Eccentric's Corner: Drawn to History

Kate Beaton’s sneaky-smart comic strips put historical figures and literary legends in their place.

By Gary Drevitch, published May 4, 2015 - last reviewed on June 10, 2016

Kate Beaton is almost certainly Canada’s funniest history postgrad. Her popular online comic strip, “Hark! A Vagrant,” the second collected edition of which (Step Aside, Pops) will be released this fall, mines hilarity from a striking range of subjects, from the Brontë sisters to the French Revolution, Tycho Brahe, and Nancy Drew. And while her strips are as cheerfully vulgar as the men and women who made history, she’s also just published her first children’s book, about an adorable princess and her fat pony.

PROFESSION: Cartoonist, creator of the strip "Hark! A Vagrant!"  CLAIM TO FAME: Finding humor in the Industrial Revolution, the lives of the saints, and Canadian politics. (Photo: harkavagrant.com)

Your strips have a lot of fun with famous figures and cherished ideas. Do you consider your approach to be reverent or irreverent?

Reverent! There’s irreverence in the humor, but I have a lot of respect for what I study and do, and hopefully it’s as much of a celebration of the things that I make comics about as it is a takedown of them.

You’ve described your options after graduating with a history degree as either trying to work in a museum or creating comics. How did you decide?

It’s hard to get a job in a museum! So I became a comic artist, which doesn’t make any sense either, because nobody goes into comic-book writing for the money. It’s really difficult. But every now and then some historical museum will get in touch with me to talk about projects, and there’s no way that they would be approaching me if I were just an assistant in a museum in British Columbia that nobody came to visit. So, I still get to do my job and to do it within a public education context.

Have you been doing strips about history since you started cartooning?

No, I started off doing these strange autobiographical comics, and then I started doing comics about my friends, although when you start making comics about your friends, they all say, “Do me! Do me now! Put me in one!” When I was at university, the comics reflected campus life and what I was studying, which was history. When I went online, the comic became an extension of that. 

Your strips distill complex topics into relatable nuggets, like when a 15th-century peasant boy is about to kiss a girl, but first says, “I’ve, like, never ever brushed my teeth.”

Well, I did get emails about that one from people who said, “Actually, peasants were able to brush their teeth with twigs.” But I did a lot of reading about medieval history, and there’s a lot of that in my upcoming collection.

The comics seem simple but it’s clear that a lot of research goes into them. What’s your process?

I start with whatever I’m interested in at the time—whatever makes me laugh. But then it’s a lot of reading and getting into a tightly wound, super-focused space where you really try to get into somebody’s life or experience. And then you have to make sure they look like themselves and are dressed like themselves and that the social mores are reflected in the place they have in society, or in our memory.

Your strip often pokes holes in things that seemed to be perfectly good strategies at the time, like leading troops on a horse in full uniform.

And we don’t line up single-file and fire at each other anymore. I just go out and read and hope something catches my eye. Like during World War I, trench warfare was new and everybody was wearing brown uniforms for camouflage. Except in the beginning of the war, not everyone had caught on to that yet. It’s so human—that’s what makes it so tragic, but also kind of funny. You have most of these guys in trenches in brown uniforms, but the French army still wore bright red pants until they realized, “Oh, my God, we should have different uniforms because everybody else is camouflaged.”  

Some of your best strips are about overlooked contributions of women. You’ve said that you want to counter the notion that feminism is humorless.

It’s like when somebody says, “You can’t,” and then you say, “Oh, yes, I can!” But I also make those comics because when you study history, a part of you is always looking for a version of yourself in the past. So I’m naturally drawn to women’s history, but I mean, if I was to say, “I’m making a comic about history,” and the strips were all about men, I don’t think anybody would really notice. But if you make one with a lot of women, some people automatically say, “Oh, it’s a feminist comic.” I don’t mind being called a feminist. I am one. But it’s strange to me that because you start making comics about something you’re interested in, you’re a capital-letter “Woman in Comics.”

There’s a lot to appeal to kids in the strip, including dirty words. Do you get letters saying, “I read your comic, and now I’ve decided to study history”?

I do get those letters! And I feel kind of bad for them because it’s a hard degree to get a job with. My comics are used as ice breakers before classes in some schools. A teacher will put up a slide, and then the kids start laughing and the teacher says, “All right, now it’s down to business.”  That’s an amazing feeling for me, because all of my favorite teachers were the ones who employed humor.

Do we see the influence of Monty Python on your comics?

I actually directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a play in high school. We did not have the rights to it at all, but nobody cared because we were just in this rural Canadian town. But there’s always been humorous potential in history. Look at old Mel Brooks movies or the fantastic book 1066 and All That. I’ve wagered that it influenced the Pythons. It was a very popular book in Britain. It’s by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, and it was published in 1930, but I didn’t actually read it until 2009. And then when I did, I thought, Where has this book been all my life? I don’t think I’m half as clever as most things I like best, but you kind of hope that you can get close.

Comic strip courtesy of harkavagrant.com

Your first children’s book, The Princess and the Pony, is about to be released, you’re doing cartoons for the New Yorker, and there’s even a plush toy of the fat pony you created. Do these outlets keep your work fresh? 

There was a time when I was really burnt out on comics. I’m not the sort of person who can just laser focus on any topic or genre for too long. You start to phone it in, and the strips start getting lazy or more formulaic. But I also think evolution is really important, because it’s not like you see a lot of cartoonists beyond middle age doing well. Eventually, I want to have a house, raise a family, and all of that kind of stuff, but a lot of the time, comics is a young man’s thing—unless you’re Robert Crumb. So I try to have a lot of options and make decisions with longevity in mind. I don’t think it’s wise for artists to sit on their laurels for too long, and I try not to. I’d like to stick around, and I’ve been trying to make choices that will allow me to do that.

But you also follow the current model of posting strips on your website for free.

I could never do a serialized comic every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday about the same character. That’s not how my best work would come out—for sure. I don’t make comics on any kind of dependable schedule. They show up on the web when they show up, but, well, it’s still a free comic. Sometimes you see readers turn on a creator on the web for not updating enough, and that’s very strange because they’re putting up free content. 

How much interaction do you seek with visitors to your website? 

I feel like as an online author part of your job is to give away a lot of yourself, and I really value being seen as a human to people online. I feel as if people know a lot about me. But I try to guard the privacy that I do keep pretty jealously. That’s important to me, too. I enjoy having a closeness with the audience, but I’m aware that you can share too much of yourself. I gradually learned to excise the autobiographical comics from the site. 

Is there a favorite period of history that you love to return to in the strip?

No, the last thing that I read is always the most interesting thing that I’ve ever read. Right now I’m reading about ibn Sina, who wrote the great books of medieval Islamic medicine, and that’s pretty interesting. And then after I read my next book, I’ll be saying, “Have you heard of this? It’s the most interesting thing!”