Step Aside, Pops
Drawn & Quarterly
Back in September, Kate Beaton’s latest collection of her juggernaut webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant, won an Ignatz award for Best Anthology. It was up against Nick Drnaso’s Beverly, Sfe Monster and Taneka Stotts’ Beyond, Trina Robbins’ The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, and Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying.
Step Aside, Pops has an overtly feminist bent and collects her “Strong Female Characters,” “Straw Feminists,” “Lois Lane: Girl Report” and “Wuthering Heights” strips, along with dozens of others. Many of the strips send up famous men in history and popular culture, including Chopin, Liszt, and J. Jonah Jameson, and although “step aside, pops,” may serve as a vague rallying cry for some of them, the lack of organization in the book makes some strips feel like they were chosen at random. Take “Chopin and Liszt,” the strip that opens the collection. It’s about the famous composers and their rivalry nee friendship. Male professional friendship sure is something, huh? But while the strip is funny — obviously — it tells me little about where the volume is headed, or what I can expect from it.
This comic is preceded by a short, three panel strip about old timey men being unable to cope with even the suffragette’s most minor social rebellions — like smoking! — and it’s accompanied by a brief forward from Beaton, explaining that the name Hark! A Vagrant doesn’t mean anything and that the comic is just a collection of ideas and jokes. It’s true that Hark! isn’t about any one thing; it’s a comic about pop culture, history, feminism and silly men. At least that’s how I’d describe it. And similarly, Step Aside, Pops is about silly men and history and pop culture and and and.
Step Aside, Pops, though, is a much more definitive name than Hark! A Vagrant and the choice of Beaton’s famous cycling suffragette for the cover emphasizes a message that the collection doesn’t altogether follow through on. Or, while it does contain many comics where pops are stepping aside for suffragettes, feminists, and other assertive women, it also contains one-offs that don’t particularly contribute, either. Like “Chopin and Liszt,” “Goreys” is a funny strip about Edward Gorey doing Gorey stuff like making book covers. Unlike the comics about Beaton’s favourite revolutionaries — not all women — or favourite revolutionary fictional characters, “Goreys,” “Chopin and Liszt” and similar strips mainly serve as coffee breaks, short, punchy asides before we get back to the good stuff. But as asides, they’re momentum breaking — as funny as they are (and I don’t think there’s a single unfunny strip in the collection), I was struck more by their inclusion here than their inherent quality. “But why this comic?” I kept asking myself, each aside calling attention to logic of the collection itself, the anthologizing skill at work.
Step Aside, Pops is very funny and it will make a nice Christmas gift. But, well, is it a “best anthology?” This is what stopped me up when I read it several months ago, and what I wondered again when it won an Ignatz. What I appreciate most about Step Aside, Pops is exactly what I appreciate most about Hark! A Vagrant the webcomic: how Beaton mines history and pop culture alike for her signature wry humour; really, how she makes history and pop culture one and the same in the process. How seriously should you take famous historical figure Napoleon Bonaparte? Exactly as seriously as you should take famous pop culture figure Wonder Woman. These are both important characters, so yeah, some seriousness for sure, but you should feel free to laugh at them and the strange constructions we’ve built up around them, too. But what Step Aside, Pops doesn’t offer me, as an anthology or as a print object, is something more or different.
Reading Step Aside, Pops is much like reading Hark! A Vagrant online. You can skip around looking for your ideal Kate Beaton comic online, just like you can turn the pages of Pops when you’re not feeling it. From time to time Beaton includes explanatory notes (or extra jokes!) on her posts, and in Pops, some comics get these notes while others just… don’t. Pops is on paper while the webcomic is not; it’s limited to a particular assemblage of comics while the webcomic is not. But these differences feel more like bugs than features. The lack of a strongly carried through theme, of front and back matter too, makes Pops feels like an isolated chapter of a much longer tale, rather than a complete work in and of itself. It works, I guess, as a teaser for the webcomic, or a conversation piece rounding out the books on your coffee table, but if you just want to read some good Kate Beaton comics, you’re better off sticking with the webcomic, the complete, albeit unfinished, tale.