To some, Kate Beaton is the queen of webcomics. To others, she’s the unknown force behind those short, smart cartoons that make us laugh every time they pop up. Since 2008, when she casually ignited the web’s fiery delight for Jane Austen jokes with her comic Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton has turned her hilarious impressions of literary figures, heads of state, and virtually unknown heroes of Canadian lore into comics gold. Her style carries an unmistakable handshake of refined goofing and observant caricature, while her re-imagining of history’s stereotypes never fail to turn preconceived notions on their heads.
Beaton’s second collection Step Aside, Pops! came out this fall from Drawn & Quarterly. It collects her commentary on people ranging from Ida B. Wells to over-the-top “strong female characters.” Beaton got on the horn with me, in the early morning, to discuss her sudden success and what came after, her most recent caricatures and the society of friends that helped her along the way.”
SUZETTE SMITH: You’re an early riser. That’s a Canadian stereotype, isn’t it?
KATE BEATON: Is it? That’s a very efficient stereotype. Our stereotypes are that we’re polite and stuff but I don’t really know how much water that holds when you actually run into us. If you had some stereotypes to choose from, it could get worse than you’re polite.
Do you know all the other Canadian cartoonists?
I know a good amount. Canadians are always aware of who the other Canadians are. Especially when someone is making good work and then Canadians are all like, “They’re Canadian! Did you know?” and Americans are like, “No, we don’t care.”
I think when I first became aware of your comics you were still working in the Maritime Museum in British Columbia. Do you feel like that was when you blew up?
It was just before then, really. I started the comic in September 2007. That’s when the website went up. I guess I had been doing Livejournal back then. My first website was garbage. It was horrible. It was the free program that came on the Macbook, if you remember that. It was just sort of perfunctory. I was like I need a website! This thing makes a website. But it would be like—every single image had to load up every time you looked at it. Every time I updated the website I had to upload the whole website over again. I think Warren Ellis called my first website, “a Soviet woodburning machine.”
Do you still work on historical comics projects? I know you’ve worked in museums for a long time.
I’ve worked in like, five museums at this point. Yeah, I would love to. I actually was contacted recently by a museum, a Canadian one and it’s a fairly prominent one, and they were talking about possibly working together to make their exhibits more approachable and if that works out that would be a complete delight. A lot of what I do is like public interface. When I make comics you’re introducing a concept, you’re asking people to be interested in this thing that they may not know about. And you can have a lot of really interesting things on the wall like plaques but the average person, they don’t read all the plaques. I’m really interested in how to engage. The comics do that for sure.
Your work is really consistent. I’m always surprised—it seems like at some point one of your comics won’t be as funny but they always are.
Yeah, but then the one that isn’t as funny to you will be someone else’s favorite. There are some that I’ve made where I’m like UGH this isn’t as good but then people will be like “Finally you made one about this and I love it!” and I’m like oh good, well at least somebody likes it.
I’ve seen a number of your comics in the New Yorker. Is that regular gig for you?
No, I made a lot but I sold like four comics to the New Yorker in like 2010 or 2011, but then that was just too much work to keep up. You have to submit ten at a time, eight to ten. And they might buy one? Maybe? It was just too much work. But I got one in the other week because Bob from the New Yorker contacted me and asked me if I wanted to submit. So I figure when you’re asked, it’s pretty good. So I submitted some ideas and they took one. I’d like to keep that up.
Have you ever considered doing serialization? Like Sunday funnies in the newspaper. Kate Beaton. Every week.
No, that’s a dead thing. And it’s too bad. I just read a super interesting article from the LA Times about Bill Waterson vs. Charles Schultz and their different work ethics and their different perspectives on what a comics strip artist is. Is it an artist or an artisan or should you merchandise or should you not? What is integrity? I grew up with these people cartooning. If I was 20 years older than I am, I probably would have given a shot at syndication. You used to be able to make a lot of money but now no one will even run your comic if you start out. I’ve been approached by the syndicates. Y’know, do you want to submit some ideas. It just doesn’t seem like a worthwhile pursuit anymore. Which is a shame.
So many people that I know, especially new cartoonists, you’ll say “Did you grow up reading comics?” and they’ll say no because they’re thinking of superhero comics and then you’ll be like But you probably read the Sunday Funnies and they’ll be like “No—YES, I did!”
It’s a grueling occupation, honestly. The rigidity of the whole syndication thing—you have this strip and you have to have 40 years worth of material with these narrow confines. It’s no wonder that people like Bill Waterson were like, “I’m done!” This has run its course because it’s naturally going to run its course. You have these comics heritage strips that just keep hanging on and they’re not particularly at the artist’s peak. You try doing something for 40 years and see! It’s easy to say, “Well this isn’t very good,” but I’ve got a lot of admiration for their work ethic. That’s the deal they got. You have to make this. I don’t think anybody could make something good—not even Charles Schultz could. I remember reading Peanuts as a teenager and being like, “This comic sucks. I hate this comic.” It had lost its spark by then. And who wouldn’t?
Do you read other people’s cartoons and comics these days?
I read webcomics and I read my friends. I’ve been trying to read more—I’m actually gonna go later today to the comic book store and pick some things up and sign some of the stock they have here. The [store is] Strange Adventures in Halifax and it’s one of those comics shops that I feel like I owe a lot to. Comic book stores, they’re the lifeblood. As soon as people started reading my work, I was like, “Oh shit, I’d better read some comics because I don’t know anything” so I went into a comic book store in Victoria BC called Legends and I was like “What should I read?” The guy at the counter—there were a couple other guys in the store and they were like, “Oh my God” because Warren Ellis had linked to my site and I was like “Who’s Warren Ellis?” God! A couple snarky guys at the store were like, “You don’t know who Warren Ellis is? He’s amazing!” But then the owner of the store was like, “Shut up, nerds!” and he took me over and was like, “Well what d’you like?” We talked and he handed me some comics and was like, “You’ll like these, I think.” He was super welcoming and super lovely and there’s a few comic book stores like that. There’s Strange Adventures here in Halifax and The Beguiling in Toronto, where I come in and I know I’m gonna come out with something really good.
Do you remember what those first comics were that you picked up?
Gareth gave me Crécy, the Warren Ellis comic about The Battle of Crécy and also Marvel 1602 because I was like, “I like history!” So Marvel 1602 is like the one where Marvel re-imagined in the years 1602 so all these mutants are in Elizabethan or Tudor-y garb. I guess it would be—
I know, I remember. The 1602 Jean Grey flies a boat with the power of her mind and it’s so much it exhausts her. It kills her!
Yeah! And I didn’t even know who any of the X-Men really were. That was my introduction, this weird time travel comic! So I don’t think I got out of it what you were supposed to get out of it. He was like, “You like history. This one has superheroes but BACK IN TIME.” And I was like, “That sounds right up my alley.”
You didn’t have the X-Men cartoon show when young?
No! I only just—I’m from a real rural backwater. We only had two channels so whatever they played we saw. We didn’t get Star Trek either. We got the weird Star Trek. The ones that aren’t people’s favorites. Like, I never saw The Next Generation at all but we did get Voyager and Deep Space Nine. Next Generation is everybody’s childhood favorite but I have a real affection for Catherine Janeway. To see her [actor Kate Mulgrew] show up on Orange is the New Black was very exciting.
Do the characters you write about, like Chopin and Liszt, come out of the research that you do?
Yeah, I don’t make things up! You can access so much from either letters that they wrote or biographies about them or essays about them or in certain cases there’ll be whole fan communities of people around them. They live several different lives: The one that they had first and the one that is written about and then the people who read that and then the people who have opinions about that and then how those things change over time. Our opinions of things change, as well, so everything is living all these weird different lives. The truth in it is that there is there no real truth but there are some things that people can agree on.
I like your comics about Sara Josephine Baker. It’s illuminating from a perspective where people in the past were just as smart as we are but we’ve also come a long way in terms of general knowledge.
Yeah! You’re reading about it and all the babies were dying! She was like, “Oh my god, don’t kill your babies!” But, people, they didn’t know!
So people were really carrying their babies around in sacks?
Yeah, they were like smothering them in too many clothes and stuff. They were just poor and uneducated but she was getting to the bottom of it like, “There’s way high of an infant mortality rate. It’s insane! There’s gotta be an easier way.” She’d go in among these poor women who had no education. They were teenagers a lot of the time. She was like, “I can’t believe that they don’t know these fairly simple things. I have to show them.”
She’s also very famous for taking down Typhoid Mary and I found out afterwards that she’s part of this amazing club of lesbians and cool ladies who hung out and had dinner parties and gave each other Christmas cards. I forget the name of it. But they would get together in one of their friends house. Louisa May Alcott’s house maybe? And just be really cool together. Hang out and be cool.
It’s always interesting to look at various historical people and realize that usually they have a community around them. It’s hard to be an island. Do you feel like you have a pretty strong artistic community around you?
Yeah, I do. Any place that I’ve lived in New York or Toronto or Fairfax, there’s always been an excellent group of peers that help me figure out how to do things. Right from the start I was like, “I have a website! What do I do now! I don’t know!” I only had a website cause friends told me to make one. Then I was like, “Okay, I have a website. Now what?” Friends are like, “Now do this.” And y’know, I help them too. I’ll draw this here and there for them. I really rely on feedback from other people. My peers and I, we’re all really young enough to not really have that career. A strong peer group is essential because things are still changing and they’re going to. I’m not part of any vanguard of new blood anymore. There’s like all kinds of new talent. Y’know, I’m 31. I’m old as balls now. You get a sense that there’s gonna be another change in the guard soon. I feel. I wanna be on my toes!
You’ve said before that your success has been a combination of working hard and being in the right place at the right time. Also you’ve talked about being lucky and also talent, of course. Would you say there’s some stuff early in your career where you’re like, “Man I was really lucky to do that.”
Sure, just the time. The website started in 2007 and that was in this window of time where the internet was well established and webcomics weren’t new anymore but people read them for fun and people supported them. People bought merchandise. But there wasn’t that many. So you could get noticed. There were a lot but if yours was good, you could stand out and there wasn’t as much content shit in people’s face all the time. There were no Buzzfeeds and Tumblrs scrolling past people’s eyeballs all the time. It’s harder to get noticed now. There was just less internet then and so that’s luck of timing. Absolutely. If I had started it in 2011, I don’t think that you and I would be talking. When I worked at the maritime museum in British Columbia I was hired on as an assistant, like an admin assistant. Emily Horne was the program director there. So I met her and she had a web comic and she was my intro to everything.
She saw me drawing. I was on my break and she saw me drawing, like for myself. And she was like, “You should put this on the internet.” And I was like, “WHAT?”
How does a picture go on the screen?
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Then she showed me what she was making and I was like, “Oh wow! You have like fans. That’s really cool.”
In 2010, you had some cool things you said about sexism in comics but then you got some pushback from that.
Oh yeah. That was awful.
What was that experience like?
I was in my New York studio and I had read an article about my friend. They were talking about her work but they were also like, “I’d hit that.” Or some shit. It was like they couldn’t help talking about her looks. And then the comments underneath were just people talking about whether they’d fuck her or not and I was like “Ugh! I hate this! Can’t you just talk about her work?” And then I started to compose a tweet to that effect. Then I was like, “Nooo I’m going to generalize it more.” If I say don’t say this then people will say, “Well I never said that specific thing.” And then I really generalized it. I said, “Don’t say, ‘I want your babies.’” And it was a bad example to give. It was really benign. It’s stupid. So I put that up. I was like, “It’s sexist. Don’t go up to comic artists and say, ‘Oh, I want your babies.’” And I wish that I had written anything else because it’s not a good example. When people say that they don’t mean that. They don’t mean that. Anyway I tweeted that and—the most insane responses! People were like, “ You fucking idiot!” and that’s probably the worst that I’ve ever had it for sure. And it doesn’t matter how many times I tried to clarify. Like, no. You’re right. That was a bad example or whatever. People would just lock on to the fact that I said sexist and that I gave an example that they disagreed with. It doesn’t even matter what I said or what it was about! I could basically zip that up in a fucking bag and throw it in the ocean. I’m never gonna win that argument. I’m never gonna be like, “What I really meant to say was this.” And that was like the only case of online shit that I ever—and it was awful. I was like, “I can’t believe this is upsetting so many people this much and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Because if you have something to say about sexism, everything—your example, your words, your structure—everything has to be so tight because people will dart in and rip apart anything and then completely ignore what you may have been trying to say. It doesn’t even matter as long as they can tear something to hell then they will. Some people still hate me for that line—and they can. I don’t give a fuck. But it’s just what I see now like all the video dudes. That’s a lot of shit to deal with. I barely had to deal with anything, not anything at all.
I remember early on when I was following you where you’d complain about something and then you’d have to be like, “Wait guys. Please don’t attack this person.”
Yeah, cause of the Twitter army. I definitely have a power too. I don’t use Twitter for that anymore. When it first came out you were like, “This is just another thing and I can just talk blibby blab li boo!” But you can’t. I want to talk about things that I believe in and stand up for things I want to stand up for but I don’t want to just be throwing shit all the time.
It was interesting watching your newer celebrity through the small window of Twitter and Tumblr, to watch you grapple with it and be like, “Wait a minute. What did I do?”
What did I say or why did I say it? I think that if something really upsets you and you’re on Twitter, I honestly think you should just wait a day and if you still want to say it then you should but if you wake up the next day and you don’t care then you probably shouldn’t be ranting.
You’ve made some really amazing comics about feminism that are part of this new collection. Like the straw feminists and the Sexism Is Over! ladies. Those are super concise to a point where if someone gives you flack on that you can be like, “Well y’know I worked really hard on it. I definitely stand behind the thing it says.” Deal with it.
Honestly I think that whenever I talk about feminist things now nobody really blinks an eye. I put up something and people are like, “Cool.”
Is there a historical precedent for straw feminists? Were they characters in history? Did they come out of any particular movement?
Anti-suffragette cartoons, that’s probably where it starts. People depicting suffragettes as ball busting, brutal, heinous women. Mean and cold and heartless and stupid and ugly and all these really funny things. So you read those cartoons and they’re hilarious because they’re just women looking to get the vote but that image is always so present in feminist history. It’s always like this horrible person. I love taking that image and owning it.
There are moments where I’m reading straw feminist cartoons and I’m like, “Wait and I a straw feminist?” There are definitely days where I have those thoughts.
They’re such boogeymen.
Or them burning training bras at the mall.
That bra burning image, it never really happened or maybe it happened once. But people just buy into it. They’re like, “Yeah feminists. They burn bras!” There’s something really hilarious about these images about these ball busters because they don’t give a fuck.