Kate Beaton is “making the funnies funny again” says the Uptown

Making the Funnies Funny Again

The Winnipeg Free Press    |    Kenton Smith    |    December 1, 2011

Let’s consider one example among this cartooning collection’s legion, where irreverence towards history, literature and philosophy are concerned. Jonathan Harker, the Victorian hero of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, scribbles a diary entry:

"5 May. The peasants keep crossing themselves around me and weeping, etc. Man. What the f*** is their DEAL?"

What’s funny is the juxtaposition: it’s like the members of Monty Python telling each other to piss off while dressed as biblical Jews in Life of Brian. Another apt comparison would be the popularity of satiric tome Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

It’s therefore surprising that Kate Beaton would include in this hardcover compendium of her Ignatz and Harvey Award-winning webcomic Hark! A Vagrant one strip that seemingly knocks the trend, with Jane Austen receiving a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Monster Trucks. Beaton’s own irreverence, after all, seems of similar stock.

Neither satirical example amounts to flip dismissal of the literary and/or historical subjects, however; rather they acknowledge only through the prism of one’s own time that one can approach the past. And it shouldn’t surprise that history looks funny: we people have had to learn a few things, after all, like the very status of adolescence.

The book brings together a wide array of work — some of greater polish, some of lesser — grouped around themes including French Revolution Comics. One of the most notable recurring subjects, given the Cape Breton-raised Beaton’s enormous popularity (she’s the rare cartoonist that enjoys sold-out readings and signings), is Canadian history and culture, as exemplified by examples such as Canadian Stereotype Comics.

And freed from the sort of editorial restraints imposed by family newspapers, Beaton produces funnies that are actually funny, with uproarious punchlines such as that of Billy Bishop’s Flying School. Her cartooning style is also funny in and of itself; characters boast an emotional expressiveness — much of it in the eyes and gestures — that’s chortle inducing. One priceless expression is the punchline to one strip concerning a gushing "fan" letter from Jules Verne to Edgar Allan Poe.

Yet Beaton’s satirical stick has a sharper end as well, as when former U.S. president Andrew Jackson smacks a fellow, scolding "Try to assassinate ME, will you!," and is in turn smacked by a Seminole Indian: "Send ME on the Trail of Tears, will you!" Beaton might have sooner turned her barb on a like Canadian example, of course, but never mind.

If all this seems a bit nerdy or esoteric, a lot of it probably is: some knowledge of history is likely necessary for appreciation. (Beaton’s own recurring textual commentary, seemingly as a means for us to better appreciate her historical subject matter, is actually rather irritating.)

The approach seems to be working for the now New York-dwelling Beaton, however. And as with classic strips such as Calvin & Hobbes, one can imagine fans fondly referencing their favourites years down the line. While comics have made great strides in being taken seriously, Hark! A Vagrant reminds us that they can still just be tremendous fun.

By Kate Beaton
(Drawn & Quarterly)

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