Kate Beaton is lost.
Not, like, creatively or artistically–she’s at the top of her game there, with her second book of smart, literate, hilarious cartoons, Step Aside, Pops, in stores now. No, she’s literally lost–when we talk, she’s somewhere in Vermont, desperately trying to find a gas station. She’s traveling with a friend, and pulling up Google Maps on her phone as we talk so they can make sure they don’t get lost in the woods somewhere.
Being lost in the woods would be a bummer for anybody, but it’d probably also be pretty funny for a character in one of Beaton’s strips. She built her comic, Hark! A Vagrant around three-panel strips that explore idiosyncratic settings and characters–most often drawn from history or literature–and follow them to their absurd conclusions. A series of strips in Step Aside, Pops on “Famous Alexanders” follows Andrew Pushkin as he challenges people to duels, Alexander the Great as he conquers in Monopoly, Alexander Pope as he corrects yet another person who misquotes “to err is human…”, and Alexander Graham Bell as he invents the smartphone. In her “Nancys” strips, the covers of old Nancy Drew novels spin off in very weird ways–someone who got lost in the woods there could easily find themselves having an extended conversation with a skeleton, or spoiling the end of Old Yeller. She’s got the sort of sense of humor that can make anything (Wuthering Heights, the Rum Rebellion, straw-man stereotypes of feminists, etc) so hilarious that she’s received four Harvey Awards, the Ignatz Ward, the Doug Wright Award, and her first book, Hark! A Vagrant, was a #1 New York Times Bestseller.
So while she’s searching for a gas station in the woods of Vermont, she also took some time on the phone to explain how she got to that point.
“I wish I was a nine to five sort of person,” Beaton says when asked about what her creative process. “But every day, I might be in the middle of something, or just ending something, or just beginning something. If I have an idea, I’m working on that. If I don’t have any ideas, I really have to get to work on getting those wheels in motion, because every time I finish a comic, it’s a totally blank page.”
Beaton’s comics go deep on a variety of topics. Some of her work is drawn purely out of her own imagination, but much of her work is built around strips that take a semi-obscure historical figure–say, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker, the turn-of-the-century doctor who helped introduce the concept of “preventative care” in medicine, or journalist and early Civil Rights leader Ida B. Wells, who fought for racial justice in the suffragist movement–and gives readers just enough of a background on this person for the jokes to land. She does similar things with literature, too–Step Aside, Pops features eight pages of strips that go heavy on the first half of Wuthering Heights–which means that when she needs an idea, she’s got a pretty good idea where to look.
“I just read,” she says. “I read and I try to absorb information and images, and anything that might kickstart something my brain that says ‘You’ve got something here!’, or that makes me think of something else that I remember. You end up developing a really good memory–but it’s still kind of scattered, so you’re left sifting through your own thoughts and interests. There’s no specific way to do that. I don’t have a method. I wish that I had a factory method of coming up with something, but it’s just waiting until something hits, and then working on that.”
For Beaton, that means potential inspiration is everywhere–but also that she never really gets a break from working. “Even when I’m watching something just to enjoy it, I find, ‘Oh, this could be handy,’” she says. “When something like this becomes your job, it’s your job all the time. My mind is always on work, so you never know where the inspiration is going to come from.”
Beaton’s fascination with history is evident from her work. Some of them are big names–Julius Caesar spends some time at the front of Step Aside, Pops–but part of the joy of the book is the amount of time she spends finding the humor in situations that readers may not have known existed before they found her strip. Austrian Duke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, who was sent to establish a monarchy in Mexico in the 1860s, gets a lot of face time in the book along with the Mexican President, Benito Juárez, who had him executed. Beaton’s obvious joy in exploring the situation that brought an Austrian duke to Mexico to declare himself Emperor leaps off the page, and sharing that love of history is a big part of the fun she finds in her work.
“I thought I was going to work in museums or be a professor or something like that, so I get to do a little bit of teaching–but it’s more ‘sharing’ than it is ‘teaching,’ really, because I know in my audience, there’s going to be someone who knows that person better than anybody else, who’s like, ‘I wrote my thesis on this.’” she says. “So I’m talking to people who don’t know anything about the topic, and people who know everything about it. It’s both at the same time, and I’m really aware of that.”
Beaton may not have a tried-and-true method for finding inspiration, but she does have a pretty good idea how to make the characters–whether historical or fictional–she’s basing her strips around accessible even to an audience that doesn’t know them.
“You have to have some kind of exposition in there for people who don’t know anything, so they can get to know the book or the character–who they are, where they came from and everything–and then further down the strip, the more comfortable they are and the better they know them, the jokes are hopefully funnier,” she says.
But the key, in either case, is to make sure she’s not talking down to either group. “You have to trust that the audience is smart–you’ve read books that I haven’t, and I’ve read books that you haven’t. It doesn’t mean that anybody is a genius,” she says.
HarkAVagrant.com launched in 2008, and Beaton’s work quickly began attracting attention. She became a rising star in and outside the comics world. Her work was published in The New Yorker and Marvel’s Strange Tales, she won a number of cartooning awards, and the first Hark! A Vagrant collection landed on Time’s top ten list for fiction. With that success came opportunities. Earlier this year, she published The Princess and the Pony, a children’s book that she wrote and drew—her first piece for an audience that definitely won’t get Wuthering Heights jokes.
“I was really, really used to talking to an audience that is adult and educated and invested in nostalgia,” she says. “But once you realize that kids are just as smart as adults, they just have different points of reference, our humor can be turned around for kids. They just haven’t experienced all the things that we have, so some of them, they’re encountering for the first time. Stuff like poop jokes hit super well because kids are like, ‘That’s hiliarious. Anything that comes out of your butt.’ I used to babysit kids and they always thought that was the funniest thing ever.”
The Princess and the Pony was a hit, but it’s not the only place Beaton hopes to branch out from her comics. “It would actually be really awesome to work for television as a writer,” she says. “I really enjoy writing. I’m most satisfied when I write a really solid joke.”
Beaton feels like her comics have prepared her for that sort of opportunity, especially if she found work on a sketch comedy show. “It’s not too dissimilar to a gag comic, if done well,” she says. Longer-form narratives hold less appeal. “I enjoy the gag comics because I really like putting up something that has no holes in it, that’s really kind of a compact little gem that I rolled in my tumbler until it came out perfect,” she says. “Longform comedy is really difficult to do. It’s amazing, but you can also draw it out, so I really like the short and sweet single-page work that I do.”
In addition to looking for different media or formats to work in, Beaton keeps her creative edges sharp through the comics community in Toronto, where she lives. “They do different things here,” she says, “There’s a superhero crowd and there’s an indie comics crowd and there’s a webcomics crowd–they’re all over the place.”
When she lived in New York, meanwhile, she found other ways to keep herself striving. “There was just always, always so much art happening all the time–it was inspiring and kind of terrifying, and I think that I needed to be a little bit terrified,” she says. “I would wake up in New York and think that I really have to be better at my job today than I was yesterday. You don’t get that in every city.”
These days, Beaton worries about that a lot less. “I think I’m more established–I found my place, and I keep at it,” she says. “And I have certain projects that take a long time like these books, so every day I get up and I have to finish one. There’s definitely a difference there.”