23 December, 2013Issue 23.6HistoryLiteratureThe ArtsVisual Arts

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Kate Beaton and the Irony of History-as-Comic

Laura Ludtke

Kate Beaton
Hark! A Vagrant (2011)

In November 2013, the Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton posted “Black Prince“, a series of panels mapping the brief lifespan of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (1330-1376). The comic, marking the 353rd strip of Hark! A Vagrant, features an illustrated rendering of the statue of the Black Prince at Leeds and depicts scenes such as “Teen Glory”, where the 16-year-old prince is “stoked” for the Battle of Crécy, and “Duality”, where a random maiden wonders why he gets “to be the ‘flower of English chivalry’ when [he] destroy[s] everything [he] touch[es]?” Like many of Beaton’s comics, “Black Prince” relates a series of esoteric historical events to often significant and sometimes everyday autobiographical moments. The statue of the Black Prince connects Beaton to Leeds, where, she tells her readers, she is scheduled to appear at the Thought Bubble Festival, in a way that foregrounds her interest in a particular aspect of history through her own life.

Thought Bubble, a festival dedicated to all types of sequential art, is known for its support of independent or small-press artists—a category of artists in which she is an acknowledged rising star. However, though she could not be considered a mainstream cartoonist, her presence on the internet and her involvement in a particular artistic community affords her a certain popularity and success that makes identifying Beaton as an independent artist problematic. Indeed, despite this popularity—her web comics get over 500,000 unique views a month and her comics have appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker and Harpers—and success—her collection Hark! A Vagrant by Drawn & Quarterly is frequently sold out and was listed as #7 by Lev Grossman in his list of Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 for Time—she maintains a certain humbleness and affability in her communication with her readers that renders her one of the more congenial web cartoonists.

Beaton’s congeniality dates back to her Live Journal site, founded in October 2007, where she developed a close community of readers with fierce loyalty and increasing numbers. In her early posts, she initiates a dialogue with her readers—apologising for her lack of updates, directing them to her webpage, informing them about the status of her website, telling them what is cool about history, and revealing small nuggets about her life, her circumstances, and her motivations—further inviting them to leave comments on or suggestions for her work. These dialogues are marked by an informality in style that has become synonymous with certain other web comic artists, such as Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content, Randall Munroe’s XKCD, and David Malki’s Wondermark.

This informality, combined with the accessibility of the web comic medium that allows followers to see the development of an artist’s style over a long period of time, rewards readers for the length of their dedication with what develops into an incredibly intimate relationship between reader and artist. One can also participate in the artist’s success by purchasing merchandise and published collections of the online comics. Even as a new reader, one can binge-read the entire corpus of a web comic with relative ease because the artists themselves control where comics are published (in a single location) and which ones are available (often the majority). Kate Beaton is an exception, in that she has not gone back to clean up or clean out any previous ones; her Live Journal page remains entirely accessible and raw. This accessibility and intimacy allows readers to develop a more nuanced reading of her comics as a whole, which she invites us to do in her published collection, Hark! A Vagrant.

What becomes clear from Beaton’s initial Live Journal posts is her interest in the educational aspects of history. For instance, she imagines creating a project that would help “kids discover history is way cooler than any of them had ever dreamed.” She draws connections between her art and other historically didactic media, such as the much-beloved Canadian Heritage Minutes and the equally appreciated parodies by the Canadian comedian and satirist Rick Mercer. While the Heritage Minutes offer official retellings of history in digestible portions, parodies of them—including those by Beaton—perform much needed readings of these “official” histories that resist a simplistic and flag-waving patriotism. Beaton is adept at returning to and recovering lesser-known moments in history, whether Canadian or otherwise. She introduces the comic “L’Anse aux Meadows” (10 Feburary 2008) by apologising for making such an “esoteric joke,” but nevertheless manages to pay tribute to the Norse Viking settlement in the Canadian province of Newfoundland while broadly implying that the land itself is responsible for the distinctive contemporary “Newfie” accent. In one of her earliest history comics, “Arnold” (7 January 2008), Beaton makes the obscurity of a very nuanced subject—a conflict in leadership resolved so that Benedict Arnold, despite significant personal and financial investment in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in New York, was forced to serve under Colonel Benjamin Hinman in the American Revolutionary War—become the subject of the joke itself. Arnold is often remembered as America’s most famous turncoat, though the circumstances of his dissatisfaction with his treatment during the war and with the emerging American government are frequently overlooked.

Beaton is very serious about history, evidenced by her ability both to anticipate and also to direct interest in what have become cult historical figures. Her interest in Nikola Tesla predates, and is more subtle than, that of Matthew Inman’s in The Oatmeal. However, she understands the fine balance between the levity and legitimacy of her work as a cartoonist. When she first declares her desire to “make a book” full of “history comics,” she also asserts that this will mean her comics “have to be more ‘serious’ and [she] might even have to ‘draw’ and ‘write legibly’ and ‘refrain from profanity,’” with the caveat that “we must all make sacrifices” (6 January 2008). What becomes clear, throughout Beaton’s work, is that Hark! A Vagrant is a dream and a promise, made both to herself and her readers, at last fulfilled. This is particularly evident from the threads that can be traced from her early online comics to her book: making fun of the obscure, rendering the historical topical, and juxtaposing the unexpected with the known or familiar. These three threads converge with particular success in the comic “Elizabeth I the most eligible,” where the queen jokes she has SARS to rid herself of a potential suitor, Charles of Austria, but is, in the punchline, “tricked into appearing on a [reality] dating program”: The Batchelorette.

Kate Beaton’s comics are arguably the best products to emerge from the Athabasca Oil Sands in Fort McMurray. In autumn 2007, Beaton began working in northern Alberta to pay off her degree in history from Mount Allison University. While in Fort McMurray she began her Live Journal page, announcing that, because of the positive feedback she’d received from the community that arose around her Live Journal posts, she was “going to squander [her] future” by continuing to draw comics. In these early days, Beaton not only quickly developed her style as a cartoonist and themes as an artist, but also established a unique exchange between reader and author that transcended the limited medium of her Live Journal page:

What do I get out of this? That ‘focus’ bit I was talking about.
What do you get out of this? Sweet, sweet history.

Indeed, even then Beaton understood that her success would rely on the pleasure she took in making art, comics and jokes as well as on the popularity of her comics and the strength of her interaction with her audience. It is also during her time in Alberta that Beaton’s friendships with other internet comic artists, such as Emily Horne and Joey Comeau from A Softer World and Meredith Gran from Octopus Pie. These relationships came to form a complex web of internet intertextuality, manifesting itself in posted links to humorous, interesting, or relevant songs, pictures, and videos.

But what is at stake in Beaton’s presentation and interest in Canadian history? On the one hand, we have her comics as a part of the post-structuralist interest in micro-history and micro-narratives. On the other, her comics stand as an important redefinition of sequential art. The term sequential art, developed by the cartoonist and comic theorist Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994), attempted to define comics in an emerging and enlarging field of critical comics discourse. As McCloud writes, sequential art “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” In truth, the term “sequential art” has itself become the comics equivalent of the term “literary fiction”, as opposed, say, to popular or genre fictions: a limiting and revised definition of a medium which, in effect, effaces its mass appeal, its variety of expression, and its transformative experimentations. Consider, for instance, her extended treatment of hipsters in the strips “Brunel is tired of these time traveling assholes,” “WWII Hipster Batallion [sic],” “WWII Hipster Battalion,” “Hipsters Ruin Everything, Pt. 1,” and “Hipsters Ruin Everything, Pt. 2”, or of pirates in “You and I could make a bag vengeance,” “Tattoo comparisons,” “I wanted to get into forensics because of CSI,” and “Nemesis mine.” In these strips Beaton extends the satirist’s cartoon (such as Punch or Gary Larson’s The Far Side) beyond a single frame panel into sequences that, over time, accrue layers of valence that penetrate the heart of the political, social, or aesthetic issue under consideration in a way that neither the satirist’s cartoon nor the weekly or extended narrative comics (such as Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes or Art Spiegleman’s Maus) can achieve.

Hark! A Vagrant, though bereft of the more autobiographical comics that make her website, Live Journal page, and tumblr account so enjoyable, is in the vanguard of contemporary internet and print comics; Beaton’s humour becomes a nexus of much-needed irony in a world of Buzzfeed’s inane list feeds and revived interest in “vintage” cartoons such as Punch. Indeed, readers should be grateful for the the wealth of Beaton’s work, so much of which is freely available on the internet.

Laura Ludtke is reading for an DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.