Kate Beaton on CBC’s Studio Q

Hark! It's Kate Beaton on Q | CBC Books | CBC Radio

CBC Radio    |    Q    |    November 4, 2011

If you had to list the characters and situations that come up in comic strips, you'd probably mention self-aware animals, caveman scenes, beleaguered families and dysfunctional work environments. It probably wouldn't occur to you that there's comic-strip potential in former Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson, heroine Laura Secord, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the French Revolution.

But cartoonist Kate Beaton saw the possibilities. And it paid off -- her web comics are seen by more than a million people each month and her work has appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper's. Now, they are brought together in a bestselling new book called Hark! A Vagrant.

History was a natural subject for Beaton's work. It's what she studied as a student at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, and she spent her summers working in museums. "It seemed natural to take it in that direction," she told Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview. "History was what I was studying and it was what I was interested in anyway."

The humour, however, came later. She began writing a humour column for the university newspaper and found making people laugh was addictive. "It became so satisfying that I started neglecting other things in order to do that," she admitted. "It felt good to make people laugh."

Making people laugh is the challenge Beaton faces with each panel. Although her style appears spontaneous and dashed off, each panel is methodically researched and carefully drawn, as Beaton wants her entire audience to appreciate the scene and the humour within it. "You want to make a comic that's funny to someone who knows nothing about that person and to someone who knows everything about that person."

One thing Beaton doesn't struggle with, however, is finding moments in Canadian history worth capturing. She finds Canadian history "just as colourful" as American or European history despite the lack of violent conflict in our past. "Our conflicts are just different. They are no less important or intense," she said.

After all, Beaton added, "our version of independence is a lot of guys getting together and having a party, being like, 'the Queen will understand.'"

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