Graphic Novel

Folly, But the Good Kind

Fans of Kate Beaton don’t need a review to tell them what to expect from Step Aside, Pops, the second collection from the author of the web-comic Hark! A Vagrant. Beaton’s followers have no doubt been eagerly anticipating another feast of lumpy presidents, sassy dames, and unaccountably bitter superheroes since Beaton’s first collection (also called Hark! A Vagrant) came out in 2011. Step Aside, Pops won’t disappoint, and those who have yet to discover her work have a hearty spread awaiting them.

Beaton, who is originally from Cape Breton, began publishing her comics online in 2007. She quickly found an audience, proving that jokes about Wuthering Heights and Napoleon aren’t just for lit nerds and history buffs – or proving that lit nerds and history buffs dominate the Internet. Since then she’s built a consistently delightful body of work from a sandbox filled with obscure historical figures, unpopular wars, nineteenth-century literature, weird children’s books, pop-culture tropes, and charming, doomed peasants.

Step Aside, Pops
A Hark! A Vagrant Collection

Kate Beaton

Drawn & Quarterly
$24.95
cloth
160pp
9781770462083

Beaton’s singular style is on full display in Step Aside, Pops. Her comic timing is dead-on and she never seems to hit a sour note. And there’s something quintessentially good-hearted about her work, even when it’s critiquing the narrowness of women’s roles in Hollywood, or the erasure of women and people of colour in history books, or just subtle everyday prejudice. She can be wickedly funny without ever seeming mean, and she always chooses the surprising joke over the obvious one. This is maybe why she’s so widely beloved; the factory setting for modern humour often tends to be some combination of humiliate/offend/gouge/shame. Not that there’s no place for harsh, nasty humour in the world; it can be necessary, and even when it’s not, sometimes it’s still funny. But there’s something appealingly optimistic about Beaton’s work. Her way of pointing out unfairness, greed, cruelty, and plain old garden-variety human misery makes you feel tickled and possibly enlightened, rather than hopeless.

Beaton’s work has always dealt with sexism, but her feminism is especially overt in this publication. The cover, with its bike-straddling, bloomers-wearing, no-nonsense lady, is like an old-timey (but modern) iteration of the We Can Do It! poster – a future classic we’ll likely be seeing in Gender Studies lounges and on the jackets of girl gangs. Inside, Beaton takes on tropes like Strong Female Characters, Straw Feminists in the Closet, and the cleavage-enhanced and chronically bad-choice-making Femme Fatale. She introduces women we rarely encounter in history class, like Ida B. Wells, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker, and Katherine Sui Fung Cheung. And she appears to take a lot of joy simply in drawing women and telling their stories, from pregnant peasants to The Lady of Shalott.

For my money, the best parts of this book are the strips where Beaton riffs on found images, from Edward Gorey book covers to quaint broadside illustrations, using the found image as the first panel and following it with her own storyline. These strips reveal Beaton’s sense of humour at its purest, unencumbered by narrative or fact. They’re exquisite, self-contained comedic gems. To use one of Beaton’s own phrases, it’s folly, but the good kind.

My one complaint about Step Aside, Pops is that Fat Pony is nowhere to be found. There’s something about just looking at him that makes me feel good; he’s like a glassy-eyed creature from the depths of the id, or just a really funny-looking pony. My fellow Fat Pony fans and I will have to suck it up and get a copy of her children’s book The Princess and the Pony, released earlier this year. It could be worse. mRb

Anna Leventhal's first book of short stories, Sweet Affliction, was published in 2014. She lives in Montreal.

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