Cartoonist Kate Beaton, the author of 2011’s acclaimed “Hark! A Vagrant” and the wildly popular webcomic on which it is based, is announcing a follow-up to her bestselling debut.
“Step Aside, Pops,” due out in September from independent comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, will feature Beaton’s sharp wit and cheeky takes on literary and historical figures — Ida B. Wells, the Black Prince and Benito Juárez are just a few.
“Step Aside, Pops,” named after Beaton’s cartoon featuring a feisty velocipedestrienne, boasts more than 150 pages of her work, mixing new material and cartoons previously published on the webcomic she began in 2007. Beaton started posting her comic strips online to show her friends, but rapidly gained devoted followers (nearly 100,000 on Twitter alone) drawn to the Canadian cartoonist’s offbeat and irreverent humor. Her illustrations have also appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and Marvel’s “Strange Tales” anthology.
Beaton, who lives in Toronto, makes good use of her degree in history and anthropology from Mount Allison University in her history-based comics, which are carefully researched and broad in scope, turning a satirical eye on Nikola Tesla, Charles Darwin, Anne of Cleves, Chopin and scores more.
“She’s found the perfect way to explore her love of history, while effortlessly deflating the pompous, self-righteous figures of authority we were taught to respect in school,” said acquiring editor Tom Devlin in a press statement.
Hero Complex caught up with Beaton, who talks about “Step Aside, Pops,” finding humor in history, and the response to “Hark!”
Hero Complex: How did you go about curating work for “Step Aside, Pops”? Is there a theme you stuck to?
Kate Beaton: “Step Aside Pops” is a collection of work mostly from my online comic “Hark! A Vagrant,” so it was easy to just take those and put them together. So I guess the question is what strips do I choose to make for that main comic project I’ve been up to since 2007. I try to have a mix of things, with the comics about history and literature that made my name, to the pop culture comics that are always fun and bring in a wider audience. Sometimes I think I have a formula for it, but really when it comes down to it, “Hark” and “Pops” are made up of ideas that struck me as funny, or interesting. Wherever my head is at the moment. For a while I was doing a bunch of research on medieval life for a separate project, and so I think there are more medieval-flavored strips than others, and that sticks out. But it was what I was reading! So naturally it shows up.
HC: Will the book feature your Wee People or Broadside Ballads?
KB: I haven’t thought about including Wee People! But they would be a fun addition. Broadside ballads for certain, once we get the image permission from the library collections I pulled them from.
HC: The response to your work and to “Hark!” has been incredible. Why do you think your comics have resonated with so many people? Why do we think history is funny?
KB: Almost anything can be funny, I don’t know if history is funnier than other things! But I think we do like to humanize history, take the facts that you had to memorize once and turn it into real people and events. And to feel like you know something so well that you can poke a little fun at it, from a place of affection, I think there is real joy in that that people can feel.
HC: How much historical research goes into a comic? Are your comics based on things you’re reading anyway, or do you go in search of information for specific cartoons?
KB: A little of both here. I’m always reading, I’m always sort of trying to pull in ideas and information and hoping that there is a comic in there somewhere. But once you pick a subject and say “I’m going to do this one,” if it’s a literary parody or a historical figure, then yeah there is a lot of research in it. I want to make sure all my ducks are in a row, and I feel like people would know if I hadn’t bothered to look at the thing from all angles before commenting on it. There is always an essay that will make you think more, an angle that will surprise you, a whole closet of things you never read before. History and literature live many lives after the fact, years of opinions and interpretation.
HC: There are some feminist themes throughout your work (including your recent Google Doodle honoring Henrietta Edwards, the Straw Feminists in the Closet and the Strong Female Characters). Is this an important theme to you personally? How do you go about choosing what topics you explore in your work?
KB: I wish I had a system for choosing topics! Sometimes the ideas come, and sometimes they don’t, and you have to look in ten other directions if it’s not coming together. But yes – feminist themes are certainly in my work! And they are important to me. They’re also just something else that I’m interested in, in the mixed bag that my comics are. I’m not going to change the world or anything, but I think a little humor goes a long way, and I like that. The familiar refrain that feminism is somehow humorless is also, I think, a kind of delightful challenge.
HC: You’re also working on a children’s book. Do you approach that project differently?
KB: Oh yeah, you have to. It’s a different audience. Children are not invested in things that work with an adult audience, like nostalgia. Their sense of humor is different. And not even less complicated or lesser in any way, just different. I had to learn things about kids. For instance, a character in the book was called “cute.” Kids don’t see something and think it is “cute” the way we do. They are cute, they live cute. So that word didn’t really work. It’s honestly a great challenge to write for kids, because they themselves are so smart and honest. They know when you’re talking down to them. They have no qualms about their opinions. If they don’t like something, they just leave it alone, they don’t bother investing any emotion into hating it. And when they love something, they love it with all their hearts.