Kate Beaton’s web comic Hark! A Vagrant, includes a strip about Jane Austen that made me spit coffee all over my dorm room the first time I read it. I never really paid attention in history class (it was boring memorizing all those dates and names of people I couldn’t tell apart), but as I poked around her website, I started to read comics about historical figures. There was Queen Elizabeth I and her giant neck ruffs and Nikola Tesla, the Dreamboat Scientist. Hark! A Vagrant taught me a version of history full of vibrant characters and stories I hadn’t learned at school.
Her latest collection of comics, Step Aside, Pops, published by Drawn and Quarterly, features the founding fathers getting stuck in an amusement park, and fascinating people—largely left out of our history textbooks—who are just waiting for us to become obsessed with them.
ANNA FITZPATRICK: What were you like in high school?
KATE BEATON: I was one of those kids who was neither popular nor unpopular. I kind of kept to myself. I had friends, but I could have sat at any table without fully belonging to any of them. People knew me as smart and as an artist. My older sister was probably the most popular girl at the school, so I was also kind of in her shadow all the time. I was “Becky’s Sister,” I didn’t have a name.
When did you start developing that identity as an artist?
Probably grade two. I was tagged as the one who could draw early on. I loved that identity, and it was what I wanted to do. It was easier to stick out when the same people put their art projects on the wall. I knew that I had a talent, and they knew I really really enjoyed it.
When did you start getting into history?
Also early on. I’m from Cape Breton, and I’m from a very Scottish part of Cape Breton. History is embedded in our identity because Gaelic is still taught there, and people pick up all of the traditional arts, like music and dance. You learn that you have a heritage, and that means a lot to people.
What books were you reading in high school?
I got my hands on whatever I could. The library was small, and the bookmobile would show up every month—like a van full of books and you’d just kind of sit there pick what was in there. I remember trying to overshoot my scale at the time and I’d pick up stuff like [James Joyce’s] Ulysses and be like, “I have no idea what is going on.” But then reading stuff like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, I think I was too young to understand that one, too, but I enjoyed the book. If I would find something that was like, “Oh that’s a classic,” I would read it, like The Color Purple [by Alice Walker]. I had read The Hobbit in ninth grade, and then in 11th grade I found out that The Lord of the Rings existed. I didn’t know that it was a prequel. I didn’t know there were three more books, and they were giant, so that was exciting. It seems kind of crazy not to have known that Lord of the Rings existed, but it was a rural, internet-less place.
I remember reading a book called Byzantium I really liked. It was always these random books that were around. Byzantium was about a monk who travelled with a bunch of Vikings into the city, and he’d been captured by them. I was really enthralled by that one. I have no idea who wrote it. I have no idea if it’s good or not. I just remember liking it.
It’s almost scary revisiting the things you loved as a kid because you don’t know if they were actually good or if you just remember them being good.
Yeah, I’ll pick it up and think, “Oh this book is way too Christian,” or something that I would not have even batted an eye at. Who knows? I mean, it’s about a monk. Maybe it is, I don’t know.
Your new book, when compared to your previous collection Hark! A Vagrant, has a lot more obscure historical and literary references. Was there more research involved in this one?
For sure. The longer I do comics, the more research goes into them. The more that you go outside the realm of what most people know, the more work you have to put in to get the exposition in there so that people will actually enjoy it if they don’t know anything about it. I can make a comic about Ben[jamin] Franklin’s personality because we all kind of have a general idea—I don’t need to explain who he is or what time it is, or anything else about him. With other guys, you can’t just drop a personality quirk onto the page when people have no idea who it is. There’s more work involved in setting it up so people feel comfortable with the character.
Were all of the figures in the new book people you already knew about?
I discovered new people along the way—I always am, I always did before. I didn’t know anything about Ida B. Wells until maybe 2009? And then when I found out about her, it pretty much blew my mind. There are so many people who are overlooked. There’s only room in the history books for so many people, and they’re usually going to be some white guys. As soon as you start opening that can of worms with everybody else, there are going to be all kinds of people that jump out at you.
Were there any people who had to be cut from this book?
The Anne of Cleves Gables joke didn’t make it into the book. It’s either people’s favorite, because they get the stupid pun that it makes, or they’re like, “I don’t understand this one at all.” It’s a mashup of Anne of Cleves and Anne of Green Gables.
[In Anne of Green Gables] Anne shows up as an orphan and is all starry-eyed about how she’s going to be accepted. Then the Cuthberts are like, “No, we wanted a boy,” but they learn to get along anyway. And when Anne of Cleves shows up [in England] from Germany, and she’s all starry-eyed, she’s going to be the queen of England, but then Henry is like, “You’re ugly.” [Laughs]
They were both these focal, cool characters who were not what the person they came for wanted, so it was kind of a fun segment to mash-up. Of all the wives, a lot of people like Anne of Cleves the best because she had a good head on her shoulders. She was just from a totally different culture. She showed up and [Henry VIII] didn’t want her, but she didn’t die; she got to live in a party palace and be the King’s sister. There was a lot of disappointment in that, but I feel like she’s kind of an underdog. You root for her. I hope she was happy.
When you started making Hark! a Vagrant, you had a day job at a museum. Now you’re making cartoons full time—what are your work days like?
It’s different all the time. I wish I was one of those people who were like, “I start work at nine,” you know, “lunch time is this, and then the bell rings.” I feel like I’m always behind. I work all the time. It’s exhausting stuff, sometimes, to be a creative person. I can’t take a day off without feeling immense guilt for it, because no one else pays the bills for me, and then you’re always kind of scared that if you slack off that’s the end. But there are a lot of really amazing things about being a creative person. There’s a lot of freedom. There are a lot of ways in which my life is very charmed. I’ve been trying to normalize things things recently; I realize my constant work is getting out of hand.
What happens when you try to get to work, and you’re just stuck for ideas? How do you get through that?
That happens to me all the time. One of the things about the comic is that whenever there’s an update, it’s a relief, but then there’s another blank page. I have different methods for trying to jog my brain into action, and a lot of it is just reading and absorbing material, and seeing if something clicks, and then going down that avenue hard.
I put on documentaries when I’m working. There are a bunch on YouTube—just go to YouTube and search for BBC documentaries and set the time for more than 20 minutes, and then shitloads pop up.
And you just play them in the background? Or do you learn something when you put them on?
Yeah! It can be a stupid thing to do when you’re trying to work and you’re like, “Oh, I wonder what did happen?” and then you just end up watching the documentary. So I got into podcasts. I listen to WTF with Marc Maron, or This American Life. I like a mix.
Who are some contemporary cartoonists and illustrators that you’re into right now?
Meredith Gran makes amazing comics. Jillian Tamaki, she’s fantastic. Anything she touches turns to gold. Emily Carroll is also at the top of the list. Eleanor Davis is amazing. I’m very excited for Laura Park‘s new book to come out. There’s a whole bunch.
You also had a kid’s book, The Princess and the Pony, that came out this summer. How did that come about?
I pitched the idea, and then we had to edit it a lot. It was harder than I thought it was going to be.
That pony character has been around in your work for a while. Is it the same pony, or do you have a little stable of ponies that you work from?
It’s the same pony all the way through. It’s just one character I’ve had that stuck around. There’s no accounting for it really, people liked it so it stayed. He definitely gets rounder, more of a perfect little round ball.
I’m trying to find a good wrap-up question that will poignantly reflect on everything we talked about, while also leaving it open ended for the future, but all I really want to know is: Is there any book you’re reading right now that you’re into?
I have these books that I’m like “I can’t wait to read them!” but I haven’t even gotten around to starting them yet. I put one in my bag to read on the plane and I came here and I realized that I forgot it. I just picked up Jack Handey‘s book about Honolulu?
YES! The Stench of Honolulu ! I didn’t mean to yell, I just really love that one.
I’ve been meaning to read it for a really long time.
Every line in that book is so funny. I reread it maybe once a month.
You look at some humorists and like, Jack Handey. No one can be him. And his humor is kind and clear, you know? You don’t read it and feel like—there’s no snark in it. It’s just like pure comedy. It’s so lovely to read.
He plays this persona so well of this guy who’s dopey and well-meaning and just doesn’t get it, and the joke is always on him. He’s so good.
Oh man. I’m so excited to read it. ♦