|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Sunday, 01 March 2009 19:00|
Intelligent, wacky, insightful, silly, educational, hilarious, sloppy, beautiful – it is difficult to pin down Kate Beaton’s work with a single adjective. The Canadian webcomic creator produces comics in a variety of styles, though she is perhaps best known for her strips featuring historical figures (and history is never funnier than when filtered through Beaton’s unique perspective!). Whether she is illustrating the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte or Brian Mulroney, conversations with her younger-self or other autobiographical tales, Beaton’s most consistently recognizable trait isn’t the characters she uses or the format she tells her tales in but the underlying wit and humour that powers her art throughout.
In between illustrating the antics of Canadian Prime Ministers of old and the latest Shetland Pony Adventures, Kate Beaton found some time to chat with (Cult)ure.
(Cult)ure: Your historical and autobiographical comics are approached with a thin-lined loose feel and your 'paint' comics are full-on minimalist. Do you consciously approach your work from a minimalist perspective?
Kate Beaton: No, I wouldn't say it that way. I might take a long time thinking up a set-up with a certain historical figure, then boil it down and draw it rather quickly. My art is impatient more than it is minimalist. Also, I used to make the msn paint comics while I was at work on breaks since there was nothing else to do.
It has been argued that the role of the illustrator in webcomics is overemphasized, while the role of the writer is underappreciated. Are you able to separate your work as a writer from your work as an illustrator, or do you see them as one in the same?
They are one in the same! People like to think of comics in terms of a division of labour because some people are better at one aspect than the other or because some people collaborate in this way. But when you are presenting a story in words and pictures, there is no way one can just carry the other, and I believe most comic artists don't think of them separately.
Something rather unique about your dialogue is the lack of punctuation. For the most part, your characters' dialogue is grammatically unadorned.
It is a little manic, isn't it? I get a lot of comments on that, but to be honest it was never really intentional. It might come from cramming comics that should be longer into one page, but no one has told me yet that they don't read well in spite of it. I probably squeak by because I am lucky to have a knack for expression, which takes some of the pressure off exact appropriate voice and emphasis in dialogue.
Another striking aspect of your work is your totally unique phrasing.
This may sound strange, but I think part of that comes from the place where I was raised. Cape Breton, like Newfoundland, is famous for odd turns of phrase, and while you wouldn't notice it if you were speaking to me, I've retained a lot of that different speech structure – especially with my approach to humour, which is directly related to the old Gaelic style humour of Nova Scotia.
In what other ways has being Canadian influenced your art and its perspective?
Well, my experience is Canadian; it is pretty simple. It doesn't affect my art much, but the type of humour I employ and the topics I choose take a lot from living here. There is a common thought that Canadian history is boring, which I find disappointing, and I like proving otherwise if I can. I'm fascinated by the history of this country and the complexities of the national character, and I am for the promotion of Canadian culture because there are so many interesting things going on but comparatively little said about it. I sense this from readers as well; there is always such a wonderful response when I choose a topic from our history.
Your autobiographical comics and 'conversations with younger self' are often self-deprecating. Do you consider humility an important part of comedy?
The worst thing most people can do making comics is try to make themselves look cool! The internet is a safe haven for a lot of sort of autobio comics about dudes being awesome, hanging out, and saying witty things back and forth. They are also supposed to be funny, but the majority of these are awful, of course. Humility is important in the sense that it is honest and relatable, and comedy is, in many ways, about knocking people down to size. You can't have it both ways – as nice as it would be, there is nothing funny about being the wittiest and best looking person in the room. That said, I understand I am particularly self-deprecating and probably a good example of taking it too far the other way. I just think the easiest person to make fun of is yourself.
You’re probably best known for your comics poking fun at historical figures. What is the connection between history and comedy?
History is really delightful because anyone can "own" it. The affection or respect or hate I have for a certain figure can be equally felt by almost any person. I think we read history in a really personal way, so the act of taking humour out of it has a special joy. Which explains why people gravitate towards it but not why it is funny. It is funny because we have no one to tell us where to draw the line. The remove we have from the events gives us the ability to make light of absolutely terrible situations without anyone being offended. Plus, the past looks peculiar to us: the clothes, beliefs, and manners are all fair game. I shy away from modern history quite a bit because those topics are tricky, people are touchy, and I worry about tact. In another century, however, they are maybe going to make jokes about, say, the Quebec separatist movement and people are going to love it.
Do you draw any sort of line for yourself regarding how close you stick to historical fact and how 'out there' you will go for laughs?
A real problem with doing comics about history – if you like history – is getting attached to the subjects and not wanting to make someone look bad or foolish because of this attachment. I've read about certain things for days then have been unable to get a joke out of it because I've gotten too serious about it and can't ignore the complexities of the story. That is usually an occurrence with lesser known figures who require a lot of reading to get to know; however, there are certain figures that are, in a way, in the public domain – everyone knows about them and little research or thought is required. These are usually going to be old white men, your Washingtons and Napoleons, etc. They are much easier to poke fun at in a very exaggerated way, and I like the silliness of it, but I would not want all comics to be that way.
Your comics don't stick to any single format or subject matter. Do you enjoy the freedom this affords you as a creator, or is it more difficult when there is no strict formula to follow?
It is a bit of both. Freedom to do any topic is very nice, but staring at a blank paper with no idea what to put on it is not very nice. Sometimes I think it would be much better to have a comic with a story that goes on and on, so you always know where to start your next page, but I don't think I would like that situation for very long.
Would you have any interest seeing your strips published in newspapers, or do you consider newspaper a dying medium?
I think everyone considers newspapers to be a dying medium, which is a little sad. But I have only heard that working with the syndicates is frustrating and limiting, and I would not be happy doing that even if newspapers were booming. In any case, they probably wouldn't give me a job even if I wanted one. I am published in some newspapers, though, from time to time.
What's the future of your website and for Kate Beaton comics as a whole?
The future for the website is to get rid of the current one and make a new one. It really was built on the worst website design program, but I didn't think much about the implications of those things when I made it. I will be glad when it is done. The future for the comics is only that I will keep making them. I haven't any specific plans, but you never know what opportunities may pop up.
True Words About the Webcomic Scene
"The worst thing most people can do making comics is try to make themselves look cool! The internet is a safe haven for a lot of sort of autobio comics about dudes being awesome, hanging out, and saying witty things back and forth. They are also supposed to be funny, but the majority of these are awful, of course."