-chance that your’e not, I’d encourage you to hunt down the book, whether on Amazon, or at your friendly neighborhood comics shop, or heck, if you’re even broker than me, you can always cheer your broke ass up a little by reading the strips for free at Kate’s site. Perfect choice for vagrants!