It’s not easy to describe Hark! A Vagrant to someone who hasn’t read it. The webcomic by Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton is perhaps best known for riffing hilariously on historical characters from legends like Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar to more obscure and underappreciated figures like Nikola Tesla. In her new book collection Step Aside, Pops, Beaton spins out strips that poke fun at superheroes, use the covers of Nancy Drew novels as creative prompts, imagine Fox Mulder of the X-Files as a Jane Austen heroine, and even riff for 11 pages on the Janet Jackson music video “Nasty.”
“This book is just a mixed bag of stuff that I think is cool,” Beaton says. Yet, while Step Aside, Pops is undeniably potpourri, there’s a distinct through line of humor that cuts across it all, one that betrays a deep knowledge of history and literature, but delights in twisting their familiar (and sometimes unfamiliar) stories into slightly irreverent shapes.
Some of Beaton’s most popular comics over the years have focused on unsung figures of history, including not just cult-favorite eccentrics like Nikola Tesla, but also women and minorities who never got their due the history books. While the internet rightly gets a lot of credit for amplifying voices in modern culture that might otherwise not be heard, Beaton’s comics demonstrate how this effect can be retroactive as well, reaching back into the past to elevate unsung badasses like Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, a turn-of-the-century stunt pilot, and Ida B. Wells, a black investigative journalist and suffragette from the Victorian era.
“People read these comics and say, ‘Holy shit, this person is amazing! Why didn’t I know about them?’” says Beaton. “And it’s because they weren’t a white dude. There’s only so much room in the history book, but the whole conversation about who gets to be in the history book is changing, and I think that’s pretty amazing.”
When Beaton first started making Hark! A Vagrant in 2007, the Nova Scotia native was two years out of college with a degree with history and anthropology, working at a maritime museum in British Columbia. After launching a website for her comics at the insistence of some friends, she returned to her former job in the remote oil fields of Alberta to work off some of the debt from her student loans. Somewhere in the midst of all this, her work went viral and Beaton become an internet phenomenon and one of the first true webcomic stars of the 2000s.
“I would never have thought to go to a publisher,” she told me during our first interview in 2008, shortly after the first comics event where she was greeted by crowds of fans. “I didn’t grow up in a place with a comics scene. My town had a thousand and some people, in the middle of nowhere. I would not be anywhere right now if it weren’t for the internet.” A year later, her first comics collection Never Learn Anything From History became a New York Times bestseller and was named one of Time’s top 10 fiction books of the year; between 2009 and 2012 she took home a Doug Wright Award, an Ignatz Award, and three Harvey Awards for her work.
There’s only so much room in the history book, but the whole conversation about who gets to be in the history book is changing, and I think that’s pretty amazing. Kate Beaton
Today, she cites not just internet magic but timing as a crucial part of how she made it big. By the time she hit the webcomics scene, the medium—and the mechanisms for making a living at it—had already been established, but there were still relatively few people trying to break in. The online democratization of comics that opened the door for Beaton has also opened the door for a flood of other aspiring webcartoonists, and making the signal-to-noise ratio more difficult for new creators to penetrate.
“There wasn’t the same breadth of material as there is now, on Tumblr and everywhere else,” says Beaton. “Things are changing really fast. I have no idea how anybody gets noticed now. People ask my advice about how to get people to read their comics and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, man.’ There’s just so much content out there now!”
In the early days of Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton would occasionally post crude, playful MS Paint drawings, as well as autobiographical reflections on her life. Two of those comics, simply titled “internet lady” and “girl,” reflected on the sexist and harassing comments she received as her work became more popular.
“It used to be worse early on,” says Beaton, who adds that she’s stepped back from the internet and social media significantly over the last several years. “My day-to-day isn’t as bothered by it now. Maybe it’s because I retreated, and now I’m a more private person. In the beginning, you’re so excited that people are reading your work, and you’re way more open and giving of yourself because you’re young and so happy that this comics thing is working out! Then you get a little older and you want to live by the sea in a hut.”
Today, Beaton reserves her occasional autobiographical comics for a more curated audience, posting them on Twitter and Tumblr rather than the Hark! A Vagrant website. Still, sometimes even those comics can’t help but attract attention; last year, she received widespread praise for “Ducks,” a moving look back at her time working at the Alberta oil patch. But her most touching comics by far are the ones she makes about her family whenever she goes home to visit them on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.
Every now and then you see people say things to a creator as if they don’t exist, like they’re not even a person. That’s part of why I make those comics about my parents when I go home to visit. I don’t want people to feel like they can just yell at me because I’m just a concept. Kate Beaton
“I really strive to be a human being to the people who read me,” says Beaton. “Every now and then you see people say [horrible] things to a creator as if they don’t exist, like they’re not even a person. That’s part of why I make those comics about my parents when I go home to visit. I always want to be a person. I don’t want people to feel like they can just yell at me because I’m just a concept.”
Overall, she says her readers tend to be incredibly kind, and that thanks to years of fine-tuning her relationship with the internet to create more balance—and distance from its ugliest elements—she doesn’t come across much animosity online anymore. These days, she worries less about herself and more about the teenage girls who come up to her at comics events, clutching her books to their chests and eagerly handing her their own comics that they made at home.
“You see their shining faces, and meanwhile you’ve got these lines on your face from looking at the internet for too long,” laughs Beaton. “But I look at them and I’m like, oh, I want the world to be better for you! I don’t want you to put your work up and get shitty emails and rape threats. I hope a generation from now people will have figured it out.”
The next generation of webcartoonists comes up often in conversation with Beaton; she seems curious, even excited to see the work of the new wave of creators starting to emerge, but she sees the distance between herself and them widening.
“Remember when we were young, you and I?” Beaton reminisces, laughing. “We’re at the age now where you could cross the line and be out of touch, because the kids in comics now feel like they’re like 10 steps ahead of us. They come out of the womb proficient in Photoshop; they know how to use computers and construct humor in ways that so many really great artists I know didn’t, at least at their age. I don’t know if that’ll make them better in the long run, but they come out of the gates like superstars.”
While she may have found something approaching peace with the internet—no small feat, to say the least—Beaton has found plenty of new, more adult problems to struggle with in her early 30s, including how to balance the demands of creative work online with a desire for a slightly more stable life. She’s worked on a number of different including cartoons for The New Yorker, a children’s book about a fat pony, and a few television projects that never made it to fruition, but she isn’t entirely sure what the future will hold—or what she wants it to hold.
“When you’re younger, [webcomics] is like, “Welcome young people!” But then you get a little older and have to figure out how to make it work for your mature self as well,” she says. While her 20s were often consumed with worries about rent and incredibly long hours, “I want to own a house someday, and I don’t want to work as hard as I have all the time—I want to be able to relax. But if someone offered me a TV show where I had to work a billion hours I’d be like, yeah sure! What you want and what is right for you becomes a bigger question as you get older. And I’m in the middle of sorting that out.”
Even for Beaton, one of the most established and recognizable names in webcomics, there’s a feeling of tenuousness around her success, a sense the ground could still shift beneath her feet at any moment and change everything. She recalls that last year the typically big sales around the holiday season suddenly dropped off for her and several other webcartoonists. Was it just an off year, or was something more fundamental changing? She still doesn’t quite know why it happened, but she’s acutely aware that she needs to keep her finger in the wind.
“You can’t rest on your laurels. We came of age at time when things were shifting [around the internet] and people were scared, so we’re used to that being normal,” says Beaton. “But you’re only ahead of the curve once when you’re young. After that you have to pay attention, to be aware, or it’ll be on to the next. Being out of touch can murder your career.”
She pauses and laughs for a second. “Even though I want to live in a hut by the ocean.”