How Kate Beaton’s webcomics helped shape internet humor as we know it

The only reason I haven’t completely denounced the infernal circle of social media is the jokes.

I mean, I’ll deactivate my Twitter account every now and then, but I’mma keep coming back to it. Because every time I plug my brain into the Bad News Machine, I know I’m going to find something that makes me laugh. My algorithm has learned to attune to my moods: my desperate moral itch to constantly consume bad news, and the comedy of my generation.

A couple years ago, different articles were trying to crack the code for why millennial humor is so dang weird. Most writers have pinned it down to this: that we’re attuned to the terrible absurdity of our historical moment, our psyches so abusively tested that they’ve snapped, and now all it takes to make us laugh is an image with the word “STONKS.” That’s true. We’re lightyears away from the newspaper funnies of our folks. But we’re missing something. We’re missing Kate Beaton.

Kate Beaton is the creator of online webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, by now an archival site of her comedic depictions of history and pop culture. The site officially launched in 2008, when Twitter was just a baby and the greatest artists and fanfictionists of our generation were slumming it on tumblr dot com. Second only to freakin’ Homestuck, Hark! A Vagrant was by and large the American webcomic everybody knew about. Most of the other webcomics were gamer-targeted content, like Awkward Zombie (still active and still high quality), Penny Arcade (meh), and Ctrl+Alt+Del, whose induction into memedom is undeniable. Even though it likely appealed most to peeps with history degrees, Hark! A Vagrant was for everybody.

Who could forget such hits as Ooh Mister Darcy? The comic is a masterwork, nailing every single stereotype about Pride and Prejudice while providing you an easy template upon which you could place your favorite ship, and let the sheer prowess of their love rip bodices off of anyone within a 20 miles radius. Or what about “What if your wife orbits my dick?” Iconic panel. Or what about Beaton’s comic on Pope John Paul II? There’s a palpable glee that comes with reading a Hark! A Vagrant comic, the kind that makes you wanna read it out loud. Everything Kate Beaton does is a comedy chef’s kiss, from her characters’ facial expressions to the way she makes people in period outfits deploy colloquial language. I wonder what’d be going up on Hark if Kate Beaton decided to make a comic about the new Little Women movie.

 

Because of Hark I think our generation has earned, to some degree, to engage with history and popular culture in a tongue in cheek way, and boil down complex narratives and mythologies into things we can laugh at.

 

I’ve gotten so much serotonin from Hark’s brilliance that I’m practically in debt. And any extremely online Tom, Dick and Larry who’ve made being funny their personality owes a debt to Kate Beaton. Whenever somebody replies to a tweet with an apropos reaction image? Beaton’s impact. Comedic dialogue jokes on Twitter? Beaton’s impact. Those TikTok’s going around that summarize important historical events? Wouldn’t be a stretch to trace it back to my main girl Kate, who’s tackled everything from the French Revolution to Wuthering Heights.

There’s something about Kate Beaton’s work that informs modern humor discourse. I believe it’s because of her that we’ve learned to accept stoic, neutral faces that you zoom into as their own punchlines, and why some jokes are just funnier without periods at the ends of sentences. Because of Hark I think our generation has earned, to some degree, to engage with history and popular culture in a tongue in cheek way, and boil down complex narratives and mythologies into things we can laugh at.

 

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I want to say that Hark is practically a treasure trove of reaction images to save, what with Beaton’s impeccable, incomparable knack for gesture and expression, but that would be extremely reductive. And while I like to tell people that this column is about “vintage memes,” Beaton’s work has always transcended the condition of memehood, Mr Darcy with his cravat still on be damned. Hark has always been, in the years it was active, great comedy. It happened to be educational, it happened to appeal to certain niches, but it was alway great comedy. Contrary to what the devotees of Ricky Gervais and Louis CK might say, funniness isn’t about edginess. It’s about craft. If you were into Beaton, you’d get that.

This is normally the part of the column where I talk about how a meme, after some time, diffuses into the aether to become an unseen but palpable force in culture, but I do wanna do Hark like that. The thought of the passage of time is hitting me different right now as I’m writing this. Kate Beaton’s a mom now, caring for her baby and making little comics about her dad. I was in college when I got into Hark, referencing the comic with friends in the school newspaper. It’s been years. I lost people very close to me. I lost different people in different ways. If you go to Beaton’s Instagram, you’ll find some of her most recently posted comics, which are meditations of grief. They’re so jarringly personal—like watching someone pick a flavor straight from a garden to stick into a bouquet.

But laughter persists. We tell stories in order to live and we tell jokes to stay optimistic about the state of things. That’s probably why, whenever we plug our brains into the Bad News Machine, we feel the impulse to quip something clever into the void and hope some assuring chuckle echoes back. Sometimes it happens.

Tags:
#comics #culture #humor

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