IT IS the difference between simply playing with dolls and manipulating an exquisite trunk of puppets. The distinction might seem subtle, but when mind and hand are connected in artful unison, only the latter permits you, literally and figuratively, to actually get inside the character.
And one of the most artful hands around, when it comes to rendering and sending up historical and literary characters as if her own pen-and-ink puppets, is Kate Beaton, the Nova Scotia-born cartoonist who manages to do in three panels what some professors can’t always do over entire semesters: Breathe the stuff of life into her characters, with an uncanny ear for informal dialogue that rips aside the scrim of myth and takes a cheeky ball-peen hammer to anything absurdly elevated by lofty marble.
In other words: Have pen, will puncture.
Beaton launched her webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant” in 2007, and what might have seemed a niche enterprise soon found a quickly expanding fandom. Because she was writing to amuse herself, and not confined by the pacing or expectations, rules or strictures of comics distributed by traditional gatekeepers, she wrote to the comedic beats of her own drummer. And verily, that has made all the difference.
Beaton’s first “Hark! A Vagrant” collection was a bestseller, and her new “Hark!” treasury, “Step Aside, Pops” (Drawn and Quarterly; $19.95), reminds why it’s been a blessing that Beaton has enjoyed the free-range evolution of an auteur. The same splendid dynamic of holding history and world lit up for lampooning scrutiny has been there from the beginning, but now each gear in the comic machinery has grown only sharper, like each Tumblr sketch clicking into place.
Beaton describes “Hark!” as a mixed bag, and it is 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 underscore the sense 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 were the cartoonist’s incarnations of the famous mere voodoo dolls for her satirical stickpins, the exercise would eventually grow stale. Nay, Beaton is a true history buff — her word balloons ripple with the underpinnings of her sharp opinions — and so 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).
And then there is the dynamic that adds a certain relish to every Caesar “hot dog dream.” The book’s title and cover refer to “velocipeding,” and the social scrutiny petticoated women encountered when riding old-timey bikes. (The come-hither “twins” here are exposed ankles.) “Pops” is not merely some bowler-wearing chauvinist of yore, but really, every male historian who over the millennia has ever excluded the accomplishments of women. And when Beaton draws extended takes on “Strong Female Characters” or a salty-tongued Wonder Woman or a kickass Lois Lane, she punctures the tires of tired old sexists but sharply.
In Beaton’s sublimely skewered world of revolutionaries and usurpers and women heroes who won’t be put to the back of history’s train, the art of the knowing line is its own beautiful subversion.
Kate Beaton will be a special guest at this weekend’s Small Press Expo in North Bethesda.
Michael Cavna — who created the syndicated history- and literature-skewering comic strip “Warped” for United Media — will be a moderator at this weekend’s Small Press Expo.