Interview: Hark! A Vagrant Cartoonist Kate Beaton
Beaton's second collection of Hark! A Vagrant comics, Step Aside, Pops is out now
Kate Beaton occupies a specific niche in the wide-ranging world of webcomics. Her comic, Hark! A Vagrant chiefly draws its inspiration from the worlds of history and Western Literature, with a strong feminist and LGBTQ bent.
Beaton’s work has has found a fairly rabid audience online, and she recently released her second collection of cartoons, titled, Step Aside, Pops!. (It’s great.)
PEOPLE talked to Beaton about what drew her to cartooning and what it’s like to make art in the Wild West of the Internet.
How did you get started making comics?
I first started drawing them when I was in university. I took a history major, I worked in a museum; I was going to go into museum studies or a PhD program, but I went up North to pay my students loans off and while working at a museum, I started the webcomic, and it developed a following, so I thought, “Well, let’s see how far I can take this.” And this was in 2008.
Hark! A Vagrant was the first collection, and now Step Aside, Pops! is coming out. Are these grouped by subject, or chronology?
They’re going in order. This book features comics written from 2011-2015.
Growing up, what comics or cartoons were you interested in?
I grew up in a really rural place, as far as the Internet goes, so I was reading regular paper comics like the Archie series. I didn’t really know about webcomics until I was making them.
Your drawing style is really idiosyncratic and interesting. Who are you artistic influences?
That’s a difficult question because I have the same sort of television-based influences as anyone else when I started cartooning. And I was raised in isolation, and so that’s why I think it looks different, because I didn’t really have anyone to draw from. I spent a lot of time alone.
Did you always want to be an artist?
Well, when I was a kid, I really wanted to, but looking at a fine arts degree, it seemed like quite a gamble. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to get in and then, even if I did get in, even with a fine arts degree
My parents are very, very encouraging, but you go into a guidance counselor’s office, and you’re like, “I’m interesting in animation,” they’re like, “Do you mean nursing? Are you sure you don’t want to be a teacher?” And I’m a cautious person, so I think I always pictured myself being an artist but I also always pictured myself not being an artist.
It sounds like you managed your expectations a little bit.
Yeah I wasn’t like like, “If I follow my dreams, I’ll catch that star!” I only am doing the comic as my job because I sort of proved myself. I gathered my audience and I got the following and everything was sort of set up before I went for it, before I quit my “day job.” I was already established. I wasn’t barreling through it with no other prospects.
Have you had an outpouring of support from history majors and Western literature fans who feel their interests are finally served by a comic?
[Laughs] No. I think that I came into the webcomic scene at a time when it was really diversifying. Now you have comics about everything, and it’s not like people were reading comics going, “But where can I get my hands on some Jane Austen parodies?” But people were looking at the Internet, and expanding the content that they consumed, and mine happened to be a comic. I don’t think that I gathered the lit-loving comic enthusiasts, I think that I made something that a diverse group of people like for different reasons.
I first found your work through the ‘bread crumbs’ panel of one of your comics, which has become a meme in and of itself. Is it frustrating to have your work taken out of context or passed around without your name on it like that?
It used to be, because you see something, and there’d be a number on it like, ‘Shared 40 million times’ and you’re like, “Holy s—.” But that’s the nature of the Internet now. You can’t be upset, you can’t shut it down, you can’t sue. If you spent your time being upset about people taking your work without putting your name on it, you would not be able to sleep at night.
But there is also a smaller counterculture of people who insist on getting credit for artists, and that’s really nice. It’s nice that people go to bat for you. I know this because often people will include me in the tweet to someone else: “Will you please credit Kate Beaton, she drew that.” And people are on your side. People are only really sharing images with no author because they’re lazy or they’re just thinking, “Oh, it’s only little old me sharing it on my Facebook,” and then it gets shared a gajillion times. So they’re not being malicious. And we’ve all done it. So it’s nice that there are people out there who do recognize that credit is a big deal.
Who else do you like in the webcomic world?
My two favorite comics are Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran – her characters and nuanced storytelling are just top-notch – and Bad Machinery by John Allison, which tells the story of these teens, these kid detectives – and his dialogue skills are just so sharp.