I love comics — especially online comics — so I’m a big fan of Hark! A Vagrant. And last week it’s creator just released her first children’s picture book. It’s fun to see her adapting her simple-yet-imaginative style to a more ambitious project. And best of all, this cutting-edge picture book is available as a Kindle ebook!
I’ve always liked Kate Beaton’s “peremptory” storytelling, where any premise, historical or otherwise, has to dance along to the cartoonist’s newest whims. She brings the same casual insistence to this story, plaguing her princess with a tiny pony in a land that worships warriors. There’s something exhilarating about the scope of this story, which is either an iconic tale of female empowerment or a parody of our jock-obsessed world. And it’s really nice to see Kate Beaton tackling some full-page drawings, populated with lots of minor characters from around her comical medieval town.
Plus, the drawings look great on the screen of my Kindle. There’s a funny drawing of the princess in her room, which looks like any other child’s room, except it belongs to a medieval warrior. (There’s toys scattered across the floor and a shelf of books over the bed, as the princess lies on her back and idly tosses a baseball into the air — and the horse begins eating her curtains!) And the book’s climax takes place on a big battle field — marked by a “Welcome warriors!” sign. It’s a green, grassy field where warriors are stretching out in their workout clothes, hydrating from a water bottle, or talking to a couch with a clipboard…
The battle itself is a glorious sprawl of details, with crazy colorful people doing funny, silly things. It reminded me a little of those “Fractured Fairy Tale” parodies that they used to include in Bullwinkle’s old Saturday morning cartoon. But don’t worry, no one gets hurt in the battle — even though Otto the Awful charges straight for the princess!There’s people jumping, shouting, and smacking each other with sticks. (Or are those soft plastic tubes, so that nobody gets hurt?)
The whole scene takes two pages — with Prince Pinecone tucked off to the side with her little bug-eyed horse. The busy illustration definitely creates a sense of action, and Beaton even draws someone in the audience wearing a foam finger reading “#1”. (And the man next to him is holding a box of popcorn, and wearing a baseball cap…) When Otto finally charges the princes, Beaton writes that he’s “the meanest warrior of all”! The crowd gasps, and Princess Pinecone grabs for her spitballs…
But instead of charging, Otto suddenly stops to admire the adorable pony — and soon everyone is doing the same thing. “Awww, what a cute little pony!” Otto says, ticking the small animal under its chin. ” Who would want to hurt a roly-poly pony like you?” I have to admit that this turn-around, while funny, was also a little disappointing. “We warriors don’t often get to show our cuddly sides,” Otto reveals, and the princess has found her new calling.
Or at least, someplace where she can unload all those unwanted cozy sweaters that people kept giving her for her birthday! Now they give her a trophy that proclaims her “most valuable warrior.” War is usually pretty stupid, after all — and what’s more important than getting in touch with your feelings? Like a true work of art, it makes you think — wouldn’t this ultimately have been a better outcome for every battle in the Middle Ages?
It’s always fun to be surprised by the brash plot twists of this gentle Canadian cartoonist. I’d especially liked how Beaton drew the princess in a sweater labeled “Special Girl” (when what the princess really wanted were warrior gifts). That felt iconic to me, like it was making fun of the way young girls are sometimes treated as precious (and passive) princesses, instead of letting them play hard with the little boys.
But by the end of the story, everyone is wearing the princess’s cozy sweaters. And they’ve declared her the most valuable warrior of all — because her little pony is so cute!