If you’re a history nerd and you’ve spent any time whatsoever online, you’ve probably familiar with Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant comics. Because jokes about Lord Byron and Liszt and the Brontë sisters’ questionable taste in men are great, and hers in particular are hilarious.
Her witty and informed work is wildly popular, and not just on the Internet, either—her first print collection did quite well, and her second—Step Aside, Pops!—is due out in the fall. But she doesn’t just write about history, and her latest project is something a little different: a kids’ picture book titled The Princess and the Pony. The charmingly illustrated book features the adventures of Princess Pinecone and one of Beaton’s oldest characters—a rotund pony. The pony farts a lot. It’s pretty great!
In advance of the book’s release (it’s out now), I got a chance to chat with Beaton. We talked about writing history, making kids laugh, and why everybody loves princesses so much.
You’re really well known for your history comics and you’ve got a new collection, Step Aside, Pops! coming out in the fall. Why history?
It was a natural thing—I was studying history in school, in university, and I was also making comics for the student paper, so I just started making comics in the bend of the things that I was reading every day. And I was writing a humor column and it was about stupid campus stuff for a long time, and then I remember, I decided to make one that was just about history and it was way funnier than the other ones. And I was like, Oh, I like this! It just seemed like a natural thing. If I didn’t do the comics, I was probably going to go into museum studies or get a phd in history.
It seems like a similar challenge—museum studies is about finding interesting ways to represent the past to people, and that’s what you do.
Yeah, absolutely. And wrangling public interest.
Yeah, which is—
Why do you think that your work has resonated with the public and specifically with the Internet so much? What is it about what you do that you think has captured people’s imagination?
I think it’s a few things. One, that I came in at the right time, when there wasn’t as much material out there as there is now. I feel like the internet is larger than it was in 2008. There wasn’t as much content vying for people’s attention, so someone like me could sort of be doddering around on my website and people would notice. But my work comes from a place of really enjoying something, enjoying the thing that I’ve read and made a comic about. And I think that kind of thing is infectious. I try to make the humor in it not necessarily snarky but kind of joyous. Even if it’s making fun of something, it’s because I liked it. I think that appeals to people.
And when you have certain types of, I don’t know, nerdy types who would call themselves history nerds, they often read something that they think is interesting and they want to share it with other people. You find a lot of those people in museums—they’re like, Come look at this amazing artifact! And people are like, Oh, that’s boring. And they’re like, No, it’s really cool! It’s a different version of that.
One of the things that’s always fascinating me about your work is that you’re doing a bit of fun-poking but you’re humanizing these characters and poking fun in a loving way. I think about that comic about Liszt. These difficult people—or God forbid, Shelley and Byron.
Difficult people are great. They’re my bread and butter.
I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about how you go through that process of representing the obnoxious parts of, say, Lord Byron but in a way that’s still fond and appreciative.
When people are hard nuts to crack or if they’re difficult or blustery or full of themselves, they’re endearing in a way. Because they’re these very robust personalities. A lot of times when you’re reading an old text, this character will show up and that character will show up. But if somebody shows up and they have all this crazy attitude, then they immediately stand out. And all of those imperfections—that is the humanizing thing about them. Lord Byron was a great poet but he was also, like, a complete weirdo. People get drawn into the humanity of historical people because that’s what connects us to them.
You can read and enjoy your comics if you aren’t a Victorianist, for instance, but Victorianists respond to them as well. How do you balance the accessibility and the knowledge-required in-jokes?
Well, that took a lot of trying. I used to make comics that were a single comic, and I found that was too narrow because it would either be too broad, and then I felt like I was doing a disservice to whatever I was lampooning, or it would be too specific and then people just wouldn’t get it. So now I take on a topic and I’ll do, like, four, six, eight strips, and there’ll be a mix of things in there that appeal to someone who’s never read anything about it and somebody who did their Phd on it. Because that’s my audience—it’s all of that.
But there’s also, because it is a thing that originates online, and because the Internet is everywhere now, there’s that ability people have, if they don’t get the joke, they can immediately google it and then come back and read it again and be in on it.
I guess now everything is automatically footnoted, huh?
But that’s something that I deal with all the time when I’m making the comics, is recognizing that I have to do all of that.
How do you do the research for them? Are you reading multiple biographies? What’s the process?
Well, I’m basically reading constantly about things and I’m always scanning books and blogs and whatever else—here’s so much available online now from different archives and things—and taking notes on what I think is interesting and hoping that something sticks in my mind. Because every time I finish a comic, it’s a blank page. I can’t read ten biographies and then do a comic because then you’d never see a comic. I have to be judicious in what information I go for, and I’m good at narrowing in on what I need to both round out what I know about what I’m talking about and so that I don’t have crazy blind spots. But it’s just a lot of reading. I’m basically working all of the time.
I guess that’s the nice thing about doing something that’s relevant to your personal interests—your leisure reading becomes your work reading but not in a way that’s a drag.
Yeah, although I wish I had time to read more novels. Sometimes I get home and I’m like, Oh, my novel. I’m going to watch a TV show instead.
I want to talk about The Princess and the Pony. The art is gorgeous and it’s really fun. How’s it different writing for kids? It’s obviously a very different audience.
They’re very intelligent, but they’re not adults. So they know what they like, they know what makes them laugh, they know when you’re talking down to them. But they’re not invested in the same things we are as adults. As an adult comic author, I talk often to this audience that is very educated and that has nostalgia for things and has a certain kind of cleverness and wit and will get wordplay and different puns and stuff. Kids are experiencing a lot of things for the first time. And it’s just a different type of humor that they have. I tried to think a lot of when I was reading books to kids that I babysat. Because when I started I was like, Am I dumbing this down too much for them? I don’t know! But I had great editors here who helped me out, actually. The book would be very different without them. There would be some stuff that kids probably wouldn’t get or wouldn’t care about.
But in the end, I really just wanted to make something that would make kids laugh. And I’ll be honest with you: When I babysat when I was a teenager, they drew a picture of a poop and they put my name on it and they were like, “That’s you!” and they thought it was the funniest thing ever. It had a face. And so this book is a farting pony, because I was like, You can’t go wrong. This is a surefire thing. They weren’t being mean—they were just like, poo is the most hilarious thing. There was nothing mean about it. They were just like, This is the best joke I ever wrote.
It’s not that they’re laughing because they think you’re poop—they’re laughing because you aren’t but wouldn’t it be funny if you were!
Yeah, and they get to say poop and they get to draw poop and it comes out of your butt. It’s amazing!
What you said about nostalgia is so interesting, because a lot of kids’ stuff now is very “what if I put my kids in a Ramones shirt!” A lot of products for kids seem to be opportunities for their parents to enjoy things they enjoyed when they were kids. But it’s all new to the kids.
Yeah, they don’t care about the Ramones. Maybe they think it’s cool, I don’t know. Maybe when they’re teenagers they’ll be like, “Yeah, my dad was cool, he put me in a Ramones shirt.” At the time they’re like, “We don’t care.” The same goes with dressing kids in their Star Wars outfits, I suppose. They’re just like daddy’s little Star Wars man. “This is a fun thing, I’ve never seen Star Wars but I enjoy this costume.” They just enjoy it on their own level.
So the story started with the pony, right? You’ve been doing illustrations of the pony for a long time and you developed it from there?
The pony was one of the earliest things I drew, actually. The pony has been around the whole time. And the story came about—I wanted the book to be about the pony and he’s almost an inert character. Whenever he’s in a comic or anything he’s not doing that much. He can’t talk. I say he—there’s no assigned gender, really. It has this magical presence all the time and has an effect on people and that seems to be the thing that makes it work. So if you’re gonna have this character who’s this magical presence but doesn’t actually do that much, I thought the best thing would be to surround it with as much action and activity as possible. So they have this kingdom of warriors who just love rollicking battles and that kind of thing. And I wanted the story to be about a little girl, because I’m one of four girls, so that was my experience growing up.
Tell me how you landed on a princess. So much of little girl stuff right now is princesses, princesses, princesses—and she is one, but it’s not your usual envisioning.
I get the princess question a lot, because it’s true that there’s a lot of princess stuff that’s aimed at little girls and there’s a lot of stuff out there that also subverts it, and that’s great. Mine would probably fall into that category.
But when I was little I really loved princesses, and I don’t remember thinking, like, I’ve gotta have a prince and I’ve gotta have a dress. More like—I get to choose the dress and I get to get people to listen to me and I get to make choices. Princesses are these characters that have a certain amount of autonomy, and I think that’s appealing to little girls and to little kids in general, just this character who is—by their nature younger, because they’re a daughter, like the kid is—but people listen to what they say. They’re like, “I wanna do this! I wanna wear this! I’m gonna choose this! You’re have to listen to me!” And people are like, “Okay.” That’s the dream! I want to have a dress with three million rainbows on it, and people are like, “No problem, here you go, princess.” I drew those big cone hats on myself and that sort of thing, and high heels—you know, the classic princess wear.
So this princess, I was like, Well, I loved princesses, so I’m going to make her a princess, and then I’m just going to do my own thing with her. If I didn’t tell you that she was a princess in the story, you wouldn’t know. It’s not really relevant to the plot. And I kinda liked that, as well. I mentioned at some point that maybe she just named herself that. “This is who I am!” And then she was a princess. Because little kids do that, too—they’re like, “I’m a princess right now.” And you’re like, “Okay.”
You’re the boss!
Yeah, you’re the boss! Basically that’s it—you’re the boss.
But I say that, and then I make a story about a girl who isn’t really the boss. She asks for something for her birthday and she doesn’t get what she wants, but she makes the best of it. Because that’s a regular kid scenario. It’s just one that’s totally out to lunch.
I never thought about how much wanting to the princess is about this idea of, “I’m gonna tell everybody what to do and they’re gonna do it,” but that’s totally why you want to be a princess when you’re a kid.
And you also get to make choices for yourself. That’s really important, as well, because little kids don’t get to make that many choices for themselves. But you understand that as a princess you’re like, “I’m gonna eat this today and I’m gonna make my favorite cake and I’m gonna wear this and then we’re gonna go have a parade.” And people are like, “Sounds great! You’re the boss.”
At some point you mentioned you’d read about Ida B. Wells, and she rolled around in your head for a while before you sat down and did a comic. Could you talk a little bit about how you decide to write about characters like that? How do you tackle the stuff that’s not just the fun stuff, but tackle it in a way that’s enjoyable?
Yeah, you can make a lot of comics about Napoleon, or George Washington, or someone like that. Because they’re these characters who lived powerful lives and you can take them down—or you were talking about Lord Byron before, and he was a white guy with a lot of money and he had a lot of power and if you take him down a peg, it doesn’t really matter for him. But then I read about Ida Wells and I thought, this woman is amazing, but there’s nothing funny there. I don’t want to take her down a notch, because she’s a hero and when you read about her, you cry. I cried. I was in my studio and people were like, Are you okay? and I was like, She’s amazing!
But then I started looking at my comics and they can’t just all be about the white dudes with power because those guys are easy to make fun of. And I tell people that my comics are a celebration of things that I like, not necessarily making fun of something. So it’s harder to get the joke out I suppose, to actually make something funny. With Ida I tried and I think you can get a little chuckle from reading it, but also be kind of in awe of how great she was. And that was the point of it. Because yeah, if I didn’t make comics about her then I’d just be leaving her out again. And I think there should be a statue of her somewhere in the country and there isn’t. That’s crazy.
So how do I pick? Honestly I look for things that I think are interesting and what maybe moves me or makes me laugh or I think is just really fascinating, and I have a lot of reader feedback, as well. People are like, if you like this, you should read this. Somebody recently tweeted please have more Mexican comics. And I was like, oh yeah, Mexican history, we didn’t learn much of it in Canada. It’s very complicated to me, in a way. And she was like, oh, here’s a list of people you should look up. Thanks for being my library! So there’s a communication with my audience there as well. Like I said with this history stuff, people who like it, they just want to share the things that they like and that’s really cool.
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Photo by Notker Mahr. Princess and the Pony illustration courtesy Scholastic.