Writer/Artist: Kate Beaton
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Release Date: September 16, 2015
Given the success of Hark! A Vagrant (both in its first collection and continued online presence) and author Kate Beaton’s exposure in such outlets as The New Yorker, the cartoonist’s work has slowly moved from cult darling to an established brand. Collecting a new batch of Hark! strips, Step Aside, Pops features the hallmarks of Beaton’s comedic approach: lo-fi comics riffing on classic literature, obscure history, fairy tales and other esoterica. Some of Beaton’s strips use decades- or centuries-old illustrations as their starting point, but she’s equally comfortable doing an extended take on a 1986 Janet Jackson music video. The comics that give the book its title focus on clashes over women riding bicycles in the 19th century. Beaton’s take on the subject repurposes societal outrage into feminist iconography, and evokes plenty of laughs along the way.
This new volume also sees its author innovating past her previous specialities. Pops certainly contains comics that continue to riff on AP Lit throwbacks like Wuthering Heights and Julius Caesar, the latter of which has an inspired take on the phrase “the dogs of war.” And Beaton’s approach on evergreen characters—including a version of Nancy Drew with numerous ill-conceived notions of detection and a surly, embittered Wonder Woman—feel both spot-on and subversive. Longer pieces like “Nasty,” follow the belittled Lothario from the aforementioned Jackson video through numerous trials and tribulations. The piece doesn’t offer an immediate payoff—its appeal stems from Beaton’s world building and the odd turns that progress. By the time its protagonist arrives at “St. Jude’s Home For the Nasty” to find redemption, the sentiment rings as both funny and oddly touching.
That said, Step Aside, Pops still indulges in wonderfully absurd doses of pure comedy: the notion of America’s Founding Fathers wandering around a shopping mall is handled terrifically, as is a take on Cinderella in which its titular heroine and her prince bond over a shared love of bodybuilding. The series of strips about rival sea captains who share an unacknowledged bond utilizes terrific body language and facial expressions. And “House Full of Mulders”—the title should be taken very literally—blends elements from The X-Files and Pride and Prejudice into something charmingly surreal.
Beaton also dives deeper into less mainstream history in these comics. Ida B. Wells, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, Tom Longboat and Dr. Sara Josephine Baker all make cameos: slices of lives that resonate with our own time, and are conveyed in a way that feels both reverent to their significance, yet still flows with the lighter comics found elsewhere in the volume. For those who enjoyed Beaton’s first collection, this represents an expansion of an already-impressive comic voice; readers who enjoy smart, irreverent takes on history and literature will find plenty to delight in here.