Spotlight on Research: Daniel Marrone on Kate Beaton
Drawing on the work of Canadian literary theorist Linda Hutcheon, Prof. Daniel Marrone (English) examines the popular comics of Kate Beaton. The full version of this essay appears in The Canadian Alternative: Cartoonists, Comics, and Graphic Novels, an anthology of recent comics scholarship. Marrone’s work on comics has also appeared in ImageTexT, Studies in Comics, and Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. His book Forging the Past: Seth and the Art of Memory (University Press of Mississippi) was nominated for the 2017 Eisner Award for Best Academic Work.
Hark! Anachronism: Kate Beaton’s Historiographic Metafiction
By: Prof. Daniel Marrone (English)
Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton has been making fun of history for over a decade, cloaking her deep understanding of the subject with arch humor that often tips into absurdity. In the process, she has become one of the most reliably accessible and compelling popular historians working today, elevating the historical literacy of her readers even as she makes them laugh. Though her short comic strips are regularly published in book anthologies, most of them initially appear online at harkavagrant.com, where they are generously collected in a thematic archive whose categories include (among others) history, literature, superheroes, Nancy Drew, Lunch Break Comics, and nonsense. In her gleeful re-imaginings of history and literature, Beaton contrasts historical events with a distinctly contemporary sensibility, juxtaposing past and present in a manner that unexpectedly illuminates each.
In some ways, this is a variation of the technique that Jorge Luis Borges attributes to Pierre Menard: deliberate anachronism. In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges lauds the eponymous author for his tremendously ambitious, unfinished, spontaneous word-for-word rewriting of Don Quixote. Menard’s project is invisible, seamless: by imagining himself into the mind of Cervantes, he produces an identical Quixote. By comparison, Beaton asserts her own point of view in work that is highly visible: through chronological discontinuities, she shows the seams of history. Her deliberate anachronism produces a history that is constantly folding over on itself. It is Beaton’s keen sense of absurdity, however, that ultimately animates her literary and historical interventions, yielding work that is not merely clever or jokey but genuinely funny.
In The Canadian Postmodern, Linda Hutcheon uses the term “historiographic metafiction” to designate “fiction that is intensely, self-reflexively art, but is also grounded in historical, social, and political realities.” There is a correspondence between the formal and ideological implications of this literary mode, and this correspondence often involves margins or borders, “the place where new possibilities exist.” Through the lens of Hutcheon’s definition, Beaton’s work reveals itself as a particularly parodic strain of historiographic metafiction that is notable for its great variety – not only in terms of its various literary and historical subjects, but also in its wide-ranging approach to parody as such. Her riffs, quips, and satirical re-imaginings exist in the margin between history and fiction, playfully emphasizing and taking advantage of familiar fault-lines and frictions between different kinds of discourse.
“Historiographic metafiction,” Hutcheon writes, “questions the nature and validity of the entire human process of writing – of both history and fiction. Its aim in so doing is to study how we know the past, how we make sense of it.” This account of metafiction helps clarify Beaton’s method of making and remaking the past in her comics. On the whole, her work raises the issue of “what exactly can be said to constitute fact and fiction” only insofar as it cheerfully ignores such categories, crossing traditional borders and boundaries with effortless aplomb. In taking “historiographic metafiction” as a primary point of reference, I am deliberately locating Beaton in the tradition of the “Canadian postmodern” that Hutcheon delineates. However, the question remains: what is identifiably Canadian about Beaton’s Canadian postmodern? The fact that her popular comics pay any attention at all to Canadian history and culture may be enough to signal Beaton’s national identity – but it is still not obvious what this identity actually consists of, or what significance it holds.
With regard to the constituent elements of Canadian-ness, Hutcheon provides one possible, defining characteristic: Canada, she notes, is obsessed with “articulating its identity.” By this measure, Beaton’s comics are not nearly as Canadian as, for instance, my present investigation of her work. Beaton does not strain toward self-definition by obsessing over what it means to be Canadian; in fact, she lampoons this very obsession in a series of comics that haphazardly appropriate stereotypes and expose the fragility of national identity. “Canadian Stereotype Comics” offer a pastiche of stock cultural markers – lumberjacks, hockey, dullness, canoes, igloos, courtesy, Bryan Adams – which, taken together, shed some of their familiarity and become freshly intelligible as abstract signifiers.
This is a simple yet sophisticated maneuver that turns easy assumption on itself, relying on a kind of effortlessness for its effect. When a bearded, be-flannelled man with an axe slung over his shoulder says, “Honey I’m back! From cutting trees or like whatever,” it is as though the scene is being imagined by someone who is not too concerned with details or accuracy. (The regular reader of Hark, a Vagrant knows that Beaton herself is enthusiastic, to say the least, about historical detail.) Not only is this almost-careless tone perfectly compatible with an overreliance on cliché, it also gives the panels a great lightness and momentum that prevents Beaton’s mockery from curdling into indignant sarcasm.
The distinctive tone of Beaton’s comics comes in part from their self-awareness, how they position themselves in various cultural and historical contexts. Historical self-awareness takes a very personal turn in her “Younger Self” comics, which show present-day Beaton interacting with a younger version of herself. These encounters have an explicit temporal ambivalence, capturing the sense of private anachronism that comes when we revisit our past selves (or, even more jarring, when our past selves sneak up on us). Beaton’s Younger Self often seems to turn up when Beaton is working, a miniature personification of vocational anxiety – a strip about drawing comics as a child and as an adult features an irresistible self-parody of Beaton’s historically-inflected work.
These strips, like many of Beaton’s comics, can be fairly classified as a “meta-comic” – which is to say comics about comics. This metafictional work plays with genre conventions and the formal elements of cartooning, and sometimes the medium appears barely able to hold itself together. In “Badly Drawn Gun Comics” (found on Beaton’s site under the heading “sketch comics”) two crude characters in slapdash panels cannot fulfill their putative roles as hunter and quarry because the cartoon guns are too poorly rendered. The sense of frustrated and abandoned effort is subtly emphasized by the title, which suggests a series, even though these three panels represent the entirety of the “Badly Drawn Gun” storyline. What is remarkable is not only the amount of humor Beaton conjures out of such meager elements, but also the formal and narrative coherence of this badly drawn comic. When the would-be hunter tells the skeptical rabbit, “I’m doing the best with what I’ve got,” it is funny and strangely poignant.
In her metafictional comics, Beaton often uses specific, well-known superheroes as source material, returning most frequently to Wonder Woman, who is recast as a caustic, long-suffering, somewhat reluctant hero. Misunderstood by supporters and detractors alike, constantly being called upon to help, enduring unsolicited advice from Superman and Batman, Beaton’s Wonder Woman feels far more realistic and relatable than the preternaturally calm and compassionate character from DC Comics. (One of the principal operations of parody is juxtaposition, often between the reader’s preconception and the author’s variation.)
Of course, the metafictional explorations that Beaton undertakes are not limited to comics; she is just as likely to draw on traditional literature, often in ways that reveal the inner workings of familiar plots. In the context of metafiction, Hutcheon argues, parody tends to involve “a recognition of literary codes.” In one of Beaton’s Macbeth strips – entitled “Lay on Macduff, with Motifs” – the self-aware characters address the significance of repeated references to Macbeth’s ill-fitting clothes. “It will be a metaphor,” Macduff says, “for how you are a bad king.” This amusingly blunt acknowledgement of a rhetorical device is quite theoretically legible, but it is also, as a result, less discursively interesting. Beaton engages in many other literary recodings that are subtler, denser, and possibly even funnier, but more difficult to parse.
It is in the historiographic mode, however, that Beaton most fully mediates between individual experience and broader cultural forces (making clear the ways in which the individual and society reciprocally constitute each other). In six strips depicting the death of Saint Cecilia, Beaton incisively illustrates the complicated amalgam of religion, sex, and violence inscribed onto the “holy virgin martyr.” One of the most pointed strips features a mother who wants her daughter to follow the example of the virgin saint, but only up to a certain point. In a few panels, Beaton manages to encapsulate complex histories of hypocrisy and the perpetuation of paradoxical expectations.
Far less polished, but no less deft, is the offhand skewering of anxiety politics that Beaton performs in one of her digital doodles, entitled “terrorist.” This single-panel comic, made with Microsoft Paint, might best be described as a parody of a political cartoon, a form of meta-satirical commentary. Below the heading “terrorist crisis,” a grouchy, fork-wielding figure affirms, “Yes I ate the president” – and from inside this gastronomic terrorist a photograph of John F. Kennedy reassures the public: “Don’t worry America I am still handsome.” Of course, to describe these elements in this linear fashion diminishes the impact of the cartoon, the composition of which lends itself to quick bursts of giddy comprehension. The unique texture of the comic – hand-drawn pixilated lines juxtaposed with a black-and-white photograph – also contributes to the overall sense of frivolity and haphazard immediacy that allows Beaton to engage with a highly politicized phenomenon on her own terms, without being heavy-handed.
This kind of formal immediacy is second only to the historical immediacy that characterizes so much of Beaton’s work. For example, in a strip featuring Genghis Khan, the Mongol leader amiably lists some of the more progressive policies of his empire, and then admits to killing his enemies, using a very contemporary idiom: “I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty brutal.” In this way, a commonly reviled historical figure becomes the Warlord Next Door – anachronism helps to shrink the distance between past and present, and gives history a sense of urgency.
Beaton creates preposterous alternate realities in which, for instance, Caesar wears gladiator pajamas, a medieval monk writes synoptic fan fiction, and a messenger pigeon brings spam mail. Anachronism is Beaton’s renewable resource: no matter how many times a reader encounters an unlikely juxtaposition of past and present, it will always retain a kernel of irresolvable tension. This tension benefits from a great deal of variation in Beaton’s comics – ranging from subtle to overt, trenchant to silly – but this variation hinges on the interposition of a contemporary sensibility into historical circumstance. This interposition becomes particularly evident when it takes the form of modern-day colloquialisms spoken by historical figures; recognizably contemporary speech in this context immediately signals an improbably contemporary attitude.
* * *
Beaton’s particular comedic tone – at once dry and ridiculous – is matched by her finely modulated drawing style, which even at its most polished exudes a sketchbook energy. Loose and light without ever feeling insubstantial, her nimble cartooning renders historical figures as vivid characters whose circumstances become not only humorous but strikingly immediate. Whether familiar or lesser-known, the histories that Beaton depicts take on a new life in her work, illuminated in surprising ways by her use of deliberate anachronism. Her lively juxtaposition of contemporary sensibilities with historical events causes a fruitful disorientation, casting the past and its preservation in particularly sharp relief.
Beaton draws from history as from a vast network of interrelated narratives, and in doing so emphasizes its similarities to literature. “History, like narrative, becomes therefore a process, not a product,” as Hutcheon puts it. Beaton takes advantage of the discursive friction that exists between history and literature, using it to generate an energetic mode of ongoing history that does not pretend to be definitive or seamless. What does it mean to make fun of history? Beaton’s work acts as a useful reminder that history is a construction, a constellation of narratives about the past which are subject to revision, repudiation, even ridicule. Despite any impulses toward impartiality, history always has a point of view: it is the past viewed from a present moment. By foregrounding this tension, Beaton reveals the inherent anachronism of history as a discourse.