Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Good heavens it's that awful velocipedestrienne"

from Hark! A Vagrant
Alternative media is distinct from its mainstream counterparts on a number of levels. The platform, content, style, message, etc. all figure into characterizing alternative media sources. One such source of media is cartoons and comics. Cartoons and comics have long been a male dominated field. That can be said about pretty much any field. However, a number of prominent women have made names for themselves in the industry: Lynda Barry, Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Hope Larson (Chiggers and Mercury), Faith Erin Hicks (Zombies Calling and the web comic Demonology 101), Hiromu Arakawa (the manga Fullmetal Alchemist), Meredith Gray (the webcomic Octopus Pie), etc. Kate Beaton's emerging webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, simultaneously illustrated in a simple and idiosyncratic style, is a fine example of an alternative media source created by and for (although not strictly) women.

Kate Beaton is a Canadian comics artist based on the web but has published books and illustrated for major publications. She has been publishing her comics independently to her blog and website since 2007 on an on-and-off basis. Since Hark! A Vagrant's inception, Beaton's drawing style has evolved. She finds inspiration in historical and literary figures, mostly from a Western perspective. Specifically, she makes comics about Canadian, American, and European history and literature. She creates her own characters as well. Her style is characterized by satire, often lewd (though not humorless) characters. Beaton's comics are uniquely lighthearted: “her comics reinvent serious issues and respectable art for a more frivolous modern era, where emotional pettiness trumps broad ideals, and self-importance keeps people from seeing just how ridiculous they are” (Robinson). Beaton's work is emphasized by her precise attention to facial expressions and absurdity.

Beaton is often vocal about sexism in her industry and is critical of mainstream representations of women and feminists. One such example is her two part parody “Strong Female Characters” comic collaboration with Carly Monardo and Meredith Gran (part 1 & part 2). In these comics, Beaton and her fellow artists explore the quite myopic view mainstream cartoonists and comics artists employ when illustrating and writing the aforementioned Strong Female Characters. These archetypes are also found in mainstream action movies. Generally a Strong Female Character will be scantily clad without the protection of proper armor, abhor feelings because they are a sign of “weakness,” and utilize femininity as a weapon. In Beaton's own words, “that trope has really gotten in, and it’s kind of accepted that these characters are awesome. They’re that type of personality-less, awful females with guns. She’s cool and she’s tough, but she has no character at all” (Robinson). What Beaton, Monardo, and Gran critique is the deceptively liberating depiction of a “strong” woman. These conflicting messages, that feelings are bad and feminine but that a woman must perform femininity to be worthy as a woman, are not the invention of mainstream media creators but continue to be perpetuated in their art.

 Another comic that made the rounds on the Internet was “Straw Feminists.” Here, Beaton makes fun of the trope seen in all types of mainstream entertainment media. The Straw Feminist trope is predicated upon the idea that feminism is a movement built on “man-hating” and advocating male subordination. The Straw Feminist is the Men's Right Activist's worst nightmare, and like Beaton's comic parodies, is not actually real or found in any feminist idealogy. If women dislike men in the current patriarchal climate, it does not mean they act on that or that they are being irrational. To argue that would remove male privilege from that context. 

Beaton is eager to educate and acknowledges that revered historical figures are often problematic (in this case, racist):
Yeah. I did a comic about Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale. [Seacole] was a black lady, and she wanted to be a nurse. And she was extremely capable but everyone was like, "I'm sorry, you're black, that's a problem." Even Florence Nightingale, who is this hero, the "lady of the lamp," was a total ass to her. It's usually that. It's usually somebody who was a woman, or a different ethnicity, in the wrong place at the wrong time, who was amazing and somebody was like, "I'm sorry but only huge, bearded white dudes allowed." (Interview Magazine)
Kate Beaton is a testament to humanities students in higher education everywhere. Although not everyone can reach the acclaim of Hark! A Vagrant, its presence is beneficial to piquing the curiosity of readers from all walks of life. This includes young women who may have felt comics and history were a “boy's club” and thus did not belong. Its educational value is especially prevalent in its didactic (though perhaps unintentionally) manner. Beaton's comics are not pretentious; they are accessible. It is for this very reason that Hark! A Vagrant has garnered so much attention. Beaton explains why her comics are a great tool for educating:
I had the notion to get a Ph.D. and become a professor of history before all this comics stuff happened, but I ended up teaching people another way. And the comics are used a lot in high- school and university classes before a lecture to get the class into it, which is amazing, because they do serve that purpose of piquing interest in a topic and making it relatable. And they’re an excellent mnemonic device as well, humor and comics. So, I really believe in the power of comics as an educational thing, even ones as silly as mine, because they’re a gateway to the actual thing. They’re like an easy entrance. (A.V. Club)
Rosalind Franklin (Hark! A Vagrant: 240)
Works Cited

Beaton, Kate. "Cartoonists on the world we live in: Kate Beaton." Guardian 20 Jul 2012, n. pag. Web. 2 Nov. 2013. < kate-beaton>.

Beaton, Kate. "About the author." Hark, a vagrant. N.p.. Web. 30 Oct 2013. <>.

Busis, Hillary. "Kate Beaton, History Girl." Interview Magazine. 28 Sep 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>

Dunn, Beth. "Interview with Kate Beaton." Beth Dunn. WordPress, 08 Sep 2009. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>.

Robinson, Tasha. "Kate Beaton | Books | Interview." A.V. Club. 14 Oct 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <,63391/>.

Shimo, Alex. "Making fun of Canadian history." Maclean's. 13 Mar 2009: n. page. Print. <>.

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