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In 2007, cartoonist Kate Beaton, pictured on the right in a self-portrait, launched her webcomic "Hark! A Vagrant," which features spoofs on historical and literary characters. (Courtesy of Kate Beaton, harkavagrant.com)

Finding the Humor in History

The irreverent take on the giants of literature, science and politics could only have come from the brain of cartoonist Kate Beaton

smithsonian.com

In just four years, Kate Beaton has made a name for herself as a cartoonist. She launched her webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant” in 2007 and has since published two books. Her strips, which look like doodles a student might draw in the margins of her notebook, read as endearing spoofs on historical and literary characters. In one, Joseph Kennedy overzealously goads his sons’ aspirations for presidency, and in another, the Brontë sisters go dude watchin’.

Beaton, 28, started penning comics while studying history and anthropology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. Her cartoons, about the campus and its professors at first, ran in the school newspaper. “I don’t know how well I ingratiated myself among the faculty,” she says. But now the New York City-based cartoonist hears of educators who serve up her witty comics as aperitifs to what might otherwise be dry lessons.

Just a few months after the release of her latest book Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton took a break from sketching Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights fame to discuss her work with us.

What do you look for in a subject? Are there certain character traits or plotlines you look for?

A certain amount of conflict makes it easier. But there are no red flags really. In general, you just sort of become very familiar with the subject and then you poke fun at it like you would a friend of yours that you know very well.

You once said that your approach is directly related to the old Gaelic-style humor of Nova Scotia. How so?

My hometown [of Mabou, Nova Scotia] is very small. It is 1,200 people or so, and it is really well known for its Scottish heritage. It was so culturally singular in a way. That culture grew because it was so isolated there for such a long time. There is just a certain sense of humor. They talk about it like it’s a thing. I read once in a book that it was a knowing wink to the human foibles of the people that you know. Usually someone is just sort of being a little hard on you or someone else, but in a friendly way. You have to live with these people. No one is a jerk about it. But it is jokes at the expense of everyone’s general humanity. You could call it small-town humor.

So what kind of research does it take to attain a friendly enough rapport with figures in history and literature to mock them in your comics?

For every character it is totally different. It is not just a character. It is the world around the character or the book or the historical thing. People take history very personally, so an event might have a second or third life depending on who is reading about it and who is writing about it and who cares about it. It is fascinating. I don’t really have a particular process. I just try to find the most credible and interesting sources that I can to read about things and I go from there.

Before you went full steam as a cartoonist, you worked in museums, including the Mabou Gaelic and Historical Society, the Shearwater Aviation Museum and the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Do you visit museums or nose through their digital collections for inspiration?

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