Toro Magazine | Barry Chong | September 20, 2012
Toro Magazine interviews Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton is an unusual success. Not often do you see a young, female Canadian rise to the top of the comics world. After literally drawing her way out of Mabou, Nova Scotia, Beaton spent several years producing her web series, Hark! A Vagrant, culminating in the publication of her 2011 book of the same name. Her work has since appeared in publications like The New Yorker and The Walrus.
Now living in Toronto after a stint in New York City, TORO caught up with Beaton as she prepared for her show at JFL42. She talked to us about “performing” comics live, refining her drawing style and the need for an artist to constantly evolve.
JFL42 says you’re here to connect audiences with “their most visceral, childlike feelings of wonder and amazement.” What the hell does that mean, and will you live up to it?
I didn’t write that. I guess because I do comics, people assume it’s like Calvin and Hobbes. Don’t worry — people won’t be bored at my show. I used to put on comedy shows in New York with Michael Kupperman and we’d present comics in a different way. Reading comics is usually a private thing, so it’s cool to put them in an open forum where you share a reaction with everybody, like you would when you watch a film.
Some comic book artists really detest the term “graphic novel” because they see it as a marketing ploy. How do you feel about it?
There is a bit of corporate fanciness to that term, and I understand that. But it was around long before I came about. I don’t think that it’s too grandiose to call something a graphic novel. Seth has been around long enough to think of himself as a comic book artist. For him, it’s an issue of someone taking his identity and bandying it as something else.
What unexpected doors have been opened for you in light of your fame?
Some of the stuff I’m working on isn’t yet open for public consumption [laughs], but offers have come in for books and television. In 2009, I was offered a place on the peer jury for the Canada Council for the Arts. It was for the graphic novel grant. That’s where I met Seth for the first time, and I was like, “Oh my God.”
That’s pretty awesome.
I’m very lucky. My comic was only two years old, but I put out something that people could read. Had I gone the traditional route — submit to publishers until they agree — I don’t think I would have done it. But I’m from such a small place. I couldn’t have imagined that living off comics could be viable at all. It’s like an astronaut coming from my town.
What were the advantages of living in New York City as a comic artist vs. Toronto?
In New York, you’re amongst some of the legends of comics. They kind of kick your ass and force you to work harder. I got to submit cartoons to The New Yorker in person and that makes a difference. Toronto has an amazing cartoonist community as well — it’s just not at the same level of activity.
Can you speak to the perception that your work is rushed?
Well, critics say it’s “deceptively simple,” which I’m OK with. I have a knack for gesture and expression and if I labour a drawing, it doesn’t have the same impact. It won’t look like it has life. I like seeing how a drawing moves on the page. If people think my work is rushed, then they have no idea how much time I spend thinking about it before I start drawing.
Do you have a desire to “refine” your work?
I move forward with my drawing only hoping to make it better. If “better” means refining it, then that’s where it will go. If “better” means nailing an expression faster, then that’s fine too. I work on things so they look better to me.
You recently started working more with watercolours. Is it important to master other mediums?
Yes, because I feel my inexperience very keenly, not having gone to art school. As soon as I started making comics, they became popular. That was amazing. But instant recognition means you’re playing out your entire career in front of everyone, and that’s daunting. I want to learn new skills. I want to become a well-rounded artist who can take on anything.
You tell young comic artists to “never stop updating” their websites but comics can really suffer from oversaturation. Do you worry about that?
I do think about that. That’s the reason why I’m backing out now. My website doesn’t update nearly as often as it used to. I am wary of waning in popularity. Charles Schulz could do Peanuts for 100 years and he’d always have a job. But when you do comics by yourself, you need to constantly put out good material that people really like. As much as I love comics, they were never my ultimate dream — I sort of fell into them. I am open to other possibilities. I just want to make good decisions so I can support a family when that time comes. You don’t want to be that clichéd image of a starving artist.