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Bookshelf: 'Hark! A Vagrant'

On the left, BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2011, Alison

On the left, BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2011, Alison Bechdel, Editor and Jessica Ael and Matt Madden, series editors; and right, THE CANTERBURY TALES: GEOFFREY CHAUCER, adapted by Seymour Chwast. (Nov. 8, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney

Remember, at the very end of "Hamlet," when Fortinbras, aghast at the pile of corpses produced by the play's final scene, turns to the only other surviving character and says, "Tell me honestly, Horatio, is everyone in my new kingdom totally nutballs?"


Then you've made the terrible mistake of not reading Kate Beaton's hilarious "Hark! A Vagrant," the long-running Web comic now collected in book form (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95).

"Hark!" may be the most intellectually fertile cartoon on the Internet -- certainly the most literary. With a keen ear for the absurd and an astonishing command of historical minutiae, Beaton tackles subjects ranging in tone and seriousness from

"The Great Gatsby" to her childhood notions of what an '80s businesswoman would act like on a date, and always comes away smiling.

Along the way, you'll notice particular things that push Beaton's buttons: jerks who steal all the credit (Thomas Edison from Nikola Tesla, among others), the predominance of white dudes (like, say, Lewis & Clark) in areas where women (such as, oh, Sacagawea) did just as much good. It's heady stuff for a cartoon with a lot of silly jokes about needing to go to the bathroom and a sidesplitting extended sequence called "The Adventures of Sexy Batman." Be warned, future historical movers and shakers: Step out of line on Beaton's watch, and people will be laughing at you for years to come.

Beaton is also a featured attraction in "The Best American Comics 2011" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), an appetizer-sampler of all the stuff you'd rather be reading more than five pages of. Still, if you're looking to see what's out there, you could do worse than to check out this edition, edited by the marvelous Alison Bechdel of "Fun Home" fame.


Remember "Classics Illustrated," the old EC comic books that told you a venerable story so you didn't have to read it for English class? If they had all been as wonderfully lurid as Seymour Chwast's adaptation of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" (Bloomsbury, $20), Batman would be competing with Shakespeare for kids' attention. Chwast fits more into his version of the "Tales" than you'd think possible, cramming all manner of dirty jokes, parables and insults from the 24 stories into a mere 144 pages. Granted, there are a few differences -- Chwast's pilgrims ride motorcycles, for example (although they wear period-appropriate clothes), and the occasional non-Chaucerian spreadsheet pops up to explain complicated medieval power structures.

Chwast's style has much in common with Beaton's -- both artists opt for very simple linework, miraculously distilling disgust, titillation or glee into a few effortless strokes of the pen. Just don't try it at home, or you will discover exactly how hard it truly is.


Terry Moore's "Echo" (Abstract Studios, $39.99) is quite a surprise. This cartoonist spent 13 years on one of the most prominent indie comics of the '90s self-publishing boom: "Strangers in Paradise," a tender, occasionally corny melodrama about two young women whose romantic lives intersect and collide from high school forward.

So, naturally, his latest book is a sci-fi superhero comic.

The heroine of "Echo" is a young photographer named Julie, who accidentally witnesses a defense contractor murder its lead scientist and ends up in possession of that scientist's chief breakthrough: a chrome alloy that covers her body and makes her invincible. Moore's love of character shines through in every panel; in one sequence, a no-nonsense agent hired to take down Julie discovers that her daughter is sick and abandons Julie midchase to care for the child. In another, an assassin's boyfriend walks out on him. The whole volume is marbled with little humanizing details, making it much more satisfying than the vast majority of its superheroic shelfmates.


Speaking of offbeat superhero books, the protagonist of Dan Clowes' "The Death Ray" (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95) might be the least appealing superhero in the history of the genre. He's a guy whose superpowers come from smoking cigarettes, he possesses a gun that can obliterate a person or animal without a trace, and he's kind of antisocial. But he's certainly a hero -- at least in his own mind. Clowes' obsession with the pettiest characteristics of a character can wear pretty thin at times, but in this brief, beautifully drawn volume, he casts his jaundiced eye on a guy who would be either a lot darker or a lot lighter in another cartoonist's hands. Yes, Andy, who wields the death ray, has powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men, but does he have morals beyond those of mortal men, as well? Can you love humanity and hate people? Clowes takes only 48 pages to provide answers, and they may be the highlight of his career so far.

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