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.