A casual webcomics hobbyist who earned such a devoted following that she wound up moving from her native Canada to New York to go into cartooning full time, Kate Beaton covers a broad range of topics in her strips, from Canadian historical figures and stereotypes to the adventures of a fat, oblivious Shetland pony that’s somehow gained a reputation as a warrior and an assassin. Whether she’s musing over the foibles of real people—Nikola Tesla’s devotion to celibacy, say—or putting famous literary characters into new contexts, or just being silly, her comics reinvent serious issues and respectable art for a more frivolous modern era, where emotional pettiness trumps broad ideals, and self-importance keeps people from seeing just how ridiculous they are. Beaton started showing the Internet her work in 2007, following no particular schedule, just posting sketches and cartoons on her website as the mood took her. But the unpredictability of her topics and her quirky, casual method of addressing them quickly earned her a hugely positive reputation, and her surprise success led her to find a name for her strip, create an online store to promote it, and produce print anthologies, starting with 2010’s Never Learn Anything From History. Drawn And Quarterly recently released a follow-up titled after the strip: Hark! A Vagrant. To mark the book’s release, The A.V. Club called Beaton at her Brooklyn studio to discuss why she doesn’t address contemporary politics, why writing is about rewriting, and why she regrets offhandedly becoming a poster child for feminist cartooning.
The A.V. Club: What was it like making the transition to being a full-time comics artist?
Kate Beaton: Fairly easy. I had a job, and when I left it, I thought I would just give comics a shot to see if it worked out. So it did, and I’ve been lucky. I never had a rough patch where I didn’t have a job and comics wasn’t working out. As soon as I moved into comics, I had built up the audience and everything, so I could support myself. And then it just became my job.
AVC: Do you maintain a separate studio space?
KB: Yes, I do. I share a studio with a couple of other comic artists in Greenpoint. Because working at home is hard. It tends to give you bad habits. It feels more like you’re going to work when you get up in the morning and leave your house and go somewhere. You really get in that mindset that helps you be more productive.
AVC: You weren’t one of those people who, at age 6, realized that you wanted to be a comics artist for a living.
KB: Yeah, not really. I really wanted to be an animator when I was a kid. I thought that would be great, ’cause everybody loves Disney and all those things. [Laughs.] When you’re little and you can draw, you see, like, three jobs that maybe you could do, and that’s one of them.
AVC: At what point did you decide you wanted to start doing a regular comic strip?
KB: 2007, it was. I had been doing them and putting them on Facebook for friends to see, and then I got such a good response and encouragement from people to do my own website. So I just did, and never really looked back.
AVC: The name Hark! A Vagrant came from one of your 2007 strips, but what made you decide on that as the title for the strip itself?
KB: Oh, just ’cause I’m terrible at thinking up names. I needed something, anything, so I chose that for arbitrary reasons, and I’ve been kind of stuck with it. I regret it a little bit, ’cause I always have to repeat it whenever I tell it to someone who’s unfamiliar. Which is not necessarily a sign that you’ve got something good going on, if you have to repeat it every time.
AVC: Do you have to explain the title? Do people ask, “How does this sum up the themes of your work?”
KB: No, they never ask that. They just go, “What?” ’Cause they don’t hear it right. [Laughs.] ’Cause it’s weird.
AVC: What determined which strips went into this book collection?
KB: It’s mostly just a collection of the strips that were on the site since the publication of the last book. There’s a few that aren’t, but not many. Those are usually more rough ones that weren’t official updates; they were sketches or something.
AVC: You tend to vary a lot in style, all the way from crude MS Paint doodles to fully shaded, intricate drawings.
KB: Yeah, but I haven’t done the MS Paint things in so long, I don’t even really think about them. They were just something I would do on my lunch break at my old job. But yeah, I do a lot of different things, ’cause doing the same thing all the time is boring. [Laughs.] You get really sick of it really fast. Some people can do it all the time, but I’m not one of those people. In order to stay creative, I really need to keep doing different things.
AVC: When you do a strip about your family on Twitter, it’s just a series of quick sketches, while the book strips are more visually complicated. Does that represent the time you spend processing or planning the strips as well as drawing them?
KB: No, not at all. The things that I put up on Twitter are kind of a different animal, but they all come from the same place, which is that I just want to put things down on paper, and I tell stories best if I draw them. And they’re crude, but they’re meant to be crude. I don’t want to make a graphic novel about my family, but I do want to share these moments that are very lifelike and funny and endearing and very human, I suppose. A bit more down-to-earth than the things I normally do.
AVC: One of your comics that sticks with me most is an MS Paint drawing of a really crude stick figure with the caption, “Whoops, I am a lady on the Internet. My bad.”
KB: Oh, yeah. I kind of regret making that because… Well, I don’t regret making it, but when I first started doing comics, there would be… You have to get used to the Internet. It’s not the best place to play ball a lot of the time. [Laughs.] It has its own set of rules, and I really wasn’t versed in a lot of Internet culture, I suppose. And yeah, there are things that are surprising. There’s a lot to get used to, because anybody’s on the Internet saying whatever they want. It was weird to be singled out as a woman, or whatever, when I first began. And I made comics about it. They were very honest. I was just like, “Wow, this is crazy. Why would anyone care [that I’m a woman]?” And then [the comic] got brought up in every interview. [Laughs.] Not every interview, but quite a bit, as if I’m constantly railing against Internet society, or whatever, and I’m not. It was 2007 when I made that, and I was just like, “Wow, this is pretty nuts,” and I made a comic. And when you put something on the Internet, it’s there forever, so sometimes people have the impression that I’m just constantly fighting for my Internet life. [Laughs.]
AVC: Isn’t it possible that one of the reasons it gets brought up all the time is that it simply, directly expresses something that many people have experienced?
KB: Yeah, but I dislike being the poster child for that. [Laughs.] A lot of people experience it, and a lot of people don’t say anything, ’cause it’s a hassle, man. It’s a hassle to always have it brought up. I’ve done a lot of interviews for this book, and “representations of females” comes up in every single one of them. And it’s not a bad thing, it’s just that you put a comment or two out there and then your name is the go-to for any of those types of topics, and it’s kind of strange. But like I said, it’s not a bad thing. I just feel like I’ve been talking about it quite a bit these past couple days. [Laughs.]
AVC: The Strong Female Characters comics you did with some friends recently—
KB: Oh yeah, they’re fun.
AVC: They directly parody a certain kind of wearying sexism in comics and film that’s been in the news again lately.
KB: Oh, very much so. Yeah, I became versed in comic culture and stuff a lot when I began, ’cause I was kind of unfamiliar with a lot of it. And it’s been really fun to learn about, but then there’s the good and the bad. That’s a better way to go about making a comment about that kind of thing than that original stickman cartoon, which was just like, “There it is.” [Laughs.] “Strong Female Characters” [has] a comment and a joke. It’s the mark of a cartoonist who’s grown into herself a bit more [Laughs.] But that was really fun to make. We each made a character—Meredith Gran, Carly Monardo, and myself—and we tried to outdo each other in making it the most terrible thing. [Laughs.] But some people think that they’re serious, and that they actually kick ass. We were like, “Draw some fan art,” and you saw some fan art where they’re like, “Strong Female Characters kicking butt!” And we’re like, “No. No, they’re just awful.” [Laughs.] “They’re a joke, they’re terrible.” But yeah, that trope has really gotten in, and it’s kind of accepted that these characters are awesome. They’re that type of personality-less, awful females with guns. She’s cool and she’s tough, but she has no character at all.
AVC: Getting back to the book, when you see a bunch of your strips together like this, clearer themes develop. Did anything stand out to you particularly in the process of putting the book together?
KB: Oh, I don’t know. No, the collection actually probably comes more over a period of relative change than any kind of sticking-to-one-thing-and-going-with-it. And that’s not—a certain percentage is about books, and a certain percentage is history. It’s not, like, way out to sea. But in changes in format and approach and everything, I’m still new, and every year, the comic looks a bit different than it did the year before. My body of work is not totally grown into itself yet, I suppose. So the book is kind of mixed-up, date-wise. You don’t really see it progress, because the strips are jumbled, but if it was, you probably would notice changes and patterns and things.
AVC: For a lot of us who’ve been following you since fairly early, one of the things that’s always been interesting about the strip is that it has such a particular, unusual, specific voice.
KB: [Laughs.] You really need to develop that voice, I think, in order to get good. And to be funny. There’s a certain amount of humor out there that’s kind of prescribed. And that’s fine, but the funniest stuff out there is the most unique voices, really. And hopefully, I’ll keep figuring mine out. [Laughs.] I try to be funny. You don’t win every time.
AVC: One of the distinctive things about that voice is the way you don’t use periods, which gives a lot of the dialogue in Hark! A Vagrant an open-ended, airy feel. Was that a conscious decision from the beginning?
KB: No. Well, I mean it was, ’cause that’s the way I just did it, but it wasn’t like, “This’ll be funnier if I take out all the periods.” It was more like, when I wrote it out, penciling it, what sounded funniest in my head. You read it out loud in your head, and then ink it the way you think will work the best, just going for humor. And that happened to be one of the things I did that made things funnier, but I never really thought about it. I just thought about each individual strip like, “What am I gonna do to make this the funniest that I can?” And I guess that’s something I got known for. People started pointing it out in reviews and things, and I was like, “Oh yeah.” [Laughs.] ’Cause I don’t have a lot of punctuation. But it wasn’t a strategic move; it was just what I did.
AVC: You do a lot of strips about jealousy and resentment and frustration. There’s a lot of pouting and glowering and weeping. What in particular draws you to those emotions?
KB: That’s just such a good go-to area. Nothing funny about happy people. I don’t know, you just look at a situation or a life, and you can kind of pick up the areas of conflict and delve in there, because that’s where the most story is. If someone’s happily married for 20 years, that’s great, but it’s not that funny. [Laughs.] Usually, those areas of arguing and clashing are also how the changes in society happen, and in people’s lives. They’re not only an interesting part of their life, but they’re the things that feed more into historical importance than anything else. So, you disagree with the church and you’re gonna break off? [Laughs.] Well, that’s a big deal. More so than just being Pope for 20 years.
AVC: You also tend to reduce those big emotions to a childlike absurdity, with Napoleon crying and stuffing his face with cookies, or a pirate mooning over his nemesis like a lover. You don’t really do contemporary strips, but do you see that same kind of comic pettiness in present politicians or literary figures?
KB: Oh, yeah. Sure. But it’s hard to distill it until later, when you have all that amazing benefit of hindsight and other people’s research to read. [Laughs.] To make sure you have all your ducks in order. I think that if I approached a modern thing, I would find it a little hard, because the more recent it is, the more convoluted the stories are, [with] different opinions. And there’s no particular narrative just yet. I could make a comic about George W. Bush, but I don’t think I would do a very good job, ’cause we really have yet to see a lot of the effect that he had, long-term. And so it’s harder to make a longstanding joke about that kind of thing, I think. A modern figure. And besides, I wouldn’t want to make anything that would get forwarded to that person. I’d feel weird. [Laughs.]
AVC: If you did strips about Bush, you’d also have to contend with the political polarization in society right now.
KB: Yeah, he’s a polarizing figure. For some reason, if you make fun of an author like Hemingway, it’s all in good fun, but if I made a comic strip about Michael Ondaatje, it would be like, “Why are you making fun of Michael Ondaatje?” [Laughs.] So I don’t know.
AVC: People are still very precise about their history and about interpretations of history. You’ve mentioned the emails that you occasionally get with subject lines that start off, “Actually…”
KB: Yeah, there’s a lot of those. There’s a lot of pedantic folks. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you still get a lot of corrections and commentary? “Napoleon would neither buy nor eat cookies” kind of stuff?
KB: Yeah. I try to circumvent that by acknowledging when I’m anachronistic, and it’s not super-obvious. If some things are super-obvious, you really don’t have to point out “This never happened.” [Laughs.] But sometimes you do. It’s annoying when someone emails you something being like, “I’d just like to explain…” and it’s something that you already know, and you just want to write back, “I know. I know.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you interact with those fans?
KB: No, not usually. I get so many emails that I can’t answer them. So I’m not usually gonna answer the ones that are just telling me something I already am aware of. And I hope that they know that if I’m researching something, then I probably have a good grasp on it before I make the comics. Sometimes you sacrifice things for the sake of a joke, but I’m a stickler for history, too, so I understand. I understand that idea of wanting to make sure that everything’s right.
AVC: You were a history major. Do you still read history for fun?
KB: I do, yeah. I pick up books every now and then. The only problem is, I pick up books and I don’t read them, because if I do reading, it’s for a comic. But I will. I will probably pick up the second half of John A. Macdonald’s biography, which comes out this year. [Laughs.] Because I think he’s a fascinating guy. [Macdonald was the first prime minister of Canada. —ed.] I read so much, but it’s always for comics, and there’s not much time in between to just settle down and start reading something for yourself. Recently, I started reading that Game Of Thrones that everybody was reading. It’s kind of a quick and fun read. And that was really nice, because I made time to read something that wasn’t for comics. Reading history for fun will turn my brain into, “How do you make this into a comic?” and then it turns into work. [Laughs.] There’s dangerous waters there.
AVC: I’d love to see the Kate Beaton take on A Game Of Thrones. And that’s at least somewhat less polarizing than politics. You do a lot of literary strips—would you ever consider one about contemporary literature?
KB: [Laughs.] Oh, no. No. I like doing literature that’s popular, that a lot of people have read or know about, so Game Of Thrones does fit into there. I did do a couple drawings and put them on Twitter, and they get good reactions. But I feel like, for a while, everybody was doing Game Of Thrones something or other, so I just sort of stayed out of there. And besides, you could hardly do a comic about that without spoiling it, because someone new dies every chapter. [Laughs.] It’s like Game Of Massacres. And you wouldn’t want to ruin that for anybody.
AVC: You do the occasional strip about something like the sack of the Lindisfarne Monastery, but mostly, your historical strips tend to focus on the past few hundred years. Is that just a more interesting period for you?
KB: Yeah, it always has been my main focus, I guess, just because it’s what I know the most about. Everybody’s got a favorite era, and I suppose that’s mine, the 18th and 19th centuries, for sure. I just like them. But you put up something from medieval times, and medievalists go crazy, they love it. So I try to diversify things so everybody gets something they like eventually. [Laughs.] Something that’s their favorite. There’s nothing better than giving somebody something that’s their favorite topic or their favorite person, or anything.
AVC: Is there more pull for you to address something popular that you know a lot of people are going to be familiar with, or to go for that little nichey thing that one scholar is going to go over the moon for?
KB: I try to do a bit of a tossup there. [Laughs.] That if one update is fairly obscure, the next update would be fairly popular, so that you don’t keep anybody at arm’s length for too long. I have a diverse audience, which is great, because I like doing things that are a bit more obscure, and I love doing things that are very popular as well. Each has its own bit of joy. So I try to mix it up.
AVC: It sounds like you rarely do formal strips just because you already happen to be reading about the topic.
KB: I go for things that I think are interesting. I never go for something because I’m like, “They’ll like this, so I better do it.” It’s, “I’m interested in this, so I’m gonna read about it.” And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a comic out of it. Sometimes you don’t. It’s all stuff I’m actually interested in. If I wasn’t, I think you’d be able to tell somehow.
AVC: How does the comics creation process start, then?
KB: Oh, I just read all the time, looking at different things. I keep an open notebook with just names. I come across a name and I’ll write it down and come back to it later, just to remind myself. It’s a system of just constantly looking and reading and thinking about it. I feel like you’re never really off the clock. [Laughs.]
AVC: Once you have your idea of who you want to do a strip about and what the content is, what’s the process like from there? Do you script first? Do you sketch first?
KB: Oh, script first, for sure. I won’t start drawing—if I’m doing a series of six comics or something—until I have three solid ideas. And then I can start drawing, and then, maybe, the process of doing that will feed into your brain and give you inspiration for more. Sometimes, you just need one more comic and it’s not coming, and then when you finally get it, it’s everyone’s favorite. That happens all the time. Because whatever comes out is a product of the strange madness that you’ve been going through for four days, reading and searching and hoping, and just devouring nothing but this topic. And that’s great when it happens. Sometimes, I count on it. Sometimes, I’m like, “It’s okay. A few of these are kind of duds, but there’ll be one that’s just amazing.” [Laughs.]
AVC: If you have one that you think is a dud, are you the kind of artist who will rework it and rework it, and bash your head against it, or do you just toss it out there?
KB: No, good writing is writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I’ve heard that before. Sometimes, it happens to work right away, and that’s amazing. But most of the time, it happens to work, and then you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and maybe it even comes back to the thing it was in the first place, but then you know for sure that it is good, and it’s what you wanted to do. I don’t spend as much time drawing as I do writing and reading. That’s the really work-intensive part. And by the time I have enough material, it’s often way past due time to put the comic up, and I’m already behind schedule, and I have to kind of rush it. That’s just the way that it’s been for a while, and I wish that I could change that schedule, but it seems to be what I have right now.
AVC: Is there a conscious educational component to your comics? Do you do comics in hopes that people will go out and learn more about the historical or literary figures you’re writing about?
KB: In a certain way, you can’t help but educate, because if you’re making a comic about something people don’t know about, then they know about it afterward. [Laughs.] That’s as simple as education gets. So there is that. And because, knowing that not everyone’s gonna know what you’re talking about, you have to have some explanation, you have to have some exposition there, you just do it. And a lot of people enjoy that a lot about the comic, finding things that they didn’t know very well before. And I enjoy that, as well.
I had the notion to get a Ph.D. and become a professor of history before all this comics stuff happened, but I ended up teaching people another way. And the comics are used a lot in high-school and university classes before a lecture to get the class into it, which is amazing, because they do serve that purpose of piquing interest in a topic and making it relatable. And they’re an excellent mnemonic device as well, humor and comics. So, I really believe in the power of comics as an educational thing, even ones as silly as mine, because they’re a gateway to the actual thing. They’re like an easy entrance.
AVC: Have you ever thought about combining the interest in history and the educational value, and the interest in being a professor? Could you see yourself doing a long-form historical work?
KB: Oh, like Louis Riel? Possibly. I don’t think about it, because there’s always something else new coming up. And I haven’t really perfected what I’m doing right now, either. I sort of fiddle around with things, and I just don’t have those skills to tell a longer story yet. Maybe sometime, but not anytime soon, probably.
AVC: You often talk about how you’re fiddling around, developing your voice. What are the pressures involved in developing your art in public, with everyone watching and critiquing?
KB: Well, it’s just all that I’ve had, really. I went from drawing without anybody seeing it ever in high school, to doing comics for the school paper, to doing this. I suppose it’s gradual enough, your audience, that you don’t really think about it. It used to bother me a bit, because I’d be like, “I really don’t have the skills,” and everyone sees your growing pains as you try new things. [Laughs.] But I never really let that get to me. I’m just aware of it.
AVC: So much of your early work, right down to those MS Paint drawings, is still on your website. Have you ever been tempted to go back and curate, and remove some of that stuff?
KB: Oh, I already have. There’s stuff in there that’s gone. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you get involved with The New Yorker? Did they come to you, or did you go to them?
KB: No, you have to submit to them. You give them packages. The New Yorker doesn’t come to anybody, not even the people who’ve been published there for 20 years. You have to submit, and you just keep doing it until they buy one.
AVC: What’s it like doing comics for them?
KB: It’s just a different audience—and by “audience,” I mean the New Yorker editor who buys your comic or doesn’t, and he’s the guy you want to really impress. I could do anything I wanted on my site, but I just wanted to get in somewhere where an editor said, “This is good enough,” or, “This is not good enough.” There’s a certain New Yorker sensibility, style, sense of humor, that I thought about when I was making them, like, “I want this to look like a New Yorker cartoon.” And I thought that’s how I should go about it. I didn’t write them, Sam Means wrote them, and I drew them. We had a partnership. But recently, I was on a panel with Roz Chast. She’s amazing, and she was like, “You shouldn’t adhere to any style, you should just do what you wanna do. You shouldn’t make it look like a New Yorker cartoon, you should make it look like yours.” Which I never really considered. [Laughs.] I mean, The New Yorker’s kind of an institution. But she probably is right. I enjoyed doing it, but maybe I would enjoy it more if I had stuck to my own sensibilities more. I don’t know.
AVC: You also got involved in Marvel Comics’ Strange Tales collection. You said recently that you don’t really know that much about superheroes.
KB: Well, I read about them. I didn’t know much about them when I started. I feel like I have an okay grasp now, ’cause I’ve read up on them. I think they’re interesting. I think the culture around them is interesting, and the whole thing.
AVC: Did you end up researching the X-Men and Kraven The Hunter like you’d research historical figures?
KB: Yeah, basically. It’s the same thing. You research the character and the relationship that readers have to the character. The world around it is more important than the thing itself sometimes. Or they go hand-in-hand. A lot of the ways that I like to approach comic books, or anything like that, is not just the book itself, but the fans of it, the readers, the world that exists around it as a cultural object.