Kate Beaton is the artist behind Hark! A Vagrant, the weekly webcomic whose popularity has exploded over the last year. Her clever mix of irreverence, literary references, and detailed historical mockery obviously strikes a chord with many readers, from the hundreds that lined up for hours at TCAF to get her new book signed to her admirers at the New Yorker. Be warned: visiting the archives of her website will cost you many hours in productivity—and, strangely, create a yearning to learn a little more about history, Beaton’s favourite subject.
Beaton spoke with Torontoist’s comics columnist Dave Howard a couple of weeks ago about comic delivery, Canadian history, her own history, and her creative process.
Dave Howard: Can I ask you where you grew up?
Kate Beaton: I grew up in Mabou in Nova Scotia. It’s on Cape Breton Island.
Howard: How old were you when you left?
Beaton: I was 18, and I went to university.
Howard: You took anthropology and history at the university?
Beaton: Yeah, I did.
Howard: Can I ask what drew you to history and anthropology?
Beaton: Um, I don’t know. I think all arts undergraduates who (laughs) aren’t sure what they’re doing gravitate toward the things they find interesting. That’s what I did. I didn’t have a major plan. I was, like, “It will work out. I’ll pick…anthropology!” I told my mom it would be useful. She was like, “Uhh, I don’t know…”
Howard: And then you went on to work at some museums?
Beaton: I’ve worked at museums since I was 18 or so, as a student. Because that’s how my resume was made up, it made sense to keep building on that. I could get a job in a museum, if I applied, because of the experience. That’s just how that kept on going. I enjoyed it too.
Howard: When I’m reading your comics, I’m thinking that you love history and you love the past, I’ve been wondering if that’s your connection to working at a museum.
Beaton: Oh yeah, definitely. That’s why I kept looking for those kinds of jobs. I thought history was great. I mean, most jobs at museums don’t have anything to do with history, it’s clerical work. So, when you’re 18 you’re like, “I’m gonna work in a museum, and it’ll be amazing!” And you get there and they say, “File this.” (laughs) “File… everything.” That’s your job.
Howard: Was it part of a creative outlet of yours to draw comics, to sort of relieve the boredom?
Beaton: No, I didn’t start comics when I worked in museums, really. I’ve just done comics since I was in university. I worked at the student paper there.
Howard: Was it the kind of thing you’re doing now, sort of, random topics of whatever you wanted?
Beaton: Yeah it was. Never a focus.
Howard: You draw really well.
Beaton: Thank you very much. That’s just self-taught. I mean, even if you go to school, getting better as an artist is just doing it every day, whether you’re training or not.
Howard: Do you draw every day?
Beaton: Oh yeah.
Howard: You carry a sketchbook around, that kind of thing?
Beaton: I do. There’s one I my bag right now.
Howard: Can I ask a little bit about what drew you to comics? Were you reading other comics at the time?
Beaton: What drew me to comics was wanting to put them in the paper. We didn’t have many comics growing up, actually. There were no comic stores, I grew up in a really small town. We had, like, 1500 people. I read the newspaper comics, and I had favourites. When I thought about making comics, I thought that’s what a comic was. I just wanted to make people laugh, to be funny.
Howard: Well, that’s just it, I mean, the format you’ve created, it seems really unique to me. It’s attractive because it seems sort of off-hand and casual.
Beaton: It does, it has that look. It’s very calculated, it takes me a long time to write a strip, but when you read it, part of the delivery is that timing, that kind of bouncyness of flow, getting a punch-line in without being obvious about it. Or getting the slip on someone, to make them laugh.To make somebody laugh is a difficult thing, it takes a lot of precise steps.
Howard: Is there other comedy that you like, that you would watch or read, growing up?
Beaton: Definitely. I think my favourite humour is still Stephen Leacock, and I really like the Algonquin Roundtable type of humour; that old “1066 And All That” as well. That kind of “educated” type of humour, that doesn’t talk down to people. But then hilarious slapstick is just as good as that. I don’t know. I like a lot of different kinds of humour, just like everybody else. I like Arrested Development, and shows like that. The usual. (laughs)
Howard: I’m wondering where you get your comedic sensibility?
Beaton: I watched a lot of Monty Python as a teenager, and then, wanted to be like that, I guess. It’s hard to know. I think that, in comedy, you’re not really doing your job until it’s only your voice. It’s your uniqueness that makes you stand out. When you start out you tend to copy a lot of different people that you admired—their style and their delivery and their subjects—and then eventually, hopefully, its just you, it’s just your voice, with influences, but not lifting anything directly. That makes you stand out.
You know, I don’t really think about it, that’s the thing. I read something, I watch something and I think that’s funny, and I may kind of make a mental note about how they did it, or what I liked about it, but when I go to make something, I never think about anybody else. I can’t… it’s hard to say what it is that influences me (laughs).
Howard: You post about twice a week?
Beaton: Lately it’s been once a week, I have a lot of side work to do.
Howard: Do you still have your day job?
Beaton: No, no, it’s all cartooning. But I mean, I’m going to the office now to draw some cartoons to submit to the New Yorker; and before that I was making a poster for someone else; and then I have to make a comic for some magazine and newspaper type things. It’s a lot of work on the side, especially in the last year.
Howard: So you’re getting an income from it then?
Beaton: Oh yeah, I’ve been making a living off it since…September 2008?
Howard: That’s amazing! So you can’t get money from your webcomic directly?
Beaton: Yes I can—merchandise and books and shirts and things like that. People get the webcomic for free.
Howard: Do you have an agent?
Howard: So, how do you like submitting to the New Yorker?
Beaton: Oh it’s great. It’s a lot of work because you could submit ten things once a week for a year and have them reject it all. So, you know, you get enough rejections in a row and it’s a little, you know, defeating. But I’ve submitted every two weeks or so, and now I’ve gotten three in.
Howard: And they’ve been published?
Beaton: No, they haven’t been published. They hold on to them for about six months.
Howard: What about The Walrus? You’ve got to submit to The Walrus!
Beaton: I would be very pleased to do something for The Walrus, they’re my favourite magazine in Canada, for sure.
Howard: Can I ask a little bit about your process? What steps do you go through?
Beaton: Sure. Well first I stare at a wall… (laughs) No, really, every time I start with a blank page, so that is the biggest hurdle. Sometimes I go through anywhere up to 10 subjects before something hits, and I go “Oh, alright.” Or I think about a topic. It’s good to have something to focus on.
Howard: Well, you’re so well informed. Do you read a lot?
Beaton: Yeah, but now it seems I read a lot for work. Like, I think back to something or someone that might be interesting and I read about them until I go, “Oh, okay, I can build a joke around this,” and then I only read that part. I’m not inundated with biographies. If I had to be a scholar on every subject you’d never see any comics (laughs). I’m selective. I jot down ideas as they come. I have a file that’s constantly open, that I’m adding to, you know, you read about this here and there, or think of a subject, think of a joke. Like, the last update I made was around pirates. I find it easier to make jokes on a theme or a person. Ah, the process is different every time! It’s luck I think.
Howard: What do you draw with? Is it a wash you use for the grey tone?
Beaton: I use markers and wash.
Howard: And do you doctor it at all on the computer?
Beaton: Not really.
Howard: So tell me about being a celebrity. What do you think?
Beaton: Well, most of the time, I work at an office or in my house, and people don’t know who I am. The only time they know who I am is at comic shows. And that can get a little overwhelming. TCAF was intense, but they’re all like that. You’d like to have the time to talk to all the people that come to you, but you can’t. I’m not used to the crowds of people, and so I get overwhelmed, and lose it a bit toward the end. Not it a bad way, but it’s too much attention, too many drawings. And then you feel kind of like a jerk because, you know, people have come to see you, and you’re just like, “I’ve got to go outside or something, I need a break.”
I think it’s something I have to get used to, something I have to work on. Because I’m extremely pleased that people come and see. It would be interesting to have a line where you could actually talk to people, and give them a minute.
Howard: Are you self-publishing?
Beaton: Yeah I am.
Howard: Is that the most profitable way to go, do you think?
Beaton: Yeah, it is. For me. In the end, I’ll publish books, very likely, with publishers but for now it’s my comfort zone. I’m really new. I don’t feel like putting out a book with a publisher that I have to get behind, when I don’t think I’m there yet. You know? Artistically? I’m really new to this. I’m really glad that people like my work, but I think we’re all our own biggest critic.
Howard: I keep thinking of your work, and how people are flocking to it, people who don’t normally read comics, or webcomics. What I find I really like about it is that you talk about these historic figures, and you put this sort of modern sensibility on them.
Beaton: Some people don’t like that. Some people say, “The only thing you need to do to make one of those comics is make people talk anachronistically, and swear at each other.” But there’s more to it than that. When I read history I often think of it in modern terms because people are people, they make the same mistakes all the time. People are dicks (laughs). You know, they get married, they fall in love. It’s all the same thing, so it’s kind of easy to read it in modern terms. When you relate a story, that’s kind how you do it, too.
Howard: Who’s your favouite Canadian historic figure?
Beaton: Uh, Joseph Howe.
Howard: Oh, I’ve never heard of him.
Beaton: You’re from Ontario!
Howard: And there you go! (laughs) It’s funny because my next question is, do you think Canadians should know more about Canadian history?
Beaton: Oh yeah. Well there’s the prevailing sentiment that people find it boring.
Howard: Do you think that’s true, intrinsically? Or do you think it’s just an attitude?
Beaton: It’s and attitude, it’s not true, no. People are very dismissive about Canadian history, I think, and I think it’s great. Obviously.