Hark! A Vagrant 

$20, topatoco.com

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Learning history can be a dry exercise. Memorizing the names of dead men and the dates of their significant achievements isn't made any more exciting when some authority figure explains they're important "just because they are." For a lucky few, though, history is a treasure trove of dazzling figures ranging from the effective to the notorious.

Canadian comic artist Kate Beaton sees through the haze of names and dates, and her second collection of comics, titled Hark! A Vagrant, abounds with colorful and hilarious sketches of historical and literary figures throwing around their oversized personalities. In "Young Ada Lovelace," Lady Isabella, wife of notorious lecher Lord Byron, pushes her daughter Ada toward the sciences after a chance encounter with a poet. Bonus fact: Ada later collaborated with Charles Babbage on an early computer, the Analytical Engine.

Beaton doesn't only skewer historical figures. In "The Brave Crew of the Nautilus Battle the Monstrous Squid," the cephalopod antagonist is revealed to be no antagonist at all, but is instead a friendly giant genuinely (and literally) wounded by the crew of the Nautilus.

The author's style perfectly captures the human side of her real-life figures, and the facial expressions in Hark! A Vagrant alone are worth the price of the book. But Beaton's wit and breadth of knowledge make Hark! a perfect volume for both entertainment and knowledge.

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