Love for Kate Beaton’s Colonial History Made Zany

Can a good gag comic strip remind us that history is more complicated than we think?

By Channing Kennedy Jun 10, 2011

Kate Beaton, of Hark! A Vagrant, is a Canadian-born comic artist with serious history chops. She’s very good at what she does: taking great men and women from history, sussing out their essential personalities… and rendering those personalities and personality clashes in three-panel gag comics. She is, as you’d expect, something of an internet comics celebrity.

In other hands, her technique of choice could come off as trite, or as cloying Learning-Can-Be-Fun dreck — but Beaton’s intimate knowledge of her subjects, paired with her obvious affection for them, yields more resonant results. One on level, the humanizing effects swing both ways: if great people are capable of pettiness, perhaps us petty people are capable of greatness. And, also, it’s just reassuring to see for how long people have been complaining about hipsters.

Which is why I was tickled to see her bring some colonial history to her audience with these seven strips on the relationship between Benito Juárez, president of Mexico in the 1860s, and Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who was declared (by France) to be Emperor of Mexico in 1864. Both men are fascinating in their own regard: Juarez was an indigenous man who rose from abject poverty and for whom Spanish was a second language after Zapotec, and Maximilian possessed an admirable loyalty to a nation he had no right to rule. His last words, as Juarez’ firing squad executed him, were "¡Viva Mexico!"

As folks like Ta-Nehisi Coates are fond of reminding us, we too often visit history only long enough to prove ourselves right about something, and forget that humans and clean lines never coexist. So, by reducing these men to characters, Beaton keeps them from being reduced another way, into caricatures, mere avatars for the larger political forces they now represent.

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