Brooklyn-based, Nova Scotia-born cartoonist Kate Beaton has an infallible skill for distilling heady topics of study into concentrated bursts of disarming silliness. Her superb web comic, Hark! A Vagrant, lovingly deflates historical and literary icons with a modern pin. Enjoy Nancy Drew as a raving lunatic; behold, the open-mic nights of the French Revolution! A new collection of Beaton's strips, out now from leading indie-comics imprint Drawn and Quarterly, collects two years of her work and wryly mocks a wide swath of Western Civilization.
We chatted with Beaton about the Canadian view of America's past, the irresistible appeal of history's greatest jerks, the questionable efficiency of teen detectives, her outsider's window on the comic book industry, and the work that goes into selling a cartoon to the New Yorker.
The L:: How would you sum up the humor of Hark! A Vagrant? Is it adding a surprising tone to something we think we already know?
Kate Beaton: I try to make it funny, that's all. But you can't help yourself when you come across somebody who is kind of a jerk, and has been celebrated for a long time as sort of an awesome person. Any big leader, I guess, could fall under that category.
The L:: Do you think that you need a really deep grasp of a subject to figure out what's funny about it?
KB: I do a lot of reading and a lot of research before I make a comic, because I don't think that you can make the best joke without that knowledge. Like, there'll be grad students reading your comic about Robespierre, and they all know best, so you have to have your cards in the right order. You can't just draw a big angry face and two guys yelling, "eff you!"at each other.
I think that you really want to get in there and pick on these people. Like making fun of your friend. If you're lucky you get to be clever too. Sometimes that happens.
The L:: Do Canadian school kids have to learn a lot more American history than the reverse?
KB: Well, we have to learn a lot more American history, but your history sort of shoulders up on ours. A lot.
The L:: Of course.
KB: There are things that happen in America that then have enormous repercussions in Canada. Lots of annexation scares, where we thought you guys were just going to gobble us up. You invaded us a couple times.
You'll see political cartoons from the 1880s or whatever, and they'll have like a figure of a young lady that's supposed to be Canada, and a glowering, lecherous looking man, who's just rubbing his hands together and giving her the glad eye.
The L:: With muttonchops, probably.
KB: It's really funny.
The L:: I've read you say that you didn't want to get too current with your historical references. It that because people don't have enough distance to current events?
KB: It's hard sometimes. People take things very seriously and very personally if you do something too current. Like, a radical leader, or radical dude, like Martin Luther, that's fine. But if I made a Malcolm X comic, that might be controversial somehow. Maybe it wouldn't. Maybe it'd be awesome.
The L:: It sort of strange though how certain historical figures get adopted more easily into popular culture.