Kate Beaton, the web comic writer/artist behind the New York Times best selling collection “Hark! A Vagrant,” welcomed the audience to her spotlight panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego with a wave and a slide show presentation of her online comic parodies.
“I’m going to do a comics reading — oh, thank you,” Beaton laughed as the packed room erupted into applause at the images of her “Nemesis” and “Brown Recluse Spider-Man” strips.
Her trademark humor evident, Beaton began the panel with a staged reading of some of her most popular web comics, turning the room into a stand-up venue as she narrated everything from the lines to the sound effects. Beaton then moved on to a brief slideshow presentation of her life, though in classic Beaton style not every part of the slideshow was one hundred percent accurate.
“I was born — that’s not me, that’s my sister, but I kind of looked like that when I was small!” Beaton joked as she showed a misleading slide of her family to her laughing audience.
Laying out the basics of her life — born in Canada, worked on her school newspaper in college, began drawing web comics for fun which turned into a career after the surge in popularity — Beaton then illustrated the research process behind writing her historical comedy strips by showing pictures of Medieval art and making fun of it, slide by slide.
“He’s getting a sword to the head, and she’s getting a sword to the head, they’re getting swords to the head,” Beaton joked as the crowd laughed again, narrating a series of images of Dark Ages soldiers and peasants getting hit in the head with swords.
“It’s hard not to get inspired by them,” Beaton added, showing off the fruits of her research, the reoccurring “Peasant Comics” from her web site — including a strip where a peasant uprising was met with swords to the head.
Beaton then gave the panel over to the audience for questions. The first “Hark! A Vagrant” fan brought up that the animated TV show “Adventure Time” used Beaton’s fat pony in a cameo in one of their episodes and wanted to know if there were more “Adventure Time” character crossovers in the works.
“They’re friends of mine,” Beaton said, explaining that the comics and animation communities were fairly small. “You meet people like this at shows a lot and you say, ‘I like your work,’ and they like yours and it’s a big compliment. Pen [“Adventure Time” creator Pendleton Ward] is one of the most generous show makers that I know that has hired a lot of extremely talented people on the strength of his show’s popularity, so if I did something with them it would all be because Pen has the ability to pull strings.”
A couple, both of them dressed as Aquaman, told Beaton they loved her take on Aquaman in her super hero strips and wanted to know what the cartoonist did when she wasn’t drawing.
“I’ve been reading, I guess? What a boring answer, oh my god!” Beaton said as the audience laughed.
“I’ve been skateboarding off a helicopter,” Beaton added as the audience cracked up again. She then told the couple she had recently been getting into horror novels for the first time.
Another audience member brought up Beaton’s autobiographical comics and wanted to know if she planned to do a full book of those.
“I do — they don’t really belong on the main site, it’s its own animal,” Beaton said, elaborating on why she does not post comics about her and her family on her website anymore. “If I make enough of them I will try to figure that out. But any creative person doesn’t do one thing and I’m like that too, I like to stretch my skills as far as they can go and become a better artist by telling better stories — there’s a lot that goes into humor that’s not just telling jokes; it’s being able to pull things from a range of places.”
The next fan to the microphone asked about the wide range of subjects she parodies in her comics, from Canadian parliament to superheroes to historical figures, and wanted to know if she would parody sports or the Olympics. Beaton said she would if it dovetailed into her other interests, giving the example of the 1955 Quebec hockey riot known as the Richard Riot which marked a turning point for the French-speaking minority in Canada, the unfair treatment of a Quebec hockey player leading them to rise up and demand equal rights.
“When sports comes into a big cultural arena like that it can be really fascinating,” Beaton said.
The audience broke into applause and cheers when the next fan mentioned liking Beaton’s “Strong Female Characters” strips, co-created with Carly Monardo and Meredith Gran.
“They’re a parody of the characters where Hollywood is like, ‘Ladies, stop complaining, here’s a strong lady that’ you’ll love,’ and it’s just tits and a gun,” Beaton said. “They’re only vaguely human and they don’t know anything of what it’s like to be a person, they just know to ‘kick ass’ and have your ass out!”
The fan then asked how Beaton balanced her love of mainstream comics, which often embrace the same stereotypes, with her feminism.
“It’s not like an attack on anything, comics and movies, those types of things are everywhere and we were just trying to make each other laugh,” Beaton said of the strips.
Asked about her technical process, Beaton said she usually draws in a sketchbook for a while before putting pencil and pen to paper.
“The better a sketch I have the more genuine the line is and the better the expression,” Beaton said, adding that she avoids PhotoShopping and has a very “basic” approach to art.
To the next audience member Beaton said she really enjoyed her historical comics about the Japanese swordsman Musashi. The audience member then asked if Beaton’s family understood her humor.
“My family…” Beaton said, then paused for effect as the audience laughed.
“My sisters are our age, they’re proud, they both go to Calgary Comic Con and say, ‘Oh, you’re famous!'” Beaton continued. “My mom and dad are proud and they don’t read web comics — they don’t really get the humor but they have never discouraged me, they only worry as any parent would about, ‘Do you have an exit plan?’ No!
“Mom will say from time to time, ‘I don’t like the language,’ and ‘Why don’t you go to church?'” Beaton added as the audience laughed.
Another fan wanted to know about how she approaches historical fiction and her historical mash-ups.
“The mash-ups became super popular in the last couple of years — I think that’s just how I study history, when I try to understand any particular event I can’t help but do it from a modern perspective,” Beaton said. “Then when I started making jokes it was natural. People really responded to it, so I kept it up.
“Comics are an amazing mnemonic device, that’s why we remember things from them better than we did if we read a chapter from our history books,” Beaton continued. “I felt more and more responsibility to flesh out the subject every time, so you saw the panels go from this six-panel short thing to these long things of about six comics each that cover a broader area of the subject.”
The very last question came from a fan that liked Beaton’s comics about classic literary figures and wanted to know which one was her favorite to mess with.
“I decided to do the ‘Wuthering Heights’ [adaptation] over a huge stretch of time because that book is so insane,” Beaton said. “It’s really iconic for one thing, so I wasn’t taking a gamble that people knew what it was, which is always something I worry about. It was a safe bet and it was super, super insane. I like that one and I like ‘Dracula’ because they both have scenes that are not as popularized as much because they are too weird and they never make it to the movies.
“My favorite part is so bananas; it’s when Hindley, who is Catherine’s brother, has a baby and he accidentally drops the baby off the balcony. Heathcliff catches the baby instinctively and then was like, ‘Why did I catch the baby, why didn’t I let it die, that would have been the perfect revenge!'” Beaton laughed. “He’s angry at himself that he caught the baby like some asshole!
“I also [like] when Mina is sucking blood out of Dracula’s chest and Dracula is like, yeah,” Beaton concluded the panel as the audience cracked up once more.
Visit Beaton’s website for more of her comics work and stay tuned to CBR for more news from Comic-Con International 2012.