Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Hark! A Vagrant

by Kate Beaton

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists

by Seth

Canadian comic books have come into their own. Cartoonists such as Chester Brown and Seth are now celebrated at awards ceremonies, funded by grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, and encouraged by a public that places their books on national bestseller lists. However, this mainstream respectability comes with a price: it threatens to drain away the anarchic joy that made comics such a pleasure in the first place. The dichotomy between respectability and anarchy is demonstrated by two recent releases from Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

In The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, Seth imagines an alternate history in which comics have always played a vibrant role in our national culture and identity. He frames this alternate history as a tour of the rundown legion hall once occupied by the great illustrators populating the fictional Ontario town of Dominion. The town’s name is redolent of a 1950s-era, Anglocentric society in which men wore hats and women were seen but not heard. Seth has a particular knack for capturing this vanished world – the faces, the buildings, the loop of lines strung between telephone poles. It’s what he excels at: depicting imagery of a past that exists just out of our reach.

At times, he indulges in playful fancies: Kao-Kuk the Inuit astronaut; graphic novels drawn by the Group of Seven; the maple-leaf-sweater-clad hero named Canada Jack who toured Expo ’67. Yet the overwhelming emotion here is loneliness. Kao-Kuk returns to his space station to find that his colleagues have been killed by radiation; a Quebecois trapper wanders lost and alone in a remote mountain valley for months.

In the last comic, “The Great Machine,” we’re taken on a silent tour of the inner workings of a contraption that feeds into a pool from which “many a visitor has had to be taken, in tears.” These moments are strange and affecting but often go too far, drowning out any sense of pleasure. Even in Seth’s most fully realized fantasies, he seems able to imagine only a world in decline. Fittingly, the book ends with the narrator on the roof of the empty hall, contemplating suicide.

How refreshing, then, to escape Seth’s dirge and enter the mind of a creator who revels in the sheer delight of her art. Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant found an audience first as a Web comic read by 500,000 people every month. The strip is a series of short gag cartoons, primarily about history and literature, with a particularly Canadian bent (which makes it an odd candidate for runaway success). Beaton’s appeal lies in the combination of her scribbly style and contemporary dialogue. (A fox says to a group of hunters: “Y’all hunt like whiny bitches!”)

Beaton’s comics are like doodles passed by your best friend in history class: familiar, friendly, funny. Yet each is infused with a genuine passion and knowledge of the subject matter. Characters from boastful Billy Bishop to boring Lester B. Pearson, from loopy Hamlet to clueless Nancy Drew, are approached with abandon.

On the surface, these are simply gag strips, but many contain a subversive satirical edge. Beaton’s approach to feminism, for example, is subtle – corrective without being didactic. Comics about long-suffering heroines like Jane Eyre, Laura Secord, and “Every Lady Scientist in History Who Ever Did Anything Until Now” highlight the absurdities of gender disparity without resorting to axe grinding. A number of these comics are driven simply by absurdity itself: a kingdom whose royal mascot is a fat pony; a sexy Batman; and teens who solve crimes in a real-life fashion: by hiding behind the school, smoking weed, and lying about it later. 

The contrast between the two books is striking. Seth’s masterful artwork and Beaton’s sketchy penmanship couldn’t be further apart. Yet such is Beaton’s talent that even the most hastily drawn characters sell the jokes through their expressions and silly postures. Both artists mine history for their subject matter, but where one wallows in painful yearning for an idealized past, the other discovers an endless playground of ideas. Even the most lauded artists should be careful not to take their work too
seriously.