Cartoonist Kate Beaton, whose popular webcomic Hark! A Vagrant spawned a collection of the same name in 2011, is back with another book of her hilarious and hyper-literate comics.
The new collection, Step Aside, Pops, came out this week, and it comprises most of the comics Beaton’s written since the publication of her first book. “There’s no big strategy there,” Beaton admits to EW, explaining how she curated the collection from all the strips she’s drawn in the last four years. “That selection was fairly easy; I cut out comics I didn’t particularly like that much or I thought were a bit weaker.”
Beaton, a Canadian whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, is largely inspired by history, literature, and pop culture; many of her strips are populated by characters from those three realms. Whether she’s drawing Juárez and Maximilian, Heathcliff and Catherine, or Mulder and Scully, however, she remains irreverent and sharply observant.
“I really just make work about something that is keeping me interested at the moment or that I find funny at the moment,” Beaton tells EW. “I’m constantly absorbing books and information, and I’m trying to come up with the next idea.”
EW: Is there any literary or historical figure that has just eluded you? That you’ve tried to build a comic around but it just hasn’t worked?
Kate Beaton: Yeah, sure. Not because, like, “Oh, I failed, there’s no way to make this comic happen,” but because it’s not the right time. Sometimes I put a comic away — I work on it, I’m like, “This isn’t working,” and then I come back to it much, much later with a fresh start and figure out where the joke is. There’s a joke in almost everything, but you’ve got to find that way in. If you find it, you’re good to go. If you don’t, you’ve got to keep moving. You’ve got to find something else to make a comic about.
Your comics negotiate feminist issues in such an interesting and funny way. Can you talk about that? Why is that such a recurring theme in your work?
I think that there’s a larger conversation happening right now that most of us are kind of a part of about the effects of feminism in society and what we want it to be. There’s a lot more discussion now, when a movie like Mad Max comes out and you see a lot of articles about the treatment of women characters — and I don’t think that was happening at the same rate a few years ago. I think there’s been a change in the air. I remember when some people knew what the Bechdel Test was, and now a lot of people know what the Bechdel Test is.
So with this kind of conversation in the air, if you’re a woman making comics, you’re very aware of it, because you’re in this medium that’s usually been dominated by male interests. And now all of my female peers and I have been in all of those panels about women in comics … I told you that my comics are a reflection of things that I’m reading or absorbing at any time, and debates, feminist debates is definitely one of them, because I feel like we’re surrounded by it. And I do seek out those think pieces; I watch a movie and I’m like, “I like The Avengers — now it’s time for me to go read 10 essays on how everybody thought the Black Widow character [was portrayed].” So the feminist bent in the work is just, I think, because that is a conversation that’s always happening, so I pull it out, too, into my work.
So what makes historical figures good vehicles to address such current issues?
Because the nature of humanity doesn’t really change. And because, when you’re talking about ancient history or literature or anything like that, I think that we’re kind of in a movement of reevaluating what is important to us, and what we want to be taught in schools, and whose stories we want to include in the narrative that were left out. And that makes the past very political and very present right now, because it’s always mattered.
Do you have a favorite strip from the collection?
You know what, the one that made me laugh the most when I made it is this stupid one — it’s the one with the Founding Fathers in the mall, and they’re lost. I think it’s super fun, the way that some of you guys, you Americans, make icons, kind of hilarious icons, of these guys.
I’ve watched 1776 the musical, I’ve watched John Adams and Lincoln, and all these movies where sometimes these historical characters—they’re very important people in the history of the whole nation, but they’re also… You know, you can buy dolls of them! They’re kind of soft and malleable in a way that’s a lot of fun. Because we don’t really do that in Canada — you don’t really see our early prime ministers, and people going, “I really like that guy!” the way that people are like, “I really think that Ben Franklin was a cool guy!”
Maybe it’s because they come with the readily prescribed personalities that people understand. You can throw them, pit them against each other; everybody knows that Adams and Jefferson have a falling-out, and Jefferson was a tortured-writer sort of guy, and Ben Franklin was a lothario and George Washington was maybe a bit of a straight arrow. They’re these types, types of characters that you can have a lot of fun with, even though they are these very important historical figures. There’s something really extremely fun about that. So that was the comic that made me laugh the most when I was writing them. Also, I think there’s a bit of Bill and Ted in that, and I used to love that movie.
I was going to say, it made me think of Bill and Ted, when they go to the mall! And Joan of Arc is teaching the aerobics class…
Yeah, and Beethoven’s playing on the keyboard! Yeah, that was a lot of fun. In the end, I try to come back to that all the time: Just have fun with it, and let the readers have fun.
Kate Beaton’s Step Aside, Pops, published by Drawn & Quarterly, is out now.