Kate Beaton on ‘Hark! A Vagrant’
October 11, 2011 | by Nicole Rudick
Kate Beaton makes comics about the Bröntes, Canadians, fat ponies, the X-Men, Hamlet, the American founding fathers, Raskolnikov, gay Batman, Nikola Tesla, Les Misérables, Nancy Drew, Greek myths, and hipsters throughout history. Little is spared her lively pen and waggish, incisive wit. Born in Nova Scotia, Beaton studied history and anthropology, discovering through her university’s newspaper that she could put her knowledge of people, places, and dates to work in a humor column and, later, in comic strips. In 2007, she launched Hark! A Vagrant, which now receives more than a million hits each month. Her new book, of the same name, lampoons Kierkegaard, lumberjacks, Marie Curie, Jay Gatsby, Anne of Cleves, Oedipus, and everyone in between.
Do you remember the first comic you drew in college?
It was about Vikings! Vikings invading the school campus. It was a how-to guide for dealing with this breaking news. The Vikings were very interested in biology class, apparently. In comics, everybody is an expert in their own sense of humor, so either you’re funny to someone else or you’re not. And it’s putting yourself out there quite a bit for someone who is a little bit shy, which I was. I didn’t put my name on the first comics I submitted in case people hated them. You don’t want to be that person who’s unfunny. Trying to be funny and not being funny? That’s awful.
Where did your brand of humor come from?
It started with the town I grew up in, which was very small. Small places breed a peculiar familiarity with everybody around you. It’s a very tight-knit, Scottish community, so there are a lot of cheeky jokes about your neighbors—nothing very harmful because you have to live with them. It’s all very winking and playful.
We didn’t have comic shops, so the only comics I had were newspaper strips and Archie. I also really enjoy books like Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That, a kind of muddled account of English history—though that was a later influence. I had already started the comics and had developed my style, but when I read it, I thought, This is what I would love to sound like.
How do you find your subjects?
I gravitate toward making comics about history partly because that’s what I studied and partly because it feels very natural. I have an interest in almost everything, and you can see that in my comics—they’re all over the place.
So subjects come from all sides. It might be something I’ve known for a long time, like with the Robinson Crusoe comic. It was one of the first chapter books that I remember our teacher reading to us in grade two. We were enthralled. And then later on I had different opinions about it. [Laughs].
It can also be something I’m very familiar with—like any Canadian figure—or somebody I just found out about and thought was amazing, like Rosalind Franklin. Sometimes you’re looking up one person and you find another person on the side, and you think that they’re even more interesting. That’s probably how I came across the last comic I did, with Robespierre and Danton. I was looking up Robespierre, and Danton was the figure that really struck me as the more fascinating one. And if I get lucky, someone who interests me will also come with a hook I can use to create a comic around them, whether it’s an expression, a phrase, a bit of dialogue. And sometimes you don’t get lucky. Sometimes you really want to make a comic about a person, and nothing comes together.
How much research do you do?
In order to make a comic about something, you really need to know it inside and out, especially something historical, which can be complex—different sides to the story, different opinions. I’ll read some encyclopedia entries, essays, books excerpts, and I’ll see what their fan base is like—some historical figures have a fan base—to find out people’s reactions to this character or this event, who thinks what and why. I want to make something that the person who has never heard of this character will like, as well as the person who did their thesis on them, and there’s a huge swath of people in between who may know nothing, so you really can’t phone it in. You have to know who you’re dealing with, who you’re making fun of. Maybe that’s just the history student in me.
Is part of your aim to enlighten your readers about lesser-known facts and people?
Definitely. But then, you can’t help but teach when you make something about historical figures. In order for the joke to work you have to put in a certain amount of exposition, you have to put the set-up in there, and that’s all just feeding people information. You also want them to be excited about it, because it’s fun. If people don’t know about it, and they read my comic, they’re going to know something. That’s as simple as teaching gets.
Your work seems to involve a feminist reading of history and literature.
I think that’s because I make comics that aren’t all about white presidents. In the sixties and seventies, schools started to revise the way history was taught, working from the bottom up, like having students read E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, where you put people into the narrative who weren’t there before and who weren’t considered important. Then you realize that they are important, and you want them to be important, because they’re just like you. So the study of history becomes less about the quirks of a certain king or president and more about the union strikes and the smaller people who made up those kinds of events.
I think, too, that there’s a desire now to retell stories that include people who have not been in the spotlight—somebody’s right-hand man or wife. If you’d read about the explorer John Franklin before, it would probably have just been about him. But when you read about it now, there’s something about his wife, Lady Jane, a very strong-willed lady who sent out expeditions to find him after he got lost in the frozen north. And that’s what really opened up the Northwest Passage—all these ships looking to get reward money for finding her husband.
What is it about classic literature that makes it so ripe for poking fun?
The Victorian sensibilities are hilarious—what was thought proper, the obsession with how to behave in society, who mattered and who didn’t. Underneath the modern lens it looks like a fairly bizarre society, though it’s still romantic and interesting. It’s a different world but one that we know pretty well. Those books take themselves so seriously, and they should, but unfortunately, that just makes them amazing targets for comedy.
I hope that when I make fun of something it’s understood as flattery. I have a lot of affection for the things I poke fun at. It’s just another way of enjoying it, and I think readers really respond to the comics because they’re about something they enjoy, too. They acknowledge that it’s fun, especially if it’s something perceived as being boring.
Some of my favorite strips are about the Brontës and how the romanticism in their novels becomes, in a certain light, ridiculous.
Jane Eyre ran away from Mr. Rochester, but then she came back. She saw his face in the clouds and thought, I gotta go back! Anne’s novels were so different from her sisters’. Her characters reacted differently to their surroundings. They were never like, It’s so tragic—I love him anyway. Instead, they’re like, Get me the heck out of here!
I once bought a Nancy Drew novel because she was wearing a gorgeous red gown on the cover, but I never even cracked the book. You’ve made that an art form.
I love the idea of extrapolating from the cover and creating a story based on it. It’s a perfect setup. You can go crazy with it. So Nancy Drew is kind of a psychopath in my comics, because you never know what she’s actually doing on the cover of those books. And you don't know what kind of a person Nancy is. Kids want to read these books because of what’s happening on the cover. Kids aren’t going to care if you put an abstract bunch of triangles on there. So if you see a Sweet Valley High book and the twins are on the cover doing something cool, it’s an opportunity to just guess what’s inside.
Is there a period in history you’re particularly fascinated by?
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, definitely. That’s where all the actions is—the revolutions, the early stirrings of civil rights and feminism. It’s people really making a difference for themselves. Before that, you’d have a peasant rebellion every now and then, before somebody would come along and squish it. But the activities in the later centuries are just fascinating. And the clothes. The clothes are great.