Friday, August 12, 2011


Hark! A Vagrant's Kate Beaton on History, Comics, and Crowded Elevators

Kate Beaton is the artist and mastermind behind the web comic, Hark! A Vagrant. In it, she affectionately satirizes iconic figures from Queen Elizabeth to those wacky Fitzgeralds, winning her a spot in the hearts of history and lit nerds (and everyone) everywhere. Her second book, which will feature classic strips as well as new material, will be released by Drawn and Quarterly this fall. We caught up with Kate to ask her the tough questions.

If you had to be stuck in an elevator with any historical figure, who would you pick?

Haha, ah nuts! I always get questions like this and never know what to say. It’s supposed to be something funny! I never think about that, I guess. I need a stockpile of historical figures to jam in elevators and desert islands.

Oh, I should cross the next question off my list then…

No, no, what’s the next one?

All right, with absolutely no pressure to be clever: Do you think the people you’ve joked about in your comics would be fans of Hark! A Vagrant? Who do you think would be a poor sport about it?

Jeepers, that’s not a bad question! I think about that sometimes, would they hate this? And I guess it depends! Some people I make fun of have gotten a free ride in the History Books of Good Opinion for a long time, so if I make fun of them I guess it’s just them getting their dues. Like, I guess I wouldn't care if Andrew Jackson hated the comics I made about him. I try to celebrate people in the comics, both the good and the bad about them. You can’t just take something and tear it apart; you have to show what makes these people memorable and great in their own ways, even if you are poking fun.

I imagine Mr. Darcy wouldn’t have any complaints.

Man, that guy. What’s he got to complain about anyway? Someone sent me an e-mail yesterday, and it was a picture of graffiti on the inside of a tube slide; it said “Mr. Darcy was Here.”

Oh, new question! Best on screen portrayal of Darcy? Please keep in mind the only correct answer is Colin Firth.

I think I’ve only seen the two versions, Colin Firth and the recent one. The more recent one has Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet! I don’t care what you think about Keira Knightley, all I am saying is: Donald Sutherland. But yes, Firth is the man for Darcy.

Some of my favorite comics of yours include the “Hipsters Ruin Everything” series, where you argue that young people co-opting aesthetics from artistic movements is nothing new. I really like that because it’s a different approach to all the hipster jokes that tend to dominate the internet. Do you think the majority of hipster jokes have gotten redundant?

I think most hipster jokes on the internet are the worst, most unimaginative things there are, and this is from a woman who has made some! I have the WWII Hipster Battalion and Hipsters Ruin Everything comics. But I don’t think any idea is so stale that no one can ever touch it again. It’s just that most of the time, you see people go for that “it was cool last year I’m a hipster skinny jeans” route. I have a joke in WWII Hipster Battalion where one guy does that “maybe I would have been into this liberation of the coast thing last year.” But that’s not the main joke. The main joke happens when they actually get to Normandy and only liberate the cafes so they can loiter in them. So, I guess I am not above the old, worn out hipster jokes, but that can’t be the only thing you have.

A while ago, you started a conversation on Twitter about the sexist compliments that female artists tend to receive. How has the response to that been, especially over the long term? Have you had other women come up to you to say, “yeah, I hate that too!”?

Oh, they were bad for a while. Some people really thought that I had gotten one person come up to me and say “I want your babies,” and that I had no clue it was a common phrase and that I went hysterical, as if I had been born yesterday, I guess. I actually made the comment after I read an article about a friend of mine and in the article it was something like, “and she’s cute, too!” And then in the comments underneath, the discussion just veered into people talking about her looks. Like, fuck you! It’s so common, and people don’t mean harm, but you just invite this discussion that has nothing to do with an author’s work when you throw that stuff in there. So I made a comment about it! And I used one example that people focused on, that a lot of people could not see beyond. But that’s OK; you asked about the long term response, and it’s nice! People come up to me at shows and say “I appreciate what you said.” There are a lot of folks out there who still think I'm a hysterical man hater, but who fucking cares? Pardon my language.

Is the type of feedback that you get online generally very different than how people respond to you at shows? Do you think people are ever shocked by your “real life” persona as opposed to the voice you’ve cultivated for yourself online and through your comics?

People are more nervous in real life sometimes! Which is hilarious to me. I mean, I wouldn’t count myself as remarkable, so that’s baffling I guess, but they’re so nice. But the majority, like, I guess we have an idea that people are different in person than online — YouTube commenters — but I think most of us are quite similar. What you say on Twitter or in a Livejournal comment or e-mail, it’s not usually very crazy stuff. Does that make sense? More people are genuine in their daily internet use, so the people who write e-mails are the same as the people who end up in front of me. I am mostly who I am online — not totally, because you can’t be. You have to be reserved and walk a little more carefully, because whatever I put on the internet will never go away. Can’t have regrets.

I’ve noticed there’s that shift even in your work, between the sentimentality of your more personal comics and the punch lines of your satirical ones. Like, you develop a comedic voice and you have your “real” voice, which I think is true for most funny people.

For sure! There’s nothing I like better than an interview with a comedian where they are talking in earnest.

How has the response been from educators and historians? Have people been grateful that you’ve been, to pardon the terrible expression, “making learning fun”?

It’s been a great response! I understand that my comics are on a lot of profs’ office doors and are used in classes. Like, "here’s a comic to break the ice, now let’s get cracking." So flattering! It’s nice to have a tool that can ease a class into a topic.

Do you sometimes try to pick popular books that people have studied in high school to make your work accessible?

Well, it’s nice to hit more people with one shot — something familiar that more people can be in on the joke. It’s just nice to include! Though I read on the Hairpin that article about dudes’ favorite books; if it’s Lord of the Flies, they haven’t read anything since high school.

By that same token, your more obscure subjects serve as a really nice introduction. I love that you're making Canadian politics popular.

Yes, it’s also nice to send people off to learn about more obscure things! I like having that also. But if it’s a more obscure thing of interest, it’s probably going to be a history comic. That’s just me, I guess.

Clearly, publishing online has helped your career. But you also run into that problem of people sharing your stuff without crediting, which I know can be a huge problem for many artists in the reblog-heavy era of Tumblr. Do you find that there are any more big challenges that artists working online might have to face, as opposed to those working in more traditional formats?

It’s really hard for me to say! I’ve only known one and not the other. It’s hard to get noticed either way, and hard to amass a following. Luck and timing have a lot to do with it, too. It used to be that people had a hard time being taken seriously if they were online, but I think that is turning around also. You’re right about crediting work though: Tumblr can be the devil. Thousands of people looking at something and no credit to the artist, that’s awful! It takes so little to say who made it. I had the idea that a lot of people have Tumblrs full of “cool pictures” to make themselves something of a tastemaker. “Your blog is so cool!” say their friends. It’s great to share things around, don’t get me wrong. That’s how I became known at all! People showing my work to their friends, passing it around — I hate to think of anyone else losing that just because there is a culture of taking and posting, and who knows where it came from.

Last question: Who do you think you’d be most likely to befriend in real life: Lois Lane, Wonder Woman, or Nancy Drew?

Lois Lane for sure. In my comics, Lois has got it all figured out, Wondy is an angry chain smoker, and Nancy is pretty batty. Plus, Lois could sneak you in anywhere.

Do you think Lois would be able to help you escape a trapped elevator?

You have answered the elevator question for me! If only she was a historical figure, Lois would get us the hell outta that joint lickety split.

Anna Fitzpatrick is a Toronto based writer and the web editor at Worn Fashion Journal.

59 Comments / Post A Comment


Ooh Ms. Beaton! My two favourite internet things collide in this article (three if you count feminism as an "internet thing"). Hooray!


@claire@twitter Seconded, my face lit up with joy when I loaded the site and saw Kate Beaton.


@claire@twitter ooh ms beaton OOOOH
No seriously, me too, I am completely delighted by this. And I love learning about Canadian history even though I am American and should be out eating barbeques and bayoneting British men.


@area@twitter I am a Canadian-In-America (probably for keeps) and it brings me all the joy to remember things like those goofy A PART OF OUR HERITAGE commercials. Seriously, if you enjoy Kate Beaton you should youtube those things because they are GOLD. "Once, the guy who invented Superman came to Canada!" "Once, Irish children came to Montreal!" "Once, there were FIRST NATIONS people, ooh, special effects and giant floating shaman heads and probably offensive tokenism!"


@claire@twitter "Once, this Canadian guy cut a hole in a peach basket and made basketball!" "Once, this girl had her brain operated on and smelled toast!"


@area@twitter I'm especially thankful to her for introducing me to Margaret Trudeau. That lady was a powerhouse! We need more politicians' spouses like this down here.


@claire@twitter Once, a woman tried to go to medical school and everyone made fun of her! Once, a white guy misunderstood a native guy and that's how Canada got it's name!

I met a descendant of the telegraph operator in the Halifax Explosion one, and it was like history come to life, I was so excited.


@amirite @cosmia you guys, this is the best time I reminisced about Canadian history in the Hairpin comments.


aw, I love hark a vagrant. I opted not to go to comic con in calgary this year because I was SO ANNOYED there last year for no particular reason, and then like 2 days afterwards I found out kate beaton was there and was totally bummed as I would have really liked to have met her.


I LOVE HARK A VAGRANT SO MUCH. The "making Canadian politics/history interesting" aspect of her comics is the best. I lose my shit every time I read the Margaret/Pierre Trudeau one.


@cosmia YOU'RE NOT MY DAD.




Kate Beaton, the Mitfords, and the Mountain Goats? All in a week? It's like it's my birthday.


@Lucienne The Hairpin Hivemind is the BEST hivemind.


@Lucienne my thoughts exactly, was about to post that very comment.

sarah girl

Aaahhh she is awesome! She's going to be at SPX this year, I hope I get to meet her :D


@Sarah H.: Thanks for pointing out Kate was going to be at Small Press Expo (Sept. 10-11 at the North Bethesda Marriott, right across from the White Flint Metro stop! Just so everyone knows!) so I don't have to.

Totally go see the "Roz Chast and Kate Beaton in Conversation" er, conversation, Saturday at noon. Do it! It's going to be awesome!


I once seduced a boy by showing him Hark! A Vagrant.


@spiralbetty A boy once did the same for me! It is the best way.


Love her! My favorite is Tycho Brahe (I think!) mostly because the punchline is WHAT IF YOUR WIFE ORBITS MY DICK. I also love the one about Mary and Percy Shelley, it's up on my fridge!


This post is great and everyone should feel great. Seriously, the Hairpin + Kate Beaton = <3


<3 Kate Beaton so much. I'm super lucky that I happened on her livejournal before she got SUPER huge, because I was able to request a comic! Nowadays she'd probably be bludgeoned by thousands of obscure history references if she opened up to requests, but I got my ridiculous obsession with Jean Baptiste-Lamarck and Georges Cuvier into a comic, so that was pretty dang sweet.

I am currently coveting her David Bowie GLAM BREAKFAST mug on topatoco. She has the best merchandise and we should all go support her right now by buying everything.


@breccia Thank you for bringing the Glam Breakfast mug to my attention; someone I know who is addicted to both coffee & David Bowie will be receiving that for her birthday very very soon.


@breccia Luckyyy. But yes! Buy her stuff! Better yet, buy ME the stuff. :3 I have the "shut up about babies" and I want the "history is very serious" shirt and the Wednesday the cat bag SO BADLY.


@breccia I definitely have the shirt with Poe and Jules Verne in a balloon together. But I really need the Bronte sisters shirt.
Also I am with everyone else in being really excited that two of my favourite internet things have converged into beautifulness today.


@breccia I have just now bought the Excited Victorians shirt because that strip cracks me up and I'm so happy it's on an actual t-shirt.


@breccia Lamarck & Cuvier FTW. (Ask me about my obscure academic specialty sometime.)

bouncy castle

@breccia I got the HUNKS mug last winter and it is just so delightful, like as in I have abandoned my fancy tower of minimalist "I'M AN ADULT" coffee mugs from world market COMPLETELY in favor of this mug


@Megan Patterson@facebook I have her Reading: It's Crazy shirt (I used to wear it when I did presentations in library school) and her Glasses Makes You Sexy shirt, and the more recent ducks saying Aw Yiss shirt. But I want all the other shirts too!


@breccia I bought the Glam Breakfast mug for my brother last Christmas and now his whole household regularly fights over it. And also I have the Brontes & Jane Austen prints. I love Kate Beaton so much. That is all.


@cuminafterall I asked for that mug last Christmas. It is glorious.


I love her comics because it makes for more people talking about historical/literary figures like how they would talk about that weird guy that frequents your coffee place or that alpha woman at your office or whatever, like they are just folks. It's my number one favorite thing to do.

Also, Mystery Solving Teens!


Ahh, love Kate Beaton! She is so fabulous. And on Hairpin? I am swooning help!


i love you maverick

i love

beach volleyball


Kate Beaton plus the Hairpin plus Lord Byron stuff PLUS programming stuff (Ada Lovelace) = kejthsejitlkst;esteuksitjekstesteskhtestr


@katherine I'm sure you know about this gem of an Ada Lovelace comic, BUT I'm gonna use your comment as an excuse to share it here.


@boysplz Holy crap I had not! This is amazing. Also amazing: how almost every single person who dated Byron -- which is really impressive -- has almost the exact reaction post-dating. Oh man. This would make the best historical Hollywood-except-not-Hollywood scandals post. Claire Clairmont's part alone would make a good post. And now I'm about to geek out about one of my favorite historical figures so I'll stop.


@katherine No, please go on! I only came across Claire Clairmont recently and am dying to know more about her. She seems to be one of those lesser-known historical figure who really proselytises people.


When I saw this in google reader, I got all excited because I thought it was a new Kate Beaton comic. Then I got sad because I realized it was not. Then I got excited again because Kate Beaton interview. Yay!


Kate Beaton! You've made me a very popular lady in the office!

Gef the Talking Mongoose

Kate Beaton is awesome and I am BUYING THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY.

Kate Beaton@twitter

Hey you guys! Thanks very much! Man I looove reading the Hairpin when I'm s'posed to be working!

I should also add that if anyone acts weird when I meet readers, it's me! I love meeting people but sometimes comic shows can be pretty overwhelming.


Important life lesson I learned at last year's SPX: get in Kate Beaton's line early, before all her books are sold.


I have only one thing to say: BUY KATE BEATON'S BOOK! She is super nice & talented and the book is lovely. I got an advanced copy at Comic-Con this year and love it to death. I don't usually buy compilation books from webcomic artists (preferring t-shirts and stickers and the like), but it's got all the best of her strips and is actually a beautiful little hardcopy book.


Kate + nedroid = crazy delicious

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

What's wrong with babies?


@Something unexpected surprise People keep talking about them?

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

@amirite But are the talking about real babies or like when people say, "Baby, baby, baby?"

Fancy Mustard

Swoon for certain - The Hairpin just keeps making my day. My fave Kate Beaton comic: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=32


everyone in this thread who has an opinion about which beaton comic is the best, i love you.


Is it ok if I kind of love this girl without even knowing her??

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

@palliata You have to say what your opinions re: babies are first.

Judith Slutler

AAAAHHHHhhh like everyone else here I am just so overjoyed to see this interview.

Also best Kate Beaton comic = this http://beatonna.livejournal.com/140221.html

"Ooh, I hope by devotion you mean - "


Aaaaahhhhhhhh omg fangirl shriek!

I love Kate Beaton's work. LOVE IT. She is my idol! I love sharing the joy of her comics with others (or sometimes make them annoyed when I CANNOT STOP LAUGHING, like with all the Nancy Drew ones or the cover series).

no way

Yea! Let's get all the Pizza Island folks in here, and Liana Maeby, and Katie Notopoulos. More great internet collisions.


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