'Hark!': From DNA To JFK, A Comic Take On History Joe Kennedy lectures burping baby Ted on political ambition while teenagers Joe Jr. and John wrestle for the presidency. Cartoonist Kate Beaton irreverently recasts history and classic literature in her new book, Hark! A Vagrant.

'Hark!': From DNA To JFK, A Comic Take On History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140804195/140909595" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Let me tell you about Matthew Henson. Some historians say he was the first explorer to set foot on the North Pole. But he happened to be black and the year was 1909, so as you can imagine, the credit went to his white companion, Robert Peary, even though he wasn't really able to set foot on the North Pole.

KATE BEATON: Something had happened to him, like may be just worn down by cold, and he was kind of driven the last bit of the way, I think, by Henson.

GREENE: By Henson, the black man, who does eventually get his revenge in a comic strip by Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton. As Beaton retells this story, the white explorer, Robert Peary, demands that his black associate help him from the sled so he can stand on the North Pole and get all the glory. But Henson refuses. He stands there gloating: Man, it's pretty nice being on the North Pole. Going to do some squats on the North Pole, feels good.

And that's just one example of the way historical events like this get rewritten in "Hark! A Vagrant," Kate Beaton's new book. And Kate joined us from New York.

Something that hooked you clearly with the Kennedy dynasty, as it were...

BEATON: Hooked the Kennedys, amazing.

GREENE: Yeah. One of your strips: One of you will do it, by God. And it's Joe Kennedy...

BEATON: One of them.


GREENE: ...basically trying to get his sons to understand that that one of them must be the president.

BEATON: Yeah, the Kennedys are fascinating because I'm Canadian and this is like a big American thing, and they're such a big part of the culture around here, of, like, celebrity and politics, and all of that. So they really fascinates me, and that drive that they all had to go and to succeed and to push - that all came from their father - is really fascinating to see.

GREENE: By the end of the strip you have father Joe Kennedy looking down at Ted Kennedy and...

BEATON: He's just a baby.

GREENE: ...not a lot of drive.


BEATON: No, he's just a baby. It's just that the joke is that he's the, you know, the over expecting father who's expecting way too much.

GREENE: Ted is a little baby on the floor, burping...

BEATON: Yeah. Yeah.

GREENE: ...and that is saying: Ted, what about you? What are your ambitions?


BEATON: Ted doesn't know.

GREENE: Have you ever crossed the line? I mean have you gone too far and had family or a historian call and say, you know, Kate, that was just disrespectful and wrong?

BEATON: Well, that's the reason I often stay away from very modern things. A certain amount of time passes and then you're allowed to get in there and get a little dirty, with some things and people don't mind. But if I take something, you know, from the past 50 years there are still people who would, you know, this needs to be treated with respect and then they get a little sore at stuff.

And I totally understand. I don't know - we can make fun of Napoleon. He was an awful man who killed all kinds of people...


GREENE: And he can't call you and complain.

BEATON: Yeah, and if Napoleon existed 20 years ago, instead, people would be like how could you belittle this...


BEATON: ...awful, awful man and the things they did.

GREENE: You do cartoons for The New Yorker.

BEATON: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: Is there a different process when you're working with, you know, such a reputable magazine, as opposed to your own website where I - I guess it's, you know, you feel less constrained?

BEATON: I wanted to do The New Yorker cartoons because I had these comics on the Internet and you could just put them up and no one was going to tell you no. And I really wanted to do something where you had to be good enough to get in.

I can get away with a lot in a comic strip, with speech balloons coming from people's mouths, more so than I can get away with a one-shot pan over where you have to be very concise and very clear about what's going on. And I learned that I, you know, composition wise and everything, it has to be very clear.

GREENE: Kate, tell me about this format. What can you do in comics and cartoons that you just can't do anywhere else?

BEATON: Oh, gosh. The magical thing about comics is that they are neither just art or writing, they're both at the same time. And that's a huge thing that you could say so much with a few words and a gesture and expression, or the shading or the mood or the lighting, or whatever. And I don't know if I'd be a very good artist on my own. Or I don't know if I'd be a very good writer. But comics seem to suit me just fine.

GREENE: When you delve into this subject of Canada...


GREENE: Thank you, by the way, because you give us this guide.


GREENE: You put the spaces with the names. And no offense to the country of Canada, but I had no idea who these people were...


GREENE: ...these Canadians luminaries.

BEATON: Oh, that's fine.

GREENE: And I guess as people read your book, do they need to know who the historical figures are? Is it better if they don't know and they look it up on their own?

BEATON: I get a lot of comments from people who say part of the fun of reading the comics that I make is coming across a historical figure, or something that they had not known before, and then looking it up and being happy to have learned that, and to have learned about them and everything. And I've felt the same, because sometimes people have sent me suggestions. You know, why don't you look this person up?

And I've felt the same because sometimes people would send me suggestions. You know, why don't you look this person up? Like did a comic about Rosalind Franklin, and I hadn't heard of her before. And somebody suggested that I look her up, so I did and I was all the more richer because I did.

GREENE: And who is she? What did you learn?

BEATON: She was a researcher, along with Watson and Crick, who discovered DNA breakthroughs. And her discovery was sort of eaten up by them...


BEATON: ...was put into their research when they put out their big DNA book. And that was immense, that was a huge thing. And she just sort of got shuffled off because they didn't acknowledge or work. And the double helix, that was her contribution.

GREENE: You have these little descriptions at the bottom that kind of help people along. And I'm reading from the bottom of that strip: The trouble with reading about any given woman who was born before your mom is that yet sometimes they were hilarious, powerful, tough, loud, et cetera, et cetera, all good comic making material. But then sometimes, man, the main thing about them is that they just got screwed big time.


BEATON: Yeah, ?cause as soon as I put that strip up, people - I got so many emails that were like please make a comic about this woman, she was amazing and her work was stolen and never credited. And that seemed to happen all the time. And it's nice to celebrate that person - that person who was left out.

And people really want to be on their side. You know, Rosalind Franklin has so many fans now, especially among young women who go into the sciences and have these heroes to look up for. And they're furious that they've been left out of the narrative. You know?

GREENE: You do seem to be fighting for people who are left out of that historic narrative, in a way.

BEATON: But I don't always. You know, I make a lot of comics about the big, blustering white men.


BEATON: They're fun, too. And more people know they are. It's nice to make a comic and put it up and have it - have more people be in on the joke right away. You know? If you make a comic about Napoleon, everybody knows who he is.

GREENE: That's Kate Beaton. She is the author of the new book "Hark! A Vagrant."

Thanks, Kate.

BEATON: Yeah, thanks.


GREENE: You can read some of Kate Beaton's comic strips at our Web site, NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.