One of the cult favorite characters in Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant is getting its own book -- just don't expect any excitement from it.
The silent, wide-eyed horse known as "Fat Pony" became a massive hit with Beaton’s readers, starring in adventures where it…well, stood around and ate, and sometimes farted. Now it's sharing the stage in the recently released The Princess and the Pony, Beaton’s first picture book for kids. In the full-color story from Scholastic imprint Arthur A. Levine Books, Princess Pinecone is the tiniest warrior in her kingdom, and wants a real war horse for her birthday, to prove her might!
What she gets is…well, the Fat Pony.
Can Pinecone get her farting mount in gear for the big battle? You’ll have to read the book to find out, but we called up Beaton to talk about launching her first kids’ book, how this story came about, and what, if anything, is behind those terrifying pony eyes.
If Fat Pony seems family, it could be because itt even guest-starred, in a sense, in the Adventure Time episode “The Eyes,” where Finn and Jaker proved unable to sleep thanks to the eerie stare of a horse with “Whacked-Out Poo Brain.”
Newsarama: Kate, The Princess and the Pony, I have to say, it was an unusual experience, for 1) experiencing your work entirely in color, and 2) having all your sentences end with periods.
Kate Beaton: Oh yeah, punctuation! We just sent the next Drawn & Quarterly book off to press, and the editor gave me the book with corrections and said, “Uh, if you want to fix any of these…” And I had to explain, “No, they’re all missing on purpose.”
It’s gotta be different with the picture book, though. I don’t want to ruin kids’ grammar with my bad grammar.
Nrama: It works in the comic book format because you have the hand-drawn lettering –
Beaton: Totally! It’s like run-on things, and they’re meant to look like words jammed into each other, it’s all on purpose. But when they’re typed out, they don’t work as well.
Nrama: It’s something I like in your work, that feeling of beautifully-controlled chaos.
Beaton: Oh, yeah, yeah. Thank you!
Nrama: There’s times when it’s very detailed, and times when it’s very simple, but also very expressive. And certain elements feed into other elements. A great example of that being – that dang pony. That’s been a wild ride for you! That little pony has taken you quite far.
Beaton: For a thing with little legs.
Nrama: What originally inspired that pony?
Beaton: In 2005, I went with a Northern Studies class to the Shetland Islands, and I actually got to see some Shetland ponies. Everything there is kind of miniature. I think they probably left a mark.
When I started my comic, I was working in construction in a mine up north. And someone wrote me an email saying, “Your comics are so smart, they are the smartest thing I’ve seen online,” sort of hilariously over-the-top in the praising.
And then I had to go to a safety meeting with the construction crew, because the company was terrified of getting sued, and you had to sit through an hour and a half of things like, “Ice is slippery, don’t step on the ice, because ice is slippery and makes you fall.”
So we’re getting talked to like babies, just after I’ve gotten this email telling me I’m so smart, and I thought, “This is just this hilarious mix of messages I’m getting.” So I wanted to draw something really silly, and also because I didn’t want to project that image of someone who was trying to be really clever all the time.
So I drew this cartoon about a pony, called “Shetland Pony Adventures,” where a man jumps on a Shetland pony and yells, “Let’s go!” and then it goes a little and then stops and poops and then it keeps going.
And I wound up getting emails saying, “This is the best thing you’ve ever done!” It just really struck a chord with people. Don’t ask me why.
Nrama: I’ve wondered that. It might be what they wound up using as the title for the Adventure Time episode – “The Eyes.” It’s like they just stare into your soul.
Beaton: It’s eerie! And if you look at the pony too long, if it’s not looking stupid or adoring, it’s like it might know too much.
Nrama: I have a fascination with how eyes can affect how people perceive something – you know, like those symbol-clapping monkeys with the hollow eyes. They look like they are cursed! Or on the different end of the spectrum, the Margaret Keane paintings with the doe-eyed children (seen in the film Big Eyes) or decades and decades of anime. Big eyes have an effect on people! Why do you think that is? You’re the artist here – I can’t totally grasp it.
Beaton: I don’t know myself! I used to just draw dot eyes, but now I find myself drawing big eyes all the time, because they allow more room for expression. The bigger the eyes, the more you can hint at different emotions. And I always start the drawing with the eyes, if that makes sense.
Nrama: What goes on behind that pony’s eyes? I’m not sure I want to know.
Beaton: That’s part of the mystery. The eternal mystery. I don’t know either.
Nrama: It’s like Frankenstein, or perhaps even God. You’ve created this thing, and now it’s beyond your control. This pony thing.
Nrama: How did the pony’s appearance on Adventure Time come about?
Beaton: Pendleton Ward just asked me, and I said yes. [laughs]
Pen’s a friend.
Nrama: That’s a very simple story. I thought there might be like a more complicated twist behind it.
Beaton: Well, we were at a bar at SPX. [a long silence follows]
Nrama: Well, that’s…a bit of a twist. It’s a different take on the pony, a little more purple and almost cow-like…
Beaton: It’s definitely Adventure Time-ed up. But you can tell what it is. It’s the eyes.
Nrama: Getting back to the book specifically, what was the process like, coming up with the storyline for The Princess and the Pony? I know it’s a unique challenge in doing a picture book to give it just enough plot, but making sure it’s well-paced and has a clear theme.
Beaton: So I wrote the story in like a day…and then it took a long time of rewriting to make it work well. It was rewritten away from the original plot, and then back toward the original plot, sort of. So it’s kind of back to where it was when I first wrote it. It’s sort of that old adage, ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.
I think part of it was the character has been in my head so long that it became tricky to streamline it, picking things out of the odds and ends once I’d written it.
Nrama: So if this becomes a huge, huge success and they want to make a Dreamworks CGI movie out of it, do you think you can expand the story with all kinds of singing sidekicks and evil warlords who can be hypnotized by the pony’s eyes…?
Beaton: Aw, yeah! If they can do it for Shrek…
Nrama: There’s like no plot to the original Shrek book! He just sort of wanders around and does his thing.
Beaton: I love the original book by William Steig. I just read it recently and it’s hilarious.
Nrama: I was literally just talking a few hours before this interview to my friend Jeremy Whitley, who does a comic called Princeless, and has a similar thing that you have with Princess Pinecone, in that both have young, pro-active female princess protagonists who are also biracial.
And that’s weird!...in the sense that it’s not weird at all, and is utterly normal in the real world, but it’s not something that you see being acknowledged often in creative work, especially young children’s fiction. Um, being biracial, not being a princess. How did you come up with that – was it something you were even thinking of as you wrote it?
Beaton: I wasn’t even thinking of it, really! I drew the princess first, and she was kind of a traditional-looking princess, she had blonde hair…and then I drew her parents, they had to have a family, they came later, and the dad was a viking guy, very pale, and the mom was kind of an Amazon.
But it made sense she’d have a darker complexion, because she’d have to be from Africa, if she had that kind of Amazon armor. So I said to myself, “I like this pair,” and the princess herself, I tweaked her a little bit, so she’s darker than her father and lighter than her mother, and kind of looks like a mix between the two of them, I hope. And I hope people like it.
Nrama: Wait, so…you actually applied logic and reasoning to developing the characters’ backgrounds and appearance. What kind of writer does that?
Beaton: Well, I didn’t want it to just be like a viking society – they weren’t going to be both Nordic-looking, I guess. And the warriors in the book are all over the place – it’s not set in any one particular location or era, so they’re not married to any one look and everyone doesn’t have to look the same.
Nrama: I also like the fact that Princess Pinecone’s dad is a bespectacled Viking.
Beaton: Yeah, he’s kind of a nerdy dad! I don’t know, I wanted to “dad” him up a little bit. So I gave him glasses. Warriors can wear glasses!
Nrama: They can have intellectual qualities. They got to be able to see their opponents on the battlefield.
Beaton: Yeah! They can’t all have contacts.
Nrama: What was the greatest challenge in brainstorming all those sweaters? Because there’s a lot of sweaters in this book. Did you have any sweater outtakes?
Beaton: Oh, probably! I drew a lot of sweaters. I had a ton to go through, from old pictures. You know how you’re a kid and you have all these shirts with catchphrases that make no sense…?
Nrama: Oh, I still have them. It’s called TeeFury.
Beaton: That’s true! We do have those now, like Graphic Tees and stuff, with little jokes on them. And kids love those. I see kids with some hilarious thing on their shirts, because they love it. I saw a kid with a soccer ball on his shirt, he was like a toddler, and he had a picture of a soccer ball on his shirt with the words “Kickin’ It!” And he was like, “I love soccer balls!”. It didn’t matter what it meant, he just liked kicking soccer balls. And it’s so fun to draw things like that.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing some more adventures in this world, in picture-book format?
Beaton: I do! I do, actually. It’s a lot of fun. Because it’s like, very boisterous, but not very scary. It’s just a lot of people affirming themselves everywhere they go. They’re these warriors, but they don’t seem to harbor any ill will toward anybody else. They’re just all doing their own thing, and loving it, and the competition is very, very friendly. So it’s nice.
Nrama: So what are some of the biggest challenges of being so in demand these days? Because you’ve got the book, you have the new Hark! A Vagrant collection…you have a lot of things going on.
Beaton: Oh, I know!
Nrama: So what are the challenges in managing this – it can be enjoyable to do freelance work, obviously, but how do you balance that with doing your own thing, with yourself as your boss?
Beaton: Oh, yeah. Probably that I’m a very slow worker, even though my work doesn’t look like it takes that long sometimes! So my website probably suffers the most, because that’s my own thing. If anything’s gonna go unchecked, it’s going to be that.
But I feel guilty about that, so I can’t fully stop updating my website – it’s the thing that got me here. So the biggest challenge is finding time to update it while I’m working on other things.
Nrama: Well, it’s not exactly like you’ve sold out to the man – working with Scholastic, The New Yorker, the Criterion Collection –
Beaton: Yeah, exactly. But it’s like, my website is my storefront, my flagship in a sense. And I don’t want it to sink.
Nrama: So what all do you have coming up? We talked a little about the new Hark! A Vagrant collection from Drawn & Quarterly later in the year…
Beaton: Oh, my God! How many books do you want?! I have that book coming out, and then next year, I have another one coming out from Scholastic.
Nrama: …okay, so is that another original story, or a collection of Hark! strips…?
Beaton: Oh, no, that’s another original story.
Nrama: Oh, good. You might have to cut out some of the punchlines if it was a strip collection.
Beaton: I would have to cut out a lot of the lines.
Nrama: So what’s your next picture book going to be about, or can you tell us?
Beaton: I can’t! It’s in the final editing stages, so it’s in good shape. But it’s going to be different from The Princess and the Pony. It’s going to be set in a different world.
Nrama: If you could do a longer story with any of your interests – historical figures, literary characters, or your own creations, what would you do?
Beaton: I don’t know! I am going to take the time once this book I’m working on is finished and the tour I’m on this fall is over to think about that.
Nrama: Are you mainly focused on books and strips and things, or do you see yourself working in other media, such as animation or novel-length prose?
Beaton: I don’t know if I’m going to write some prose – I need to practice, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in. And animation – that’s very time-consuming. I love it, but you do that, you have to drop everything else. But then you see something like Over the Garden Wall, and you think, “Man, I’d love to do something like this!”
Nrama: Anything you’ve been enjoying lately in comic books or other media that you’d like to recommend to people?
Beaton: I’ve been reading a lot of comics in book form, the collections. There’s one called Southern Bastards I really like. And I started reading Rebels, the American patriot one, that’s right up my alley. And I started reading Bitch Planet, I thought that was really cool. I hadn’t been reading enough comic books, so I had to get back into them.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet, or hard-sell you’d like to give on The Princess and the Pony?
Beaton: Ooh, well, I want this to hit the best-seller list. So that means a lot of sales in the first few weeks. So if people are intending to buy it, I’d love it if they did!