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.
KB: Yeah, I hear that. Napoleon was an awful man, terrible ambition and terrible actions, but he's like a history darling. And I contribute to that myself. But, you know, he was terrible. He's gotten to be kind of cool.
The L:: It's funny how the real jerks of history end up that way.
KB: Yeah people love their jerks! ”Yeah man, Vlad the Impaler! So cool!”
The L:: Even someone like Nixon, who is so easily mockable, he's sort of strangely beloved.
KB: They become a caricature. They just stop being a real person. Sometimes, I try to give a bit of humanity back to those people.
The L:: It seems like your strip has taken issue with the whole concept of teen detective work lately.
KB: I have a lot of teen detectives!
The L:: Were you a fan of Nancy Drew? Does it come from love?
KB: When I was 10, I was in the hospital for two weeks for I don't know what it was, something to do with my kidneys? Anyway, the only thing that they had to read was this huge collection of Nancy Drew books. I read them all in two weeks. I remember them in kind of a fever haze. I really enjoyed them. The Nancy I have in the comics is kind of a psychopath. (link: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=317 )That's just a little fun.
The L:: The idea of a teen detective is pretty persistent, but it's also wildly improbable.
KB: One of the first books I read that was a teen mystery was set in Ancient Rome. It was called "Detectives in Togas."Real teenagers are way bigger jerks. It's fun to write people who are just jerks. You have to mind your Ps and Qs with historical characters. With the teens they're just total assholes, it's really fun.
The L:: I wanted to ask about the "Strong Female Characters"strip you did satirizing how super-heroines get portrayed in comics. It felt to me like something that came out of a very specific conversation you'd been having.
KB: You'd think that but no. Carly Monardo, Meredith Gran, and myself were just drawing, for fun, and Carly showed her friend how I draw that pose that you see in comics all the time, so unnatural and staged. People say, [in goony male voice] "What's wrong with being sexy?"
The L:: Superhero comics are still pretty rough with that stuff.
KB: That whole world is kind of hilarious to us, because it's not ours. It's your industry, but it's not really yours. You have a side-window and you go, "What?"
We just started drawing the poses, and then we each created a character and gave them a name. They have no personality at all. You never see them without seeing their boobs and their butt at the same time. There are pictures of them grocery shopping, and they are still standing like that with the cart.
The L:: Stuff like the Strange Tales strips you did for Marvel, struck me as funny because something as ridiculous as Kraven the Hunter, if you read comics from the 80s, is treated really grim and serious.
KB: Wearing a giant lion head.
The L:: But really tortured, like, drinking a brandy and plotting murder.
KB: Yeah, it's amazing. I think it's so great.
The L:: How many comics have you had in the New Yorker so far?
KB: I've had four.
The L:: How many did you submit to get four in?
KB: Oh, I don't know. We'd submit every two weeks, eight to ten comics, and it was maybe two months before we sold one. Your hit rate is something like, one out of every forty. Or fifty. Or sixty. Some people will sell one or two in a year. And some people will submit for five years without selling any.
They want finished cartoons. And that's hard. If your job is already to make comics, then you really have to not do it for the money at all. You have to do it just because you love being in the New Yorker. And I love it, but I also have to pay the rent.
The L:: The parental pride chip is probably pretty significant too though, I'd imagine.
KB: Oh yeah, they are really proud of that. They never read the New Yorker but they know what it is. A doctor's office thing.
Illustration by Kate Beaton