Interviewing Kate Beaton, the queen of indie webcomics
Kate Beaton is an indie webcomics goddess. Her long-running web comic, Hark! A Vagrant, became a New York Times bestselling book that delightfully blends together history, commentary, and whimsy. Earlier this year, Beaton released her first children’s book, The Princess and the Pony, and last month, she added to her publishing streak with her follow-up to Hark! A Vagrant, called Step Aside Pops! In it, Beaton explores more of the same themes as in her previous work: feminism, history, literature, and why Cinderella might have been better if she was super into Crossfit. We chatted with Kate about her book and her comics collective Pizza Island.
You’ve had a big year. What was the difference in putting out Step Aside Pops! and your children’s book?
Can I tell people that they probably shouldn’t put out two books in a year? It’s intense. The audiences were different too, it’s just two different but equally intelligent audiences. A kid’s sense of humor is different because it doesn’t pull from the same background. That’s why farts are so hilarious to them. They’re like, this is time number one, and it’s the funniest thing. Which is why it’s so fun to make a book for them. It’s also different to make a book from start to finish, instead of a collection. I’m used to condensing, I thought it would be easy to condense. But 32 pages is not a lot. There’s way more story than there probably should be. I found it really hard to stop expanding.
One of my favorite themes of yours is the “straw feminists,” which play on the idea of feminists as these militant, scary creatures. They’re always hissing at children that men are bad—whereas in real life, I’ve never met a feminist who was like that.
I feel like with straw feminists, they’re boogeymen. There’s usually someone who’s like my life was ruined by these feminists. Now, your experience is your experience. I guess that could be. But I’ve never met anybody like that either. When you talk about feminism that image is so huge, that “angry woman who hates everything,” it scares young people away from being feminists. It’s a really funny image to draw as a scary thing, because it’s fun to play around with heartlessness. They’re fun to draw. And it’s an image that you kind of want to destroy. I don’t doubt that there are a few people who would be like I would put all the men in jail, but those are so far and few between. It’s all a great joke.
When you’re drawing things like straw feminists, do you think of them as political?
I think they engage in a certain conversation. They also become talking points for conversations and when people are trying to bring up a point, they’ll bring up a comic, provide this kind of illustrated essay. They’re easy to understand and easy to share. The only time when that’s bad is when that becomes a shorthand in a lazy way. Stock female characters can be like that, people can dismiss them and not really engage with them at all. But they’re good aids.
A while ago, you were part of a ladies comic collective called Pizza Island. Can you tell me a little about that?
I moved to New York for a little while, and I lived in Williamsburg. I didn’t really know the other cartoonists before I showed up but I needed a studio space. And a group of women, one whom I knew, were looking for new studio mates. It wasn’t intentionally all women, early on there was a guy. It just happened that way, because there are a lot of women in indie comics. But it was amazing to have that much talent and hard work and success so concentrated, and all of the women there were so fantastic and different. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. MTV wrote to us about maybe making a reality show, and we laughed about it: I mean, it would just be us sitting around drawing with headphones on. But it was just great. That was my defining New York experience.
Do you have any advice for young women wanting to get into comics?
I can’t speak to mainstream comics, because women there have a lot of mainstream stuff they’re dealing with in terms of gender stuff, all the time. But indie comics is ruled by women. And you should join the club! There’s a lot there. I don’t know what it’s like for young women right now coming in, but I felt like it was a cool bunch of people who were very supportive. And if your stuff is good, there are way fewer gatekeepers online. People will read it. I mean, you’ll probably run into a few jerks, as with anything. But indie comics are as women representative as almost anything else out there. You’re looking at a pretty strong female cast. It’s a good time to come in.
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(Self-portrait of Kate Beaton courtesy Kate Beaton, comic via Hark, a vagrant)