Interview with Kate Beaton

Mermaid, by Kate Beaton

Mermaid, by Kate Beaton

This week people of all ages are returning to school, which means that lots of folks are thinking harder than usual about what they want to be when they grow up, and how they might reasonably try to get there.

I thought it would be a good time to talk to someone who seems to me to be doing it right, in terms of making a living as a creative person, on her own terms and in her own way.  People like this inspire me, and I think it’s good to keep their stories in mind as we forge our own creative paths.

What follows are excerpts from an interview I did recently via email of the author of my very favorite webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant!

Kate Beaton and Hark! A Vagrant!

Kate Beaton lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and she writes one of the funniest and, yes, most erudite webcomics out there, Hark! A Vagrant!

She is clearly fascinated by history, especially of the Canadian, American, and European variety, and her comics present a quirky, often hilarious take on the many topics in this rich vein of content.

Her interests include the American Revolution (click on the images to enlarge*):

Hark, a vagrant 140

Naploeon’s fateful campaign on Russia:

Hark, a vagrant_ 41

Robespierre and the French Revolution:

Hark, a vagrant_ 52

And, of course, Jane Austen:

Hark, a vagrant_ 4

Kate earned her undergraduate degree in History and Anthropology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. She began drawing comics for the university newspaper during her 3rd and 4th years at school, but then stopped after graduation.  She picked it up again after about two years, when she started what would eventually become Hark! A Vagrant!

After showing her growing catalog of new comics to her closest friends, she was eventually persuaded to start posting them online. Now she lives in Halifax, where she earns her living primarily from her webcomic, its related merchandise, and other artistic projects.

I asked her how the process of posting her art online and making it public had changed the style and content of what she did:

Well, the style has changed because I’ve been drawing consistently since I began the comic.  It’s improving, I’m happy with that.  As for content, I used to do more personal things, journal comics and inside jokes because it was just myself and my friends reading the comics.  That mostly went away with a bigger audience, no one wants to read a comic about pointless inside jokes.

One of the striking things about the world of webcomics is the tightly-knit support network they have formed.  There is a tremendous amount of cross-promotion and publicity that goes on among the emerging crop of webcomics artists, and they seemed to embrace Kate’s endeavors right away:

When I started, I got a lot of encouragement, and that was a big boost.  Online comics artists are often friends in the same way that any peer group would be, they do the same things, have similar interests and experiences, and are usually fans of other creators too.  There were a lot of people helping me who I became friends with – Emily Horne, Joey Comeau, John Campbell, Ryan North, Richard Stevens, Meredith Gran, John Allison, Jeff Rowland – a lot.

What do you do during a typical day, now that you are back living in Halifax and making your living from your art?

I’ve yet to settle in to a typical day here in Halifax, it’s been such a busy summer and I’ve hardly even been around.  But days vary widely, sometimes it’s all reading one day, sometimes it’s making comics and failing, sometimes it’s making comics and getting it right, sometimes it’s making comics for other things, sometimes it’s answering mail.  Sometimes it’s all of those things!

I noticed that on some of your earlier strips, you wrote in a line at the bottom that says something along the lines of “this is so dumb.” I think it’s a common thing for creative people to do, metaphorically or otherwise, to hang self-deprecating disclaimers on their work.  This practice, as you know, has a number of drawbacks. What advice would you give to other creative people who do this?

Don’t do that.  I’ve done it once or twice under something that is especially ridiculous, but I still put it up, it’s funny because it’s so bad, people enjoy it.  But you see a lot of people putting stuff up and saying about it “this is my shitty comic” or making excuses like “oh I only did this in 10 minutes so that’s why it’s so bad.”  They’re scared people will make fun of what they are doing, but you have to put it out there, you have to let people judge for themselves.  If it’s bad, it’ll get better in time, that’s the way it always is.

Where did you get such a sinister view of mermaids?

Mermaids were always sinister, they drowned sailors!

Who do you think really killed the princes in the tower?

Henry Tudor, baby

Why I like Kate’s story

The lessons I take from my interview with Kate are the usual reminders of how to live a creative, satisfying life:

  • Do what makes you giggle, gives you joy, or however else you describe happiness
  • Trust that it will resonate with other, similarly-minded people
  • Find your support network and become a part of that community

In short, share your actual, authentic self with the world, and don’t worry about the traditional or approved way of going about things.  Find other people who share your take on things, and support them.  Follow it where it goes.

What do you think? Who inspires you?

*All images reproduced with permission from the author. All images are copyright of Kate Beaton.

3 Thoughts.

  1. Pingback: Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Sept. 10, 2009: The man who couldn’t shoot straight

  2. Pingback: Kate Beaton Interview at The Comics Bureau

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