What can one say about Kate Beaton's new book, Step Aside, Pops? It's #3 in the New York Times list of "Graphic Hardcovers". Her previous book, Hark! A Vagrant is still on that list as well, at #8. While the phenomenon of a cartoonist achieving this much success by making jokes about classical music composers, historical figures and literary characters still utterly baffles me, it does speak to the power of word of mouth through her webcomic. Beaton has found an audience receptive to her work, and it's remarkably broad. The fact that her cartoons are excellent, erudite and hilarious is in fact a great relief and proves that sometimes, the public is right.
Overall, this volume is better than the first. It goes deeper down the rabbit hole of Beaton's imagination and makes me wish that six-strip suites featuring friends Chopin and Liszt, two egomaniacs who were big-headed in entirely ways, was expanded into a full book. Instead, Beaton goes straight to a send-up of Julius Caesar (that is entirely accurate, at the same time) and then flips to a story about Lois Lane that mocks Superman. Just when one thinks Beaton is stepping back into easy genre riffs, she unleashes a deep cut as she writes about the relationship between Maximilian (Napoleon III's appointed Emperor of Mexico) and his enemy, Benito Juarez, who eventually ordered his death. Beaton has an eye for absurd historical figures, and Maximilian was surely one of them.
Beaton's "Strong Female Characters" and "Straw Feminists" strips are some of her funniest. Beaton's scratchy line makes the absurd "brokeback' pose for the former characters even more hilarious, as tits and asses are exaggerated in ridiculous ways while the characters declare that "sexism is over!". The latter strip, with hissing, reptilian feminist figures are even better. In one strip, they say, "You don't want a training bra, little girl. You want all the men in the world to be dead." It's exactly the sort of leap in logic that anti-feminists love to make.
Other highlights include her version of "Wuthering Heights" (Beaton literally has to stop herself before the crazy events of that novel compel her to take up half the book with her gags), writing strips based on the covers of Nancy Drew novels, and putting the Founding Fathers of the US in absurd settings, like shopping malls or amusement parks. What I like best about Beaton is that all of these gags are pointed, as they frequently point out sexism and classism. At the same time, she has sympathy for some of history's crazier people, even while depicting them as nutty. The way she highlights lesser-known historical figures (especially women) is at once hilarious, educational and sad, in that these figures aren't as well-known as they should be. Beaton is a master at generating laughs through facial exaggerations and over-the-top lettering. Indeed, her lettering is a key component of her humor, especially when it's in bold. Combining the aesthetics of old-time cartoonists with modern dialect is another reason her strips are so funny; an example is when the Black Prince says "Bro I am STOKED" because after all, he is a sixteen year old. I would still dearly love to see Beaton zero in on an entire book devoted to a single parody or set of historical figures, but it's clear that letting her attention wander has still allowed her to create a fairly cohesive collection.