Reviewing books of humor is a tricky business; whether a joke succeeds or fails is a profoundly individual matter, about as straightforward to analyze as a sneeze. For instance, for no reason either of us can entirely explain, my husband's favourite panel from a Kate Beaton comic is one of W. B. Yeats as a giant bird going "Craaa."
It's all in the delivery. And in the fact that Kate Beaton is a genius.
Step Aside, Pops is Beaton's second collection of comic strips curated from her Hark! A Vagrant website. As in her previous collection, Beaton lampoons famous moments from history and introduces her audience to little-known historical figures and events in her signature style: quick, dry, and riotously funny. But she also brings her deadpan humor to bear on pop culture old and new: from broadside ballad illustrations and Wuthering Heights to Janet Jackson videos, her commentary's as instructive as it is hilarious.
Drawn in a sketchy, minimalist, gestural way that allows her to create and share her cartoons on the fly, Beaton's work is the kind that circulates widely online, gets used as punctuation in social media and printed out as office door décor. Her strips and style become a language of their own: joking about nemeses on Twitter, I find myself reflexively reaching for links to Beaton's "Nemesis" comics to underscore my points.
There wasn't a single strip in this collection I didn't enjoy, whether with giggles, guffaws, or an amused nod of agreement — but I was especially impressed by Beaton's capacity for teaching while being equal parts funny and considerate of her subjects. Included in Step Aside, Pops are sequences introducing the reader to Tom Longboat, an Onondaga distance runner who broke records and fought for Canada during WWI; Ida B. Wells, a black American journalist and early civil rights activist; and Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, the first Chinese-American woman to receive a commercial flying license in the U.S. Reading these strips I marveled over the fact that I'd never heard of these amazing people — but marveled more at the fact that Beaton managed to tell jokes while being fiercely respectful of their struggles and achievements.
Beaton occasionally captions her comic sequences in order to clarify or situate them in her body of work. These, too, are sources of delight:
"Why do you make such esoteric history jokes?" they ask. "Why don't you make comics about things people know about, like the man who was in the first three seconds of a decades-old Janet Jackson music video? That's what the people want."
Somewhere in my heart is a folder titled Things I Did Not Know I Wanted and it is full of Kate Beaton comics.
Explaining humor is a tedious enterprise with diminishing returns, so I'll end by saying that Step Aside, Pops is fully as wonderful as Hark! A Vagrant, more so perhaps because I've read it more recently. Sharp, charming, and weird, Step Aside, Pops is a fine sampling of Beaton's work, and I can't recommend it enough.