Published October 2011
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Drawn to history
How a 28-year-old wunderkind became the next big thing in comics
In history books, the best stories often revolve around an epic moment – a single event that epitomizes a sweeping change for the world, a country, or an individual’s life. For Kate Beaton, one of Canada’s brightest young comics artists, that moment came in late 2007, on the day she drew a gaggle of squealing 19th-century teens throwing their bloomers at inventor Nikola Tesla, then posted the illustration on her website.
“I was reading about Tesla, and the book mentioned that he never married, though there were people interested. He chose to be celibate because he thought that love addled your brain,” she says. “So I wrote a comic where he’s trying to show everyone his invention, but women are throwing their underwear at him. He’s like, ‘Ladies, please,’ but they’re just screaming at him like he’s Elvis.”
The site where Beaton posted her Web comic had been live for only a few months when the Tesla strip went viral, bringing her thousands of new readers from around the globe. Beaton explains this significant event in her characteristically dry manner: “I guess Tesla was a famous dude.”
Four years later, the 28-year-old’s website gets roughly half a million unique hits a month. Her work has been published in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and this month Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly is releasing Hark! A Vagrant, a collection of her comic strips that first appeared online.
The formula for Beaton’s global Internet success isn’t obvious at first glance. The Cape Breton–born artist’s typical comics contain a few panels that shed light on obscure moments in Canadian history or classic literature, retelling them through an ironic lens of contemporary references and speech. For example, there’s French commander Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, who, during the Seven Years’ War, is filled with envy as he hears of British commander James Wolfe’s epic death – “Man, that guy! Does he have to be first at everything?” In a second Tesla strip, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi steals Tesla’s radio, strolling off with a dismissive, “Call me, bro.”
According to Beaton, referencing events and figures readers may be unfamiliar with doesn’t turn them away, but can actually have the opposite effect. “You end up learning a bunch of things that you didn’t know before, and that’s part of the fun,” she says. Beaton adds that one benefit of publishing online is the proximity of Wikipedia, just a click away.
Perhaps there are more history nerds roaming the Internet than one might have thought. After posting a comic about James Connolly, a reluctant leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, Beaton received e-mails from Irish fans thanking her for highlighting their favourite national figure.
“It’s nice to be represented,” she says, by way of explaining her transatlantic following. “Maybe because so much is dominated by American culture, it’s nice when your country pops up where you weren’t expecting it and is celebrated. I make fun of history, but I celebrate it, really.”
Before Beaton’s Tesla moment, while she was still developing her style and her audience was limited to friends on Facebook, there was at least one person who predicted she would one day make it big. A year after graduating from Mount Allison University, where she had earned a degree in history and anthropology, Beaton was working at Victoria’s Maritime Museum of British Columbia and happened to land a few desks away from artist Emily Horne.
“She came into my office one day and showed me her comics,” says Horne, who, in 2003, launched the popular online photo comic A Softer World with author Joey Comeau. “It was stuff she was drawing in her spare time. Even though they were very rough visually – many were done on MS Paint – they were just so funny. I thought that a Web audience would love it.”
The archives of Beaton’s website still contain these lunch break comics: absurdist one-liners and dialogues illustrated with shaggy low-resolution stick figures. In one, titled “Baby,” two people come across a newborn lying on the ground and speculate what they might find in it. “Do you think there’s any money inside?” one asks. The baby’s speech bubble says “Wrong!”; the word “poop” is written on its pudgy abdomen. Although these early works aren’t included in the book, several have been immortalized on T-shirts and mugs Beaton sells through online merchandiser TopatoCo.
“I love how much expression she can convey in very few lines,” Horne says of Beaton’s current work. “The level of detail in the drawings has increased, but expressions remain minimal.”
In September of last year, after stints in Halifax and Toronto, Beaton moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she now lives with artists Meredith Gran and Aaron Diaz, whom she met at comics conventions.
In December, only a few months after landing in the U.S., Beaton found a literary agent. Appropriately enough for someone whose fame began online, she met him through Twitter. Beaton had received a freelance job offer that involved complicated rights issues and, exasperated, she tweeted, “I think I need an agent.” In short order, Seth Fishman at the Gernert Company in New York, also agent to Orange Prize for Fiction winner Téa Obreht, sent her a direct message offering his services.
Although she had already self-published a book through TopatoCo – the first run of 1,000 copies sold out in one day – Beaton felt she was ready to go mainstream.
“I knew my audience had grown and it was time to do something else, that I had outgrown the self-publishing thing,” she says. “Or, more to the point, I wanted to have something that would be marketed better than I could market it, that could make its way into the libraries, that could be distributed farther than I could reach.”
Chris Oliveros, publisher at Drawn & Quarterly, says Beaton is the company’s first foray into turning a Web comic into a printed book. Yet Hark! A Vagrant shares lead title status this fall with Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, and Seth. “It’s a bit unusual because Kate is effectively a first-time author, while the other three each have at least 25 years of publishing under their belts,” Oliveros says. “It’s a testament to how much Kate has accomplished in such an otherwise short period.”
The day I met with Beaton, in a café near her studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, happened to be the day before Comic-Con in San Diego, the largest convention of its kind in North America. As such, Beaton had a very important update to make to her website. “I’ll show you,” she said, turning her laptop around so I could see an announcement for her new book, along with a teaser that 300 preview copies would be available for sale at Drawn & Quarterly’s booth.
Not surprisingly, before the convention’s first day had ended, those copies were history.