Newsarama: Kate, what was it like doing the longer stories in Strange Tales, especially working with Nicholas Gurewitch?Kate Beaton:It was fun! [Editor] Jody [LeHeup] from Strange Tales got up with me last year and asked me if I wanted to do some stories, and of course I did, because it’s Strange Tales. You get to work with whatever Marvel characters you like, and it’s free range. It’s extremely artist-friendly – I had to give them the general gist of my story, to make sure there was, I don’t know, no beastiality or anything like that (laughs), and they approved it.
It was a lot of fun—I don’t know a lot about Marvel and DC characters, because I didn’t grow up with them, it’s not something that I had around. I did a lot of reading about the X-Men before I picked doing a comic about Rogue, and Ryan North told me to do something about Kraven the Hunter, and those were both good choices, I think.
And Nick – I’ve known Nick for a couple of years, and he did some comics for Strange Tales and they asked him to do another and he didn’t have time to draw it, so he asked me if I’d be interested in illustrating it, and I said sure because he’s great (laughs). He had a script, and I made some thumbnails, and he gave me notes.
We had some debates about what the sound effect should be when Thor hits the strong man machine, and it wound up being “Piff!” and that’s the image they wound up choosing for the hardcover edition, which is really amazing! I can’t believe that something I drew is on the cover of a Marvel book. And to be in a book with all that talent is crazy.Nrama: I’m curious what people’s reaction will be who’ve discovered your work through that, or because they saw the Fat Pony on Adventure Time –
Beaton: You know, it turned out the people who saw the pony there already knew my work, so that wasn’t an issue.
Nrama: But I wonder if they’ll go, “There’s cursing!”
Beaton: Eh, there’s not as much as there used to be. Currently, the only characters who’ve cursed a lot in the strip are teenagers. I used to use profanity as a humor crutch more – I’ve talked to other people who’ve admitted to doing this as well.
You use certain things before you get a handle on what’s funny and you’ve figured out what your sense of humor really is. If I can avoid using a cuss word now, I do. There’s not much profanity now, unless that’s the joke.Nrama: I’m surprised that you haven’t read that many superhero comics, because some of your funniest stuff has been Aquaman and Wonder Woman, and “Sexy Batman” and so on.
Beaton: I knew nothing, and I thought that’s what came through the most. I don’t know anything about Wonder Woman. Do you know anything about Wonder Woman? She’s a bit of a mystery. It was like no one had nailed her personality at all – she was so shifty, because different writers wrote her differently. You kind of know what she’s all about, that she came from the Amazon island, but when it comes to her personality or the great stories, it’s not really there. I’ve been learning more about her recently, though.
I like doing superheroes once in a while, because it takes you out of things, and it keeps things fresh for me. For a while, I was only doing historical characters, and I got burnt out on it. It’s a lot of research, and it’s tiring unless you mix things up sometimes. So I wound up doing things like Nancy Drew book covers and things I found funny. If I find it funny, it goes on the website, and that works for me.Nrama: Would you want to do something for Wednesday Comics, the DC equivalent of Strange Tales?
Beaton: I had not heard of it before you mentioned that, but sure. They haven’t asked, but I’d be interested.
Nrama: Get the collection, you’ll love it.
Have you found that new doors have opened from your work in “mainstream” stuff like The New Yorker, Harpers, the Criterion Collection, etc.?Beaton: No doors have opened because of those things specifically. They all raise your profile as an artist. When people mention your name in a blurb, they’ll put those things as accomplishments in it, and that’s great, but those places came to me because of my website. The website opened those doors, and I’m glad to have had those opportunities and that people like them. Hey, maybe people read my comic because they saw my stuff there!
Nrama: For that matter, are there any movies for Criterion you’d like to illustrate in the future?
Beaton: Oh no, not really. I’ve done some things for Criterion and they’re nice. I love doing movie art, like the Fargo strips. There’s something inspiring about movies that make you want to do art. I don’t have any specific ones, but if they asked me again, sure.Nrama: Have you found yourself getting feedback from veteran cartoonists/illustrators you admire, and what’s that like?
Beaton: Yeah, I’ll be speaking at the National Cartoonists Society on Memorial Day, and I understand a few of those people read my comics and like them, which is crazy because they’re all the newspaper people you grew up reading. Larry Gonick wrote me an email once, and that blew my mind, because he’s Cartoon History of the Universe guy.
It was early in my career, and it was a note like, “Good work! Keep it up!” And sometimes that’s all you need, that word of encouragement to go, “Thanks! I will!” (laughs) I met Seth and Chester Brown in 2009, and they both talked about how they liked my work, and I couldn’t believe that they had ever seen my work, because they’re Seth and Chester Brown! They’re great guys, and very passionate about comics and Canadian comics in particular.Nrama: I’m curious about Canadian comics, because there’s so many great and diverse creators from Canada – you and the guys you just mentioned, and Ryan North and Bryan Lee O’Malley and many others. I know there’s some government funding for comics up there –
Beaton: Well, not for everyone. I know a lot of American creators must look at the grant system with stars in their eyes, but it’s not like everyone gets a grant.
Nrama: You’re in NYC now, and there’s a very close community of creators there. What do you see as the similarities and differences between the scenes in NYC and Canada?
Beaton: Well, when I was in Canada I lived in Toronto, and I was only getting to know some of the cartoonists there when I left, which was probably bad timing on my part. (laughs) My friends were webcomic artists – I lived with Emily from A Softer World, and was down the street from Ryan North, and I got to know many other local cartoonists as well.
There’s a comics community there, and they’re friendly to each other – you’ll go to a party and these guys are there, and they’re very welcoming. I guess it’s smaller than it is in New York. In Halifax, the scene was pretty small – it was myself and Mike Holmes and a few others. There were Darwyn Cooke and Steve McNiven, but they kind of live outside of town.
In New York, there’s a lot more cartoonists. My studio is myself and Meredith Gran and Sarah Glidden and Julia Wertz and Domitille Collardey and Karen Snyder and Lisa Hanawalt, and they’re all insanely talented people. The community is just bigger, that’s all. It’s all the benefits of a bigger community, but it’s not any less supportive or nice.
There’s more access here to publishing industries and such than in Canada, and there’s more events around, I suppose. I don’t know if either one is better or worse than the other.Nrama: What are some of your current favorite comics, online and off?
Beaton: This is my favorite question, because I feel compelled to name all of my friends (laughs). I would have to say online, my favorites are definitely Meredith Gran’s Octopus Pie and John Allison’s Bad Machinery. They just blow me away, they’re so good, and they’re both story comics, the opposite of what I make.
For print comics, I loved the Nick Bertozzi Lewis and Clark story. Vanessa Davis’ book, Make Me a Woman, is wonderful. Michael Kupperman’s comics make me laugh, and it’s hard to find comics that make me laugh.
Nrama: Something I’ve been asking people in this series is what they think about the new opportunities offered by such media as the iPad and smart phones, and what creators can do to take advantage of these possibilities.
Beaton: It’s too early to know. There are people who have formatted their website for iPhone and stuff, and I don’t know how to do that. And iPads – they’re basically a computer screen, and you can view a comic on it, so I don’t think you need to format your comic for it. I think. I could be wrong.
You couldn’t do something like a motion comic with my comic and have it still be good. It’s kind of stubborn that way in its old-fashionedness. I draw it with a pencil, and you’ve seen my bad erasing jobs and my poor coloring skills! (laughs) I am all for people using new technologies, but I don’t know that everyone has to jump on the new boats when they steer into the harbor.Nrama: A lot of your strips have been on either literature or Canadian history – ever want to do a series on Canadian literature, like L.M. Montgomery or Margaret Atwood or Mordecai Richler?
Beaton: I read Duddy Kravitz, and that’s too sad to make a comic about! Canadian literature – I just haven’t done it yet. I might go hog-wild on it sometime, do The Handmaid’s Tale and make some jokes about that. Atwood has a wonderful sense of humor, actually.
I should do something parodying Canadian literature in general, with its bleak settings and drunkard fathers and hardwired mothers. (laughs)
Nrama: I have a strange obsession with Canada as like a parallel universe to America. You’ll just see these Canadian shows like Degrassi or Red Green on PBS or basic cable, and wonder about the little differences.
Beaton: Yeah, Degrassi…they’ve done some dark shit, huh? Canadian culture is different from American culture, actually. It’s not always extremely obvious – it’s more like values and history and attitudes and government.
I’m glad when Canadian readers like my comics, and when they see it as a contribution to Canadian culture, because there’s a lot of American culture out there that overshadows Canada, or has the attitude that Canada doesn’t matter. People seeing something as Canadian and it being well-received and popular among Americans is great.
I didn’t do this to instill national pride or have a moneymaker, but it’s just something I’m interested in – my own country’s history. Once in a while I’ll get an email saying, “What’s with all the Canadian stuff?” Well, what’s with all the American stuff on your blog?Nrama: I was bringing these last few questions up because there’s an obvious passion for the country in your work.
Beaton: You read books on Canada that try to explain the country and its history and culture, and it’s fascinating. There’s that great rallying cry: “Canadian history is boring! But who cares?” But it’s not! It’s full of conflict and problems and solutions and things people try to discover the same as any other country. It’s fascinating, and not simple at all.
And it’s nice to be part of the Canadian comics scene. After they started the Doug Wright Awards, you saw what could happen to authors whose work fell by the wayside. When you start looking into Canadian comics culture and history, it’s so full of amazing people whose names are not known to the American public.
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Next: Meet a young cartoonist who’s already making waves with Emma Capps and the Chapel Chronicles! And later: John Allison on Bad Machinery and R Stevens on Diesel Sweeties!