Was Lester B. Pearson too nice to be prime minister? Was John Diefenbaker a mad, bug-eyed egotist? And was Pierre and Margaret Trudeau’s marital relationship a little like that of father and daughter? These are the sorts of questions 25-year-old Kate Beaton gently probes in her series of comics on Canadian history, which are unusual enough to have sparked the sort of praise most writers spend a lifetime cultivating.
Originally from Cape Breton, Beaton is a Toronto-based cartoonist who has fans ranging from award-winning graphic novelists to geeky comic nerds. In the little over a year she’s been doing the comics, her work has been talked about on the website Wonkette and in Bitch magazine; a reviewer for Wired magazine called Beaton’s the “funniest comic that I’ve read in awhile.” Recently Daily Show writer Sam Means approached her to illustrate a children’s book he is writing. About 10 other agents and publishers have asked her to write a book, but so far she’s refused. Still finding her feet, Beaton wants to find out more about the industry so she doesn’t get shortchanged. Also, since she hasn’t yet drawn enough to fill a book, she doesn’t want to become “overwhelmed.”
If you’ve seen a Beaton comic, it might have been on the comics pages of the National Post, or perhaps through a link to her website, www.katebeaton.com. Although she has thousands of Canadian fans, the readers of her website are mainly American. Their reactions to (for them) unknown, obscure figures such as Wilfrid Laurier range from bemusement to gratitude for an introduction to a culture and history outside their own. The otherness makes her “vaguely otherworldly,” says Seattle-based Larry Cruz, who writes reviews on the website, The Webcomic Overlook. Beaton’s work is “delightful, funny and endearing even if I have no idea what in the world this crazy Canuck is referencing.”
Making history funny to people who don’t know their Sir John A. from McDonald’s is a challenge, she says. And if you’re not a history buff and don’t know, for instance, who Edwin Booth is, you probably won’t get all the jokes. Then again, if you know these subjects too well you might be irritated by her generous use of artistic licence. Rather than sticking to the facts, she imagines the inner lives of her characters, making them say things that sound modern, says John Martz, chair of the Canadian chapter of the National Cartoonists Society. Her subjects are often long dead, yet they seem like real people, albeit with oversized personalities or embarrassing foibles. In one cartoon, Brian Mulroney has a secret fetish for all things American. In another, Pierre Trudeau scolds Margaret for partying too much, and is then rebuffed with an impudent “You’re not my dad.”
Each panel is drawn in a simple, uncluttered style that looks childlike, almost unfinished. The style has been a trademark since she started drawing as a child; her school didn’t have an art department, so she would buy supplies online with her pocket money, and sketched in the hallways during breaks. Summers were spent working at different museums, as an archivist or researcher. After she finished her bachelor’s degree at Mount Allison in New Brunswick, she went to work in Fort McMurray to pay off her student loan. The work was “difficult and lonely,” she says; during the days, she would do office or manual work and at nights, she would draw her comics. In October 2007, she started putting them online where they quickly attracted a following.
Moving to Toronto in September 2008, she tapped into a community of cartoonists, who helped her find sponsorship for her site, which sells merchandise. The speed of her success took her “by surprise.” Sometimes it has been too much. Most of her fans are complimentary, but some of them are “jerks,” she says. “Some people are really out of line,” she explains. “You get comments like ‘Your comics are good, but I want to sleep with you.’ ” Eager to protect her privacy, Beaton has stopped drawing the journal comics that revealed details about her personal life. Which may turn out to be a blessing, says Tucker Stone, a New York-based reviewer at Comixology, since what really makes her different is the literary and historical cartoons. Beaton herself is defensive of this territory, bristling in fact at the suggestion that CanCon could possibly be dull. “Our history is the march of thousands of people across a continent trying to make a life for themselves,” she replies. “How can it be boring?”