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.”

Hark, A Vagrant 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.

Hark, A Vagrant 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.

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Comments
39 Responses to “Kate Beaton is smarter than all of us”
  1. Jill says:

    Thanks for writing about her! I recently discovered (and by “discovered,” I mean “wasted an entire workday clicking and clicking on Hark! A Vagrant) her comics and am in total love. Even as someone who’s bad at remembering history, I still appreciate and grudgingly learn from them.

  2. Interesting … and an impressive accomplishment at such a young age.

  3. Thank you for introducing her to me!!! I owe you one! I’m not sure how I hadn’t heard of her before but now that I have I’m pretty sure my next 24-48 hours will be spent reveling in her brilliance and laughing my ass off. Thanks very much indeed!

  4. runtobefit says:

    Always nice to find something new and funny!!

    http://www.runtobefit.wordpress.com

  5. inuvikphil says:

    I agree, Kate Beaton is a huuuuge talent on the comics scene.

    One of her greatest accomplishments is the way she draws women. It’s tough to find cartoonists who can draw realistic, funny, sexy, expressive women.

    She also draws historical costumes and figures with great attention to detail.

    Plus the punchlines are hilarious, so go Kate.

    When can she do a cover for the New Yorker?

  6. I’ve never seen Kate Beaton’s work before. So thanks for introducing her to those of us not in the know. I’m sure I’ll spend some time there today…awesome!

  7. Bravo to Kate. And thanks for introducing her to me. Anything that will improve people’s embarrassingly nonexistant knowledge of history is a good thing.

  8. CrystalSpins says:

    Wow…I’m not “in the know” in the comic world so I had never heard of Kate…thanks for highlighting this talent for me!

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

  9. sauer kraut says:

    She’s pretty funny on twitter, too.

  10. Rea Yanez says:

    Just checked out the link and it really is hilarious.

  11. everythingneat says:

    Congratulations on being featured on Freshly Pressed! Thanks for bringing Kate’s wonderful cartoons to our attention.

  12. It’s kind of inevitable that articles about Kate Beaton will attract a million comments about everyone’s favorite strips, but that’s not going to stop me from doing it. No story on KB is complete without a link to one of her big early hits, Tesla the Celibate Scientist.

  13. johnshinnick says:

    Thanks, I appreciate the tip about the Poe/Verne strip. That’s fresh stuff…

  14. Richy says:

    Funny stuff. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have talent…

  15. milieus says:

    I just found out about her comics a few weeks ago. They’re great. My favourite one was a couple weeks ago. It fully mocked Justin Bieber. It was great.

    <3 Milieu

  16. Joanie says:

    Great post – thanks for the head’s up on cartoonist Kate Beaton – this was a ‘find’ for me today. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  17. Haha, her work is amazing! Certainly hadn’t heard of her in little old New Zealand, but I intend to start changing that by telling everyone I can about her.

  18. I hadn’t heard of her, but am so excited to check her stuff out! Thanks for a great post, I love learning with cartoons :)

  19. Very cool! I love her work. Glad to see this was on the front page of wordpress.

  20. Posky says:

    They’re great comics but every so often I find that the outstanding overall writing really showcases the occasional bad one that slips by. Still, she’s more skilled than many of the very best comic artists and authors and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly.

  21. shuntheepic says:

    How have I never heard of this site. I feel uncultured : – /

  22. Neal Skorpen says:

    Hooray for Kate Beaton! I’m glad she’s finding new fans.

  23. livingcurious says:

    thanx for writing about her..she sounds fascinating..i will look into twitter for her…

  24. thysleroux says:

    I’m quite glad I stumbled across this post.

    I also draw cartoons albeit not of the historic kind, call them “spaced out” instead.

    Posts that feature cartoons always pique my interest.

    Thanks for a well written informative introduction to Kate’s work

  25. hippyheather says:

    Thank you very much for introducing her to me. I’m always on the look out for new comic strips so this was a real treat!

  26. Ruby Craft says:

    I am surprised that someone would draw cartoons about history. This is certainly unique. This may encourage people who have hated history to like it. Teachers sure have made it like going to the dentist for some of us. Their lectures were not as well received in high school until new teachers came to us for a few weeks. They put life into the subjects, and taught us like they enjoyed history. This person must like history to make it into cartoons! Thanks for taking on this subject.

  27. jim Sizemore says:

    Top-notch professional work. How come she’s not making big bucks, syndicated or whatever? Or in the New Yorker. Or . . .

  28. Loved it and my little trip to her website. Thanks for letting us know about it.

  29. Tiffany Hope says:

    Congratulations, you’ve been wordpressed today! I’ve always loved funny comics! Though I never heard the name Kate Beaton before… I think I like her works now – thanks to you. :)

  30. Thanks for the link. Her cartoons are really funny. Like the pun between the lines.

  31. ancaparema says:

    Maybe your coworkers knew about this, but I didn’t! I’m off to share with my friends- thanks :)

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