Kate Beaton is smarter than all of us
Reading Kate Beaton’s comics makes me feel both smarter and dumber at the same time.
If you haven’t heard of the Canadian cartoonist, I’m surprised. Because everyone I tried to show her work to when I first discovered it replied, “Heck yeah, I know her stuff! She’s aaaaawwwweeeesome.”
But for those of you who don’t already know that she’s awesome, Kate Beaton draws cartoons about history. Great, adorable, hilarious, irreverent comics about history, which are totally readable no matter what level your history knowledge is. Even if your history knowledge is poor. Or bad. Or rotten. That’s hard to do. She even helps you learn more about history by reading her comics, while also keeping you throughly entertained. That’s even tougher to do.
Her self-published cartoon collection, Never Learn Anything From History, has been a runaway hit on the indie comic circuit. The book is a small selection of the 2007 – 2009 strips that appear on Hark, A Vagrant!, Beaton’s sprawling website which chronicles the two-hundred-and-some, often-historical (but sometimes not) comic strips she’s produced over the past few years. While Beaton has drawn a couple cartoons for The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as the beautiful Charlie Chaplin Festival poster celebrating the 2010 Janus Films Chaplin retrospective for Criterion, she is still best known for the Hark, A Vagrant! website which she updates several times a month. Probably the most widely-known image on the site is the Victorian-themed “I Am Excited For Someone To Invent the T-Shirt” drawing, ironically available on a t-shirt.
Possibly the second-most known work on the site—or at least the first thing of hers that I saw—is the Poe And Verne strip, parodying the apparently-real admiration Jules Verne had for Edgar Allan Poe. I didn’t know this when I first saw the strip, and I still thought it was hysterical and adorable. That is one of the nice things about Beaton’s work—it’s still funny if you don’t know the historical backstory behind it. Of course when I learned that Verne did, in fact, write fan mail to Poe, that it made it even cooler, which is another nice thing about Beaton’s strips: she does explain them. Most every comic, whether it appears in the book or on the site, has little footnotes printed below which are almost as fun to read as the cartoon itself (my favorite of which appears beneath the “Kiss Me, Hardy / Kismet Hardy” strip).
Because Kate Beaton really does know that much about history, and she’s only twenty-six (which puts her at a tender 23 at the time of Hark, A Vagrant‘s 2007 inception). She has a degree in history and anthropology, which is obvious, but she also has a real passion for history which comes out in her almost-good-natured mocking of its characters. She’s great at reminding readers of the etiquette and attitudes of the time periods she creates comics about, while using these old standards to illustrate that a.) this is why people behaved in such a manner, and b.) that is exactly why it is so ridiculous. Rooting the basis of her narratives in their given time periods with scarily fine-tuned accuracy, Beaton throws in contemporary punchlines and commentary to hammer home the sometimes less-than-commendable motivations of the people in power, sometimes with delightfully scathing parodies of historical figures who obviously had no regard for those around them or under their control.
In the case of more relatable historical figures, you can really feel Beaton’s affection for their stuffiness and social constructs even as she pokes fun at it all. Even when she is foul-mouthed (and it’s so funny when she is), she is sweet, and in the few autobiographical comics she does she paints herself as skeptical, down-to-earth and polite, all things which make her immediately likable. More of these types of drawings can be found on Beaton’s Twitter feed, which has over 1,900 followers. Here is my favorite of those.
In her recent seminar at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, Beaton said, “I don’t know what I’m doing—nobody does.” Lets hope she keeps “not knowing” what she’s doing for a long time.