Lady on the internet

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Web comic sensation Kate Beaton makes an appearance at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival

Mike Bastien
Capilano Courier (Capilano University)

VANCOUVER (CUP) – One of Kate Beaton’s first comics was a crudely-drawn doodle done on MS paint with a headline of, “Whoops I am a lady on the internet,” featuring her as a stick figure in front of a laptop reading, “hey I think ur sexi I like ur comixs I think I am stalking u I hope that’s ok??” on the screen of her computer.

Now, with her new book Hark! A Vagrant on the top of the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover graphic novels, there’s no “whoops” about it. Combining art with history, and eventually shedding the MS paint for hand-drawn comics, Beaton has taken the Internet by storm. She most recently made an appearance at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, in conversation with radio host Bill Richardson, where she was unique as a graphic novelist among many other authors of the conventional form.

Born in Cape Breton, N.S., Beaton aspired to be an animator as a child. She then got a degree in history and anthropology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, but it was in 2007 when she first found her calling making comics. Beaton explained that it started out as a personal project: “I had been doing them and putting them on Facebook for friends to see, and then I got such a good response and encouragement from people to do my own website. So I just did, and never really looked back.”

Despite there being thousands of web comics, Hark! A Vagrant is one of the few to prove profitable.

“I had no idea anything I made would be so well-received,” Beaton said. “The thing is, I would have been doing this anyway. Maybe not so much on a large scale, but I would be making comics; I have been for a long time.”

Beaton is not only popular because of her art or writing, but because she has struck a nerve with a previously undiscovered niche. While most web comics such as The Oatmeal and Amazing Super Powers are about video games or pop culture, Hark! A Vagrant is about history. The majority of Beaton’s work consists of comics about historical figures such as Napoleon, as well a few forays into comics about mystery-solving teens and the adventures of an overweight pony. Beaton explained, “I chose to make comics about history because I think it's interesting and I like it.”

One of the most fascinating things about Hark! A Vagrant is the art. In an industry ruled by comics done on a computer, it is somewhat fitting that a comic about history is done by hand. “I draw it with pencils and then I use a pen on top; it is terribly simplistic. I use brush pens for lines and I use greyscale markers and watercolour to shade it.”

Beaton’s work shows great skill in both facial expressions and pacing. The dialogue Beaton writes is also distinct compared to others in the medium: most of the dialogue she writes has no punctuation and is oddly phrased.

“This may sound strange, but I think part of that comes from the place where I was raised,” she said. “Cape Breton, like Newfoundland, is famous for odd turns of phrase, and while you wouldn’t notice it if you were speaking to me, I’ve retained a lot of that different speech structure – especially with my approach to humour, which is directly related to the old Gaelic-style humour of Nova Scotia.”

While some people prefer to place importance on one over another, Beaton believes that art and writing are equally important.

“People like to think of comics in terms of a division of labour, because some people are better at one aspect than the other, or because some people collaborate in this way,” she said. “When you are presenting a story in words and pictures, there is no way one can just carry the other, and I believe most comic artists don’t think of them separately.”

The web comic industry is a booming one. Despite providing their content for free, comics such as Penny Arcade, xkcd, and Dinosaur Comics are able to make money through website advertisements and merchandising. Penny Arcade even has its own gamer convention, Penny Arcade Expo, and charity, Child’s Play, benefiting patients of children’s hospitals.

One benefit to having comics online, as opposed to paper, is the wealth of possibilities found in a digital medium: comics such as Loldwell, for instance, adds small animations to their panels. Another advantage is that web comics can be accessed from just about anywhere, and larger comic companies are noticing. In order to find an issue of Spiderman, one used to have to visit a store that specialized in comics.

Now, these issues are easily accessed on the Internet. Marvel, DC, and Viz, to name a few, all offer online content. It was recently announced that the American manga magazine Shonen Jump will cease print by April 2012 and become available only online.

As the print world fades, more people are using the Internet to discover independent gems. Beaton’s talents and quirky sense of humour have made her one of the most popular web comic artists online, with a website that gets 1.2 million hits a month. What’s more, while other comics are moving from print to Internet, Beaton’s success has even transcended her online roots with the book sales to back it up. This could be explained by her love for what she does: by combining her two passions, she has created strips filled with humour and insight.

Kate Beaton’s comics can be accessed online at www.harkavagrant.com.

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