Historical Comics, Pulp Covers, and “Stories You Just Don’t Know”: An Interview With Kate Beaton


This month brings with it the release of Step Aside, Pops, the second collection of Kate Beaton’s excellent comic Hark! A Vagrant. (I wrote about the book for Paste.) The comics contained within range from inspired riffs on Nancy Drew to windows into history to a memorably irreverent adaptation of Wuthering Heights. I’ve been an admirer of Beaton’s work for years, and talked with her via email about the new book.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn: “Nasty” was one of the highlights, for me, of the new collection; did you know from the outset that one brief moment of a Janet Jackson video would lead to something this epic?

Kate Beaton: I thought of that comic for about a year before I drew it. It was all laid out in my head, but it didn’t fit the format of what I was doing at the time. It was too long and sprawly. But as I went on making comics, I got tired of the formats I was using and decided, to hell with it, I’ll draw this giant thing as a pencil sketch. And it’s one of my favourites, too.

V1B: When you’re doing a comic inspired by a Nancy Drew cover, how does that process differ from a comic where you’re working from scratch?

KB: It’s like moving offices. Sometimes it’s really nice to set up shop somewhere else, to job your brain into doing something fresh, to find a way to enjoy things again, if you ran out of steam. That’s sort of what it is like to start a comic riffing off an image rather than doing one that’s research based.


V1B: Whether it’s a Nancy Drew volume or an Edward Gorey illustration, how many books do you typically go through before finding one with an image that might work for a comic?

KB: Oh quite a few I guess, there are a lot of thrown out ideas too. But there is a limited supply of those images, too.

V1B: With “House Full of Mulders,” where did the idea to blend Pride and Prejudice and The X-Files come from?

KB: I was thinking about opposites put together as romantic partners, in that hate/love but ultimately love relationship. Mulder and Scully never hated each other, they were like oil and water. But it just worked, I guess. That’s another one that was on the drawing board a long time. I sketched it in 2011 but the comic was made in 2015.

V1B: In recent years, you’ve delved more frequently into the lives of historical figures who may not be as well-known, including Katherine Sui Fun Cheung and Tom Longboat. What initially drew you to write about them?

KB: The more I do this, the more of those figures I read about. There are red flags on them, they pop out. They’ve got a devoted fan group of their own, gunning for people to know more about them. Often, I get mail about this person or that person and “please please make a comic, people NEED to know about this person!” And you become aware of the breadth of stories you just don’t know, and how great those stories are. So you pursue them.

V1B: When you’re writing about, say, Ida B. Wells, how do you find the right balance of noting their historical importance while still making the comic recognizable as Hark! A Vagrant?

KB: Ah, it’s a puzzle to work out, that’s all. Make the comic funny without making fun of the person you respect.

V1B: Are there any other historical figures that you’d like to write about in Hark! A Vagrant but haven’t quite found the right approach yet?

KB: Oh, sure. There are lots! There are always unfinished comics.


Image credits: Kate Beaton and Drawn & Quarterly

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