Never Learn Anything From History

Posted by on April 20th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Kate Beaton; self-published, 68 pp., $18.00

Around 2004, a small phenomenon started on the Internet called Strindberg and Helium.  It was a crudely produced animation about Swedish playwright and tortured soul August Strindberg and his companion: a small, levitating pink blob who would parrot Strindberg’s darkest words with high-pitched exuberance.  Quite how this latched on to popular culture is something of mystery — Strindberg’s not particularly well-known outside of Sweden, and the obliqueness of the humor doesn’t seem aimed at mass appeal. Yet it spawned countless Hallowe’en costumes and cupcake tributes, indicating that there must be potential for finding humor in obscure cultural touchstones.

Kate Beaton appears to have tapped into that rich vein of comedy for her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, which has been running since 2006. Like Strindberg, it employs a rough artistic style to illustrate the often apocryphal (and frequently downright fantastical) exploits of various icons of history, with a similar brand of off-beat and absurdist comedy. Why is it so funny that Napoleon steals cookies? What’s Benjamin Franklin’s obsession with kites? Something in this combination of history and irreverence resonated with the Internet masses and it became a sleeper hit. Never Learn Anything From History is the first, self-published collection of these strips, gathering together some of the best strips from its first two years.

Like many of these collections of Web strips, the early material is very much the artist finding their feet, but it’s questionable just how serious Beaton was about her strip in the early days. Often they seem deliberately rushed, or scribbled out during lunch breaks, as a quick means of self-promotion — the gags are there, with all the intelligence and references that came to characterize her work, but rendered in a style that plays up to the attention-deficit content aggregation of Reddit and Digg: the breeding grounds of simplistic Web strips like xkcd and Cyanide and Happiness. These link-gathering sites are where Beaton found her audience, and there’s a clear growth in confidence and maturity over the course of this slim volume: The lines become more certain, gathering weight and variation, the caricatures more accurate, the strips more elaborate. In the later strips, she even begins to employ some ink washes, making the comic more of an artistic expression, rather than a perfunctory vessel for a gag.

Kate Beaton’s “Vikings” strip from 2007 and the remastered version from 2010

Once settled, Beaton’s art bears many similarities to that of the French duo Kerascoet, with characteristic spindly limbs and bulging, circular eyes. This has the effect of energizing her strips, giving them a sense of mania that resonates of European slapstick, almost totally at odds with the austere character of her subjects. It seems an obvious dichotomy to play upon, but the baroque embellishments of her art make it seem more genuine and respectful to the source — it’s obvious that the figures she chooses to lampoon are the ones she has the greatest affection for. Her pared-down characteristic style makes the strip seem almost effortless, but the apparent simplicity belies some very subtle abilities with storytelling and page design. In her strip about the Shelleys’ marital strife, the dance of the characters from one panel to the next beautifully reflects the strains of their relationship, with Percy seemingly pushing Mary away from the top tier to the bottom; and the subtle shift in dynamics as their position in the penultimate panel is echoed by Byron and Shelley in the last. In a climate where Dinosaur Comics is somehow popular, it’s a refreshing touch of artistry.

But really what sets Beaton apart from other cartoonists is her sense of humor. A self-confessed history buff, she employs both well-known and obscure characters, events and time periods to use as comedy fodder. As these seem purely dictated by her personal interests, rather than any political agenda, there develops almost a rotating cast of characters.  Several reflect her Canadian nationality, such as Louis Riel — himself no stranger to comics appearances and Beaton even acknowledges Chester Brown’s influence in her own depictions of the folk hero — or 19th century authors such as Yeats, Austen and Byron, but more often than not her history degree shines through with depictions of famous battles, inventors, politicians and revolutionaries. The secret to her humor seems to be in the popular perception of history as pompous and boring, by playing upon that the historical figures are cast as the “straight men” in a double-act with modern culture. Often the characters in the strips speak with a modern dialect — Orwell assures us that Animal Farm is “going to rule so hard” — or popular misconceptions of the past are brought up against the truth, such as Genghis Khan’s relatively progressive politics. In this, Beaton allows us to laugh at ourselves, as well gain an insight or new perspective on the events. It’s done with such good-natured and often self-deprecating aplomb that we never feel insulted nor patronized.

Never Learn Anything From History lives up to the titles promise and really only focuses on Beaton’s historical strips. Sadly missing from the collection are the touching autobiographical “younger self” strips from her website which not only gave variety to its content — many of these webcomics are guilty of becoming one-trick, one-note, formulaic affairs — but used a genuine sense of pathos to undercut the humor. It’s this ability to blend emotion in her autobiography without letting her ego take over that marks her emergence as a real, mature talent. It’s certainly these talents that are liable to see her snapped up by a publisher and, given her unprecedented popularity at conventions, this can only be a matter of time.

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2 Responses to “Never Learn Anything From History

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