If you've spent any time perusing webcomics, chances are you've encountered cartoonist Kate Beaton's historically inclined series Hark! A Vagrant.
In this hilarious series, Beaton explores topics ranging from Queen Elizabeth's ability to transform into an albatross to Dark Ages dating rituals to Jean Valjean/Javert slash fiction.
On the eve of the release of her new book, Beaton — who you may remember from the apocryphal adventures of Doctor Who — filled io9 in on all things Vagrant.
Your career trajectory is quite unique. How does one go from working at a maritime museum to publishing webcomics?
I was working at a museum at Victoria, British Columbia. I was putting the things that I drew on Facebook. And eventually I made a website for myself and my audience grew much larger than my group of friends.
One of my favorite ongoing gags in Hark! A Vagrant is how you poke fun at the rather baroque idea of adults imbuing teens with crime-solving agency à la Nancy Drew. Why is this a particular fascination of yours?
I read all the Nancy books and a few other things along that genre when I was like ten. In your imagination, you have this idea of how it's going to be when become a teenager when you're really small. It's going to be real cool...and then it's not really cool!
The stories of these teens with these exciting lives is a really interesting trope. It's also funny because I guess teens are idealized to an extreme, and those teens who aren't idealized in these stories are kind of dickheads.
Are there any particular historical eras or literary classics you haven't tackled yet and want to?
Yeah, there are! There are whole countries whose histories that I don't know much about. I'd like to make more international-type comics, but they take a lot of time. You have to immerse yourself in a lot of things to get to something specific.
For example, we take for granted how much we actually know about American history. You can say, "Well, let's go to 1850s America" and you have a general idea of what's going on already. But it's something else to say "Let's go to the 1850s in Thailand." I wouldn't know a lot of the basic cultural stuff, so you have to read up a lot. There's a time barrier in doing so.
I'm a fan of Verne. I tend much more toward his kind of science fiction as opposed to the H.G. Wells style. It's cute that he wrote a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. He's fun to draw, an old stickler for stats and making sure everything's depicted correctly. There's something endearing about that.
One of your strips that blew up recently was Strong Female Characters. What I love about this comic is that it opens itself to a Möbius strip of interpretation. Is it a critique of portrayals of "strong female characters?" A critique of those critiques?
Carly Monardo, Meredith Gran, and I were drawing one night and created our own characters and giving them names, these [stock] traits. They're so tough but they secretly cry! They're all those things that people take so seriously and defend when they're discussing depictions of women, like "Oh, what's wrong with being sexy?" It's so funny because it's like "Why are you defending this? It's so silly!" And it's not a critique of anything in particular — you see this all over the place. It's just funny to think of these robotic women who are so tough and don't have personalities and are awful people.
Is there anything you hate drawing or won't touch in Hark?
I find drawing Greek clothing sometimes difficult, I don't know why. It's all the little folds. I wanted to do a samurai comic once. I was looking up the armor and I thought, "I don't know how any of this stuff works!" People are always saying, "Make a comic about Hitler!" And I go, "No way!" I don't really think of Hitler as a funny dude. He's a monster dude.
So what's next for Kate Beaton?
I'm just trying to navigate opportunities as best I can without letting the main thing — the website — fall too far behind.
You contributed to Marvel's Strange Tales II anthology a while back, but you also have drawn the "Sexy Batman." Has DC approached you about his ongoing adventures?
No, they haven't. It was one of those things you do once and it's funny.
The Hark! A Vagrant collection is out today from Drawn & Quarterly.