Newsarama interviews KATE BEATON (part 1)

Wide World of Webcomics: Parody and Humor with KATE BEATON

Newsarama    |    Zack Smith    |    August 1, 2011

Welcome back to Newsarama's Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at some of the coolest comics on the web. This time out, we're doing some in-depth interviews with some of the best strips online - starting with a two-part talk with one of the web's most popular creators.

It's hard to believe Kate Beaton only started posting comics a few years ago. Since she officially her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant! in 2008, she's become one of the most acclaimed and widely-read cartoonists online.

Hark! A Vagrant is actually a regular compilation of strips, sketches and illustrations on a particular theme, featuring Beaton's sarcastic take-downs of such literary classics as The Great Gatsby, oddball characters such as the Fat Pony, and her look at historical, ranging from well-known names like Napoleon to many figures from her native Canada.

In the past year, Beaton's become even more prolific, contributing a few stories to Marvel's Strange Tales (in addition to her occasional mockery of the likes of Wonder Woman and her recent "Strong Female Characters" with Meredith Gran and Carly Monardo), and cartoons featured by the likes of The New Yorker, Harper's and the Criterion Collection. Most significantly, Drawn & Quarterly has announced plans for a hard-copy collection of Hark! A Vagrant later this year, putting her work in the same category as some of the world's most highly-regarded cartoonists.

We phoned Beaton, who relocated from Canada to NYC recently, to talk about her work, the changes in her life, and of course, history and the Great White North. Our conversation got long enough that it stretched to two parts - can you handle this much Kate Beaton?

Newsarama: Kate, the big announcement with the strip this year has been the hard-copy collection from Drawn & Quarterly. How is that experience different from the self-published collection you did, and how do you feel the strip functions differently in that format?

Newsarama Note: This interview was done a while back, and the book is now finished.

Kate Beaton: I'm not that far into the process, so I can't fully answer that. All I've really done is sign a contract and start work on the extra content. I don't know what the reaction or sales are going to be. Different publishers have approached me over the years, and I've deflected them all, because I wasn't ready to publish a book, I didn't know anything about the industry, and I didn't have an agent.

I had to put out a new book soon, because the other book is getting old, and I had enough content to fill another one. I didn't know whether I wanted to go the self-publishing route or book publisher, but I figured at this point at what you might call my career that the publisher was the best idea.

It's books put out by publishers that get the media attention and the award nominations and those sort of things, and I'm not looking for awards or media attention, but I am looking for the next thing to do.

When you're playing it by ear in a job like this, I found myself thinking, whether I wanted to make the book myself and have it not be as nice but get a bigger cut of sales, or go with a publisher, and have it be in bookstores and have it be on shelves and in libraries. And I wanted the second; I wanted something that was really out there.

Hopefully it'll be a good idea. Drawn & Quarterly are an amazing company; they've put out beautiful books, and they've tried very hard on the part of the artists. Everyone's heard stories about bad publishing deals that didn't work out, but I've had no trouble with D&Q. They put out good products and stand behind them. And they were excited about working with me, which is another good thing.

In the end, why I went with a publisher is just because it felt like the right thing to do right now.

Nrama: What's the new material for the collection?

Beaton: It'll be about 20 new pages, new strips and things.

Nrama: Will it include the commentaries you have for the online version?

Beaton: Yeah, I've expanded a lot of them. I think they add a lot to the strips, the titles and commentaries, because a lot of what I do is referential humor, and the more you put on the page, the more helpful you might be for someone who's never heard of the topic you're talking about, and the more comfortable you can make someone about something they're not familiar with.

Nrama: It sometimes reminds me of a dry, sarcastic Schoolhouse Rock. "If you'd like to learn more about this figure, with less sarcasm and swearing..."

Beaton: Yeah! Because I don't want to just put up a comic about a historical figure that totally lampoons them and then just dances off stage. They're subjects I care about and topics I find interesting, and I find it hard not to open my big mouth after each one. But it does create a larger sense of handing out that package of something instead of a joke out of the blue that is perhaps a bit esoteric.

Nrama: It seems like these days, there's more of an emphasis on "warts-and-all" historical books...

Beaton: In the 1970s, a lot of history books started to be written from the bottom up, instead of just being a survey of kings and queens and the winners and who was in power, while ignoring the less visible people in history. People want to understand the context, and who was left out, and more than just who was king in 1679 or what have you. There's not just one history, there's lots.

Nrama: Why do you feel people sometimes tend to skim over the specifics of history, or embrace myths like, "Columbus discovered America?"

Beaton: I think it's partly out of habit, and partly what you were taught. If you were taught, "Christopher Columbus was an awesome guy and he came to America and threw a party for everybody and was rad," and you didn't read any history after school, that might be what you thought of him. Things just become ingrained, and the bad parts of history are embarrassing and incriminating.

You can see why people didn't want to talk about bad things for a long time. I'm not a historian or educator; it's hard to say why people did the things they did 50 years ago. And a lot of sources when history was initially recorded were biased; a history book written in 1880 might seem horribly racist, for example. It's only in recent years that we've had the proper educational resources that tell a bigger story and a more multi-sided story than before.

Nrama: Getting into your process - when do you feel the strip hit its stride? Reading back through the archives, I felt like around #200, your style really came together well...

Beaton: Around #200, I moved to Halifax from Toronto. In Toronto, I kind of worked on comics in my bedroom - I didn't have a real workspace. In Halifax, I made a workspace in my apartment, and then studio space, and that made a real difference.

For the first hundred or so strips...more than a hundred, really, it wasn't my job, and you see a lot of scratchy things or things I made in Microsoft Paint. I don't know if I ever had a moment where I went, "Here we are, now is where my art is where it supposed to be!", it just evolved.

I used to do longer-form strips, and now I do shorter strips. I used to have a lot of dialogue, and now I cut a lot of dialogue out. I look back at things I wrote two years ago, and I probably wouldn't write that today. Sometimes I think they're still funny, sometimes I don't, because you can't get the same thing all the time, or draw the same way all the time.

The past few months, people have written me to say there's been another shift in my art - and I can't see it. Maybe it's there, who knows?

Nrama: One thing that's been a big movement forward with the strip has been doing a series of smaller strips in each installment.

Beaton: I don't remember how that started. I'd get an idea for a six-panel strip and then have too many ideas, or you're just trying to fit too much information in. With those strips, they were just exploding out idea-wise, and I started to make a series.

I don't feel comfortable putting up just one comic if it's just three panels, or two or three comics about something as big as The Great Gatsby. You can't just make one joke, you need to make the definitive joke, as it were. When you're making jokes about a person, you're taking everything about who they were and what made up their lives and so on.

And with those longer strips, you can afford to be cute, or put less pressure on the individual strip to b extremely funny. When you have a humor comic where people come to it and expect to laugh, relying on one comic strip to do that became...harder, I think. And I found it easier to write six strips than to write one.

I like to explore a topic, and it's random every time - it's waking up and going "I want to make a comic out of this." It's what I've been reading, it's what I'm interested in, I'm always making little notes and doodling things. A strip might be based on one panel, one image that comes to mind, and building a strip around it.

Right now, I'm reading Jane Eyre, so maybe I'll make some strips on that for the book, and maybe the website too.

Nrama: You talked about doing longer stories in the past earlier - and you've said before you don't want to take time away from the strip to do a graphic novel and lose your audience and momentum. Do you still feel that way or...?

Beaton: Yep. I do. (laughs) I couldn't do a graphic novel and update my website at the same time. I mean, right now I'm producing more comics for the book and I can't keep my website schedule as I want. That's a full-time job for a year! And I don't have a story to tell that's that long, and that my skills are honed enough to do it either.

I like having things that are contained. People go, "If you like Macbeth, why don't you do six strips, and do it over six days with one strip every day?" I hate putting up something that's incomplete. I like things that are contained, things that I can finish within a reasonable amount of time, on my plate, not like a whole book.

Aside from that, I do humor, and there are not that many full-length humor story comics, I think. There are comics with humor in them, but not where it's the main point - I could do a full-length parody of Napoleon's life, maybe, but not right now.

Nrama: But is a book something you could see doing someday, years from now, perhaps?

Beaton: Yeah, sure! I don't rule anything out. Like I said, things evolve very fast. I've only been doing this a few years, and the comics I do now are very different from the ones when I began, I think. Who knows when you have the hankering to do thing - maybe I'll get really sick of doing short things and want to move on, but right now I'm content with what I have.

Nrama: I'm curious if you'd want to do, say, a profusely illustrated prose book for kids, like The Phantom Tollbooth or a Daniel Pinkwater book or something.

Beaton: I think that'd be excellent. Again, you need a story. I think about doing things for kids a lot, because it's so much fun to try to think of something they'd like. We look back so fondly on the things we enjoyed as kids, because it's so pure and nice and fun. They enjoy something because they just enjoy it to its very core. Why wouldn't you want to get in on that sweet action? (laughs) Someday, yeah, but right now I have my hands full.

Next: Kate Beaton on Strange Tales, Canada and more!

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