Canadian artist Kate Beaton, making unusual use of her history degree, has been making people laugh with her web comics at Hark! A Vagrant since 2007. Beaton puts historical, literary, and pop culture figures into everyday situations, and her simple artistic style with attention to facial expressions brings out unexpected absurdities. A 2011 collection of her comics was a bestseller, and in September, she will release a second collection, called Step Aside, Pops. But this summer, Beaton dips her toe into children’s publishing for the first time with a picture book from Scholastic. The Princess and the Pony teams up Princess Pinecone, a young warrior princess, with a fat little pony that was not at all what she expected when she asked her parents for a “real warrior’s horse” for her birthday. Beaton currently resides in Toronto; we spoke with her about writing for a young audience, intentional anachronisms, and feminist comics.
You’ve been writing history-based web comics for an adult audience at Hark! A Vagrant for several years now, but this is your first time writing specifically for children. Why did you decide to make the move?
I put out the collection Hark! A Vagrant in 2011, and that book did really well, and I think that turned a few heads. Scholastic very casually asked if I was interested in doing kids’ books, and I thought, ‘Yes! Why not?’ So I gave them a few book ideas, and the pony was a natural thing. My comics are for adults, but the pony’s been around for a long time, and we put it onto onesies and T-shirts.
There’s a little girl who used to come up to me every year at MoCCA, the comics festival in New York, and her parents were like, ‘She really likes the pony.’ She did a cross stitch of it, which I still have. So it just seemed like an obvious choice. I knew I wanted to make the book about that pony. And it was natural for me to want to write a story about a little girl, because I’m one of four girls.
This fat little Shetland pony has appeared in your comics several times, and even appeared once in 2010 on an episode of the TV show Adventure Time. Why do you think this pony has been so popular?
You never can tell. I first drew the pony because I wanted to draw something very silly on purpose. I was doing these history comics, and I didn’t want to give the impression that I was some kind of armchair genius. I just made comics about what I was interested in. But I’m also just interested in straight-up funny drawings. So I explicitly started drawing something extremely silly, and the pony took off. When I’m trying to analyze it, I’m like, well it’s round… and it’s cute. And we all like round and cute things, like babies or Pusheen the cat. But the pony is just kind of a blank slate. It is whatever you want it to be.
How was it different to write for kids as opposed to writing for adults?
Oh, they’re separate but equal audiences. They’re both very intelligent, and they know what they like. I think everyone who likes their kids knows that it’s a mistake to talk down to them. You’re talking to them on a level that’s respecting their intelligence, because they’re a very discerning audience. So are adults, but when I write for adults, I’m talking to an audience that seems invested in nostalgia, a thing that doesn’t exist for kids. So the language changes.
The biggest challenge is understanding the world through a kid’s perspective when I’m so honed in on this educated adult audience that I normally speak to. Kids are still learning and they’re devouring everything, but they don’t have the long memory that we have.
The book appears to be set in medieval times, and features warriors and Vikings, but at the end there are also a lot of fuzzy novelty sweaters and other modern touches. Were you purposely having some fun with the anachronisms?
I just wanted it to be fun. They’re warriors and they like to battle, but I didn’t want to fantasize it too much, I suppose. As for the anachronisms – were you a child of the ’80s and ’90s?
Yes, I was.
Me too. And I had sweaters that made no sense at all. I had loads of them. I remember having a sweater that had bears on it that just said “Exercise.” These completely absurd things that we dress kids in, I wanted to tackle that, because I had so many of them. And they do it on that TV show Gravity Falls, too – the character Mabel is always wearing a crazy sweater. So that and the modern concept of gift-giving. You would say, ‘Mom and Dad, I want this for my birthday.’ And they would get you this thing, but they wouldn’t know exactly what you wanted, so it would be off by some amount. And they’re so happy to give it to you. They’re like, ‘You’re going to love this.’ So trying to fit all of those things into this vague warrior world was a lot of fun.
You’ve drawn Princess Pinecone’s father as a big, white Viking man, and her mother as a brown warrior woman. Did you make a conscious decision to make her parents an interracial couple?
Oh, no. Princess Pinecone was the first to get designed, and she looked a bit like the stereotypical princess with the blond hair. Then I was drawing her Dad, and he was some kind of Viking, and I drew the Mom more like an Amazon warrior. And I was like, she’s not in the Viking business, and she just seemed naturally like she would have a darker complexion. It just seemed to fit, so I made the princess lighter than her Mom, and darker than her Dad, and hopefully that works.
And I know that people point out that medieval movies don’t have persons of color, and someone will be like, ‘It’s not historically accurate!’ This book doesn’t strive for historical accuracy, but I think when you’re reading something, people look for a little bit of themselves.
What was the process of working with color, which you don’t usually do with your other work?
Oh, I tried to keep it simple, because I don’t think I’m very astute with color. I’ve done it a few times, but not that much. I picked a palette and I just stuck with it. I wouldn’t veer far away from that. So I was scared, I was. I’m self-taught – I’m really glad for my success, but it’s not because I went to art school. [Laughs] I’m pretty aware of my shortcomings all the time. But you have to move on and challenge yourself and dare to come out a better artist, and that’s what I was trying to do. I think it turned out OK.
You’re also publishing another book this September, a second collection of your web comics published by Drawn & Quarterly, called Step Aside, Pops. How will this differ from your first collection, and why did you choose that title?
Well, Hark! A Vagrant was just a collection of strips from the website, and Step Aside, Pops is the same thing – the same shape, and roughly the same size. So in that sense it’s volume two of that. But the first collection was pretty straightforward three-panel gags. For a while I sort of burnt out on comics, and I just needed to change what I was doing. There are a couple of weird, long ones in there that don’t appear anywhere in the first volume.
I think there’s more pop culture in the second one, too. The website Hark! A Vagrant as a whole is a reflection of what I’m reading and what I’m interested in at the time. The title Step Aside, Pops comes from that strip about a velocipedestrienne. She sort of railroads all over town on her bicycle, and it was derived from a historical illustration that I found. It was featured in Best American Comics 2013, and it’s a really popular strip.
There are a lot more feminist-type comics in this book, so the title also makes sense in that way. I didn’t want it to be confrontational – I think it’s just a funny line. But the more that I get into comics and Internet culture, the more I see [misogynistic] things pop up. When you’re a woman in comics, you get all that stuff at your door. People forward you articles, they put you on the panels with other women, and that conversation is just kind of handed to you on a plate, just by virtue of who you are and what you do. So I think the more feminist comics you find at the bookstore the better.
Do you get much negative or sexist feedback from people reading your work?
Oh, I probably do, but I don’t pay attention to it. It’s not really something that I engage in anymore on social media. I make comics about stuff that I’m interested in and make the point that I want to make there, but I’m also just less interesting to those troll-y type people as I get older. I think when you’re really young and you start making comics, you want to fight for social justice and you’re more likely to go in guns blazing, and then all this kind of garbage lands on your doorstep. And somebody’s got to be fighting that – I’ve got mad respect for people like Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian, who has incredible courage. But my Internet presence is a bit quieter now. I’ve had my share of that kind of thing over the years, it’s always surprising and weird, but I’m pretty comfortable right now. I put out a feminist comic and nobody really bats an eye.
Which pop culture and female figures are included in this collection?
There’s Wonder Woman – I love her – and Lois Lane. There’s an X-Files comic in there. There’s an entire scrawling, crazy comic about a Janet Jackson music video in there. And then there’s the standard Chopin, early aviators, scientists, and the regular crew of whatever I’m reading.
Your work has shown up everywhere from the New Yorker to the Google doodle, where last year you drew Canadian suffragette Henrietta Edwards for her 165th birthday. Is there anywhere else we can expect to see your work in the near future? Are you working on any other children’s books?
Yeah, I’m working on another picture book right now. I sent a draft to Scholastic just the other day, and it’s coming out in fall 2016. Once that picture book is done, I’ll be contract-free for the first time in two years. There’s always new stuff showing up in my in box every day, so you never know. I don’t want to throw all my eggs in one basket, so you’ll see me in other places.
Overall, how have you felt about the experience of writing a children’s book?
I came in self-assured, like a lot of people do, and then you need to realize that it’s harder than you think. It’s harder than everybody thinks. But in the end, when a kid likes your book, they like it more than anything, and it’s the kind of thing that will remain in people’s memories for a long time, because we all remember our favorite kids’ books. And what a privilege it is, really. That’s the way I look at it.
The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton. Scholastic/Levine, $17.99 June ISBN 978-0-545-63708-4
Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton. Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-77046-208-3