Kate Beaton is a Canadian Web-comic artist with a background in history and anthropology. She's part of a community of terrific Web-comic artists, including some of my personal favorites — Ryan North, who draws Dinosaur Comics, and Emily Horne and Joey Comeau, who produce the photographic Web-comic A Softer World. Beaton's self-published first collection, Never Learn Anything from History, came out in 2009; as the readership of her comic Hark! A Vagrant! (also the title of her new collection for Drawn & Quarterly) grows, she's continued to collect numerous awards and a great deal of acclaim.
I don't know how I first stumbled upon her comics — perhaps a friend sent me a link to the ones about Lois Lane? Or the ongoing mermaid series? Maybe it was a T-shirt with one of her comics on it, or someone talking about a strip that featured Jane Austen, or Nikola Tesla, or one in which Wolverine becomes domesticated and starts clawing up the furniture.
What I do know is that I was a fan from that first strip onward. She manages to make historical comics that tell me something about contemporary culture, gender dynamics, and people who did bizarre or interesting things a very long time ago. I see the world in a different way after looking at a Kate Beaton strip. I think she's a genius.
SAY YOU'RE AT COCKTAIL PARTY. HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STRIP? I'd say it was history but with more butts, and if that doesn't hook them, then I'd just get another cocktail.
WHO ARE THE ARTISTS OR ILLUSTRATORS THAT YOU GREW UP READING AND ADMIRING? The only comics we had growing up were newspaper-style and Archie comics. . . . I had a few books by some amazing illustrators like the Provensens, and I obsessed over them, as well as the humor in pictures by people like Quentin Blake.
YOU HAVE A DEGREE IN HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGY, AND YOU WORKED IN A MARITIME MUSEUM. WERE YOU ALWAYS INTERESTED IN ART? I really, really wanted to be an animator when I was a teenager, and I practiced drawing and designing characters every day. When the time came to apply for school, though, I had no idea how to make a portfolio and there was no one to help me, so I assumed I wasn't good enough. Teachers really pushed kids to go into science if they were smart, not art.
I OFTEN READ YOUR STRIP AND THEN HAVE TO GO TO WIKIPEDIA TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF, SAY, SYLVANUS MORLEY. HOW, IN JUST A FEW PANELS, DO YOU MANAGE TO GIVE ENOUGH CONTEXT ABOUT THESE PEOPLE TO MAKE A JOKE FUNNY? IT SEEMS LIKE A MAGIC TRICK. It's the reason the comic only manages to update online sporadically.HOW DO YOU TYPICALLY WORK, AND WHERE? I find writing to be easier in a place with a lot of white noise — coffee shops, mostly — and then drawing and inking is done at my studio in Greenpoint, New York. It's called Pizza Island, and I share it with some amazing cartoonists.
WOULD YOU EVER BE INTERESTED IN WRITING A GRAPHIC NOVEL? I wouldn't say never, but right now the answer isn't yes. I like what I'm doing, and the approach suits the skills I've developed. I plan to have a long career, though, so there's nothing I've ruled out.
YOU GREW UP IN NOVA SCOTIA, AND LIVED ALL OVER CANADA. WHAT DO YOU MISS MOST SINCE YOU MOVED TO NEW YORK? That's easy! I miss health care. Health care is amazing. What is the matter with America?