Comics Time: Never Learn Anything from History

Never Learn Anything from History

Kate Beaton, writer/artist

self-published, June 2009

68 pages

$18

Read some strips at Kate Beaton’s site

Buy the book from TopatoCo

Like Ditko Hands or Kirby Krackle, Kate Beaton Eyes are a signature achievement in cartooning. They widen, they narrow, they leer, they roll, and (god bless Tyra Banks for introducing this concept to the world) they even smile. If it’s possible to make eye contact with a comic, Beaton’s comics are prime candidates–you lock eyes with them and you’re instantly drawn in. If eyes are the window to the soul, then Beaton’s comics, like James Brown, have soul to burn.

Once you’re finished saying jeepers creepers over those peepers, the rest of her cartooning’s elegant gestalt has a chance to make an impression on you. Beaton’s line is loose, even rough at times, yet sinuous and whole–it’s like cursive handwriting. It feels both sketchy and deliberately fancy, really a perfect complement to her subject matter, which more often than not plays history’s great men and women (and the women and men in their lives) for laughs by feeding them through a precocious 14-year-old’s priorities, sense of humor, and keen observation of adult absurdities–the kinds of gags you might find passed back and forth in notes between smart kids during third period history. Fans of Shakesperean actor (and brother of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin) Edwin Booth shriek and moan during Hamlet’s soliloquy like Twilight fans over Robert Pattinson taking his shirt off. Lord Byron is a slut. President James Monroe drops the Constitution, then bends over to pick it up, in order to show off his ass to an appreciative young lady. Rebels, revolutionaries, and rabblerousers from Robespierre to Louis Riel to Tadeusz Kosciuszko to Patrick Pearse to George Washington come across like the kind of bumbling heroes or simpering villains you’d find in a kid’s action-comedy superhero cartoon. She has a real knack for their body language, too, as they proclaim and lounge and get shot in the face by arrows and come onto each other and so forth–their movements and poses are nearly as distinctive as their eyes. (Her self-caricature is a real peach, too.) Meanwhile there’s something about Beaton’s dialogue delivery that really suits the Internet–the strips sort of slowly wind their way up to the joke, at which point lots of punchlines seem banged out in all caps with no punctuation by hysterical messageboard people who are all too aware of their own hysteria, if you follow me.

Not every joke is a winner, and even many of the best gags don’t really make you laugh out loud–I was already familiar with some of these strips from Beaton’s website, so I think that during this read-through, the only bit that made me LOL was this hilarious drawing of a drunken Santa Claus. And I have to assume that the Pythonesque history-major humor is an acquired taste. (I remember when I was a kid and first discovered Monty Python that I assumed all adults knew the ins and outs of the history of philosophy and made jokes about Kant all the time–this was the humor I pictured existing somewhere out of reach.) Some of the slowly accruing jokes never quite seem to accrue. But the gestalt is so good-natured that you don’t even mind the bits that are just semi-funny, and the cartooning is an absolute pleasure. Soak in it.

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