When it comes to rendering and sending up historical and literary characters, Kate Beaton is one of the most artful hands around. She manages to do in three panels what some professors can’t do over entire semesters: breathe the stuff of life into her characters. Beaton has an uncanny ear for informal dialogue and takes a cheeky ball-peen hammer to anything absurdly elevated by lofty marble.
In other words: Have pen, will puncture.
Beaton launched her Web comic “Hark! A Vagrant” in 2007, and what might have seemed a niche enterprise soon found a quickly expanding fan base. Freed from the expectations and strictures of comics distributed by traditional gatekeepers, Beaton wrote to the comedic beats of her own drummer. And verily, that has made all the difference.
Her first “Hark! A Vagrant” collection was a bestseller, and her new “Hark!” treasury, “Step Aside, Pops,” reminds us why it’s been a blessing that Beaton has enjoyed the free-range evolution of an auteur. She continues to scrutinize history with her distinctive lampooning gaze, but now each gear in the comic machinery has grown only sharper.
Beaton describes “Hark!” as a mixed bag, and it’s that variety that keeps her intellectual imagination — and thus ours — fully engaged. Whether she is summoning great Caesar’s ghost (and revealing his gladiator jammies) or sizing up where Napoleon does and does not measure up (the vain heights of power, indeed), the breadth and briskness of this crisp, clever parade of the famed demonstrate that we are always in the sure hands of one nimble docent.
Beaton’s ink-wash comic puppets here range from composers (the dueling egos of Chopin and Liszt) to conquerors (Maximilian has one very purpose-driven Juarez at his back), from writers (time and tide wait not for Byron and Shelley) to revolutionaries (you, Robespierre, are no Danton). But these are not mere voodoo dolls for Beaton’s satirical stickpins. Beaton is a true history buff, and she delights in the ring of dated language and how every “Egad!” and “harrumph” is needed to set up this comic dance between the past formal and the current colloquial (into every “bloody,” a “bro” must fall).
In Beaton’s sublimely skewered world of revolutionaries and usurpers and female heroes who won’t move to the back of history’s train, the art of the knowing line is its own beautiful subversion.
Michael Cavna, author of The Post’s Comic Riffs blog, created the syndicated history- and literature-skewering comic strip “Warped” for United Media. On Sept. 19-20, Kate Beaton will be a special guest at Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md. See www.spxpo.com.
By Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly. 160 pp. $19.95