Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection

Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection

by Kate Beaton


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770462083
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 546,677
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kate Beaton is a Canadian cartoonist who appeared on the comics scene in 2007 with her online work Hark! A Vagrant. Since then, she has become a fan favorite and has garnered a significant following, with illustrations appearing in places like The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and Marvel's Strange Tales anthology. Her first book with D+Q, Hark! A Vagrant, spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list, and topped best-of-the-year lists from Time, E!, Amazon, and Publishers Weekly. Beaton lives in Toronto, Canada.


Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Kate Beaton

A pissy Napoleon. A pot-smoking Nelly Dean. An exasperated Wonder Woman. Cartoonist Kate Beaton's whimsical portrayals of characters from history, literature, and pop culture have delighted readers of her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant for eight years.

This has been a big year for Beaton. She released two books: her first children's book, The Princess and the Pony, and her second comics compendium, Step Aside, Pops. The latter is the long-awaited follow-up to her first collection of strips, also called Hark! A Vagrant.

Kate Beaton didn't aspire to a career as an artist. Raised in Nova Scotia, Canada, she grew up with little exposure to comics culture. However, her interest in drawing inspired her to edit the comics section of her student newspaper and to consider majoring in animation — though she ultimately studied history and anthropology. Her path at university led her to a career working in museums, where she spent her lunch breaks doodling.

Intending to amuse herself and her friends, she began to create comics again in 2007, this time publishing them on her Facebook page and ultimately on her own website. Her strips satirized iconic historical and literary figures, often imagining their petty and quotidian concerns. Caesar wonders what to wear on the Ides of March. Allen Ginsberg plays a verbose car game. Readers began to discover her work online and to share it on social media. Her success with her webcomic led to landing illustration gigs for The Walrus and elsewhere, as well as getting her cartoons published in The New Yorker.

What makes Beaton special is her deft — and adorable — draftsmanship, her talent for capturing the telling facial expression or gesture, and her use of conversational dialogue to expose the foibles and fallibilities of well-known characters. (Stars of history and literature — they're just like us!) Her humor is never cruel; instead, Beaton seems curious about what made these historical figures tick, and why some of them don't loom as large in our imaginations as she believes they should.

I spoke with Beaton over the phone while she was visiting her family in Nova Scotia. We discussed the genesis of her webcomic and books, the challenge of finding one's voice amidst the clatter of the web, and the power and responsibility of being a Woman in Comics. —Grace Bello

The Barnes & Noble Review: I'm curious what inspired you to go into comics in the first place. You weren't someone who grew up as a big-time comics nerd.

Kate Beaton: I was a big-time drawing nerd, and I dreamed of going into animation when I was littler. When it came time to go to university, I thought I probably wasn't good enough to do that, so I went to school and got a history degree. I started making comics in university for the school paper. I got an audience — my classmates. I really liked having an audience. I liked having that power, when you're in a position to make people laugh, and they like what you do. I didn't really want to give it up when I left school. So I started putting comics online.

BNR: When you first started creating comics, I know you looked to other comics to see what other people had done before you. What kinds of graphic novels did you gravitate towards?

KB: Oh, whatever I could get my hands on, really! I would go into comics shops and ask the owners for recommendations. They would ask: What kind of stories do you like? I would tell them, and they would suggest comics. So I read everything from mainstream to indie comics on the other side of the spectrum. Libraries were also starting to collect comics. That's where I found a lot of Drawn and Quarterly books. I read whatever I could.

BNR: When you started doing comics for your website, you were working at the Maritime Museum at British Columbia. I wonder what that job was like.

KB: Oh, I was the admin assistant there. I miss it, actually, I love that museum very much.

BNR: Were you drawing inspiration from what you saw in the museum?

KB: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And it wasn't the only museum I worked at. I worked at four or five. I was going to the library and would read a book about naval history or shipwrecks. That was my main thing — I was looking at historical material all the time. I was pulling from all that.

BNR: A few of your comics satirize comics themselves. I'm thinking of Strong Female Characters, and I'm thinking of your Lois Lane strips. Why did you choose to parody that subject matter?

KB: Because I wanted to. It's a boring answer, but I make comics about whatever I think is interesting or funny.

It's odd when I get the question about feminism and Strong Female Characters. People think I woke up and was like, "I'm going to rip into the patriarchy today, guns out!" But, really, I was just like, "I like Lois." [Laughs] Then I had a bunch of those strips that were about women, and people thought, "Wow, you're really a huge feminist!" Not necessarily. If it was about a bunch of men, no one would care!

Of course, I'm drawn to those stories. But as soon as you are a women in comics, that becomes capitalized: you are a "Woman in Comics." People ask you what that's like all the time, and then I had to ask myself that question.

That means that people just pull you in when there's a conversation [in the media] about feminism or gender roles and that kind of thing. I am a feminist, and I enjoy making that material, but I think that, if you're a Woman in Comics, that becomes who you are whether you like it or not.

BNR: I think that there are more and more women in comics — Jillian Tamaki, Noelle Stevenson — but I'm trying to think of women in comics who address women in comics in their comics.

KB: Yeah, I mean, some people are sick of that question. Some people are sick of the Women in Comics panels at comics shows. I don't mind. I like Women in Comics panels. But, yeah, I'm drawn to those characters, and I try to bring out the humor.

BNR: Speaking of the Women in Comics panels, I know that you were on a panel with Roz Chast a few years ago. She's a longtime comics contributor to The New Yorker, and you've been published in the magazine as well. I wonder whether there was any advice that she gave you. What was the best advice you ever got about being a cartoonist?

KB: We talked a bit about The New Yorker. I was talking about their certain style, and she told me not to make anything for them but to make it for me. She definitely has a distinctive voice in that magazine. Her message was basically "be yourself," sure, but it was also "don't try to make things for other people, make things for yourself." In [the August 10 & 17 issue of] The New Yorker, I have a cartoon [about falling asleep during a movie], and they had contacted me to do it. So that worked out.

BNR: For your webcomic, you're the one directing your work, but when you're doing a cover for the Canadian magazine The Walrus or when you're doing a comic for The New Yorker, someone else is guiding you. What is it like to work with editors?

KB: At The Walrus, they're quite generous. But with Scholastic, my publisher for the kids' book The Princess and the Pony, I had a couple of editors. And, yeah, for The New Yorker, you stand in front of Bob Mankoff, and he'll be like, "This is no good, but this other one is great!"

When faced with editors, I find it pretty hard to stand up for myself, I suppose. I believe them when they tell me their opinion. I say, "Oh, you're right, this [cartoon] is the better one!" [Laughs] I think, with artists, there's a lot of ego, but there's also a lot of self-doubt. So when somebody is like, "No, you should change this," you have to be pretty sure of yourself and be like, "No, I shouldn't."

BNR: What's your process when you make a comic? Are you scripting? Are you sketching out thumbnails?

KB: It's different every time. Most of the time, the writing is done in my head. It's concocted in my brain, and it's based on a couple of scribbly notes that I have so that I don't forget this or that detail. There's no bullet-point list in terms of what I think is funny.

BNR: Who are your influences in terms of learning how to write humor?

KB: I guess you can say I watched Monty Python as a teenager and things like that, but I don't really know the answer to that. I think my local area here [in Nova Scotia] valued humor very highly, so I always tried to be funny as a kid. Again, being from such a small town, it was whatever you could get your hands on.

I think your strongest ability is going to come out with your unique stamp on it, no matter what. For me, I guess the hallmarks of what I do are a lack of punctuation, anachronistic dialogue, an ability to string certain phrases together that are funny. They get turned into memes a lot because of that. [For example, "I had fun once and it was awful."] Those were just the funniest things that I could come up with.

BNR: Often, when you explore the lives of historical figures in your comics, you focus on the pettiness and bluster of these icons — for instance, Chopin, Liszt, and Napoleon. I wonder what attracts you to these people. What about them lends them to parody?

KB: If you wrote a book about figures of state and elections, people would just think, "Ugh, this is boring!" We care about people when we know a bit about them. Not because they were talented or powerful, but because they were irritable in an endearing way, or that they were complete arseholes [Laughs], or that they were pushovers or underdogs or that they never got their due, or that they were amazing but never recognized. Those little flaws are the most human parts of those characters. These are things that people relate to. The humanity is what we revel in. That's what I dig into, myself.

BNR: How did you end up writing your kids' book, The Princess and the Pony? Did you aspire to write a children's book?

KB: Scholastic approached me. I talked with my agent, and we were like, "Oh boy, yes! That sounds great!" I thought, "Oh, it'll be a piece of cake!," which is what everybody says to themselves. Then you get down to it, and you realize, "Oh, this is really hard." [Laughs] I was fooling myself.

BNR: I'm curious about the feedback element of your work. I wonder what it's like to have the majority of your work online and to have that constant social media conversation with your fans.

KB: Well, it's been like that from the beginning. It's something that I'm kind of used to. That feedback has to mean something to you, and it has to not mean something to you at the same time. I know that, with some people's work, it's hindered by the fact that they only listen to the adulation, and they don't listen to criticism. But I try to put both into perspective.

You have to learn when criticism is just bullshit. You're getting it all: I get responses from the high, lofty, established critics to the cesspool of some forgotten, sad corner of the Internet that no one wants to talk about. You have to learn what to filter, in order to be a good artist and a good communicator. You have to keep that relationship with your audience strong and healthy and mutually agreeable.

BNR: It must be challenging to be in such close conversation with your audience.

KB: I was twenty-three when I started the comic online. At that point, you're just amazed that anybody is reading them at all. You want to talk to them. It's very natural that you have this buoyancy in the conversation. "Oh my God, people like my comics? I can't believe it!" I was just so excited.

I'm thirty-one now, and if I started my comic now and people were talking to me, I would think, "Ooh, I want to get off my computer." [Laughs] I'm old; I don't want to talk to anybody!

BNR: I wonder if you have any advice for younger cartoonists who are trying to find their voice and gain the confidence to put themselves out there.

KB: Because of Tumblr and other sites, people are rolling out new content all the time. It's harder to get noticed, I think. But also, I think there's so much material out there and so much to be influenced by, that a lot of the stuff sort of looks the same. It's really, really good, but it looks and sounds like the other things that are coming out. Everybody is feeding off the same influences and styles and techniques.

If I were starting now, I would really try to tune in to my own voice in my head. It's what Roz Chast said to me as well: "Don't write for them, write for you."

September 16, 2015

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