The idea of perfection for any story is a funny one. That’s mostly for two reasons. First, stories have an inherent amount of subjectivity to their quality, so what’s perfect for one isn’t necessarily perfect for another. Second, perfection implies an apex of a form, or, the idea that nothing will ever be this good again. It was something we went round and round about when I was at Multiversity Comics, as I was extremely judicious about giving out 10 out of 10 grades on reviews because the implication is, naturally, perfection. If every week there’s a 10 out of 10, then the scale is kind of broken, right? It’s a tough nut to crack, but one I was passionate about, for unknown reasons.
That said, there is one comic that I am convinced is completely and utterly perfect. A true 10 out of 10 that’s so good it defies subjectivity; I’d argue that its perfection is an objective truth. That comic?
Kate Beaton’s “Nemesis” strips from her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, a sequence of six comics that pit master against commander in an ongoing naval battle in both the physical and emotional space. Within this sextet, we’re privy to a masterclass of cartooning, with each element – concept, art, writing, lettering, even the dang panel borders – building and reinforcing and underlining the unadulterated glory of these two men of the high sea and the complicated relationship they share.
Fundamentally, these are gag comics. They’re a joke, like much of Vagrant as a whole. But they’re also more than that? There’s a universality here that makes them something greater, something endlessly alluring and charming, something…perfect. They’re lasting delights, strips with a timelessness that betrays their inherently archaic nature. That’s a big part of what elevates these strips. They’re more than jokes, but they also are jokes that belong to such a specific time that they’re evergreen. Even if Beaton didn’t know it at the time, she created something impervious to the sands of time with this one, even if in my heart of hearts I know I laugh harder when a little bird gets hyped about bread crumbs in another notable strip.
I’m of the opinion that there are few things a person can do to weaken a joke more than deeply analyzing it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, as I’m going to dive deep into what makes “Nemesis” as brilliant as it is, both on a strip-by-strip level and as a whole. Because it’s a funny joke, but like I said, it’s so much more.
Also, for the purposes of this exercise, I will be calling the titular Nemesis – the gentleman without facial hair – Frederick, as he was built off of Captain Frederick Hoffman, a British captain under King George III, while the mustachioed main character and pirate protagonist will be Jack, after Jack Aubrey from Master & Commander.