In 2006, a couple of years after finishing university, Kate Beaton found a job at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, in Victoria. She worked as an administrative assistant, – "I was everyone's assistant," she explains – which meant her job entailed everything from writing grant applications to fundraising. Discussing it almost a decade later, it's obvious she loved the job, even if it was a constant struggle to attract visitors as easily as the nearby, and much larger, Royal British Columbia Museum.
"We were kind of dinky compared to them, so you had to work a little harder to get people interested, because, you know, we had a whole wing dedicated to B.C. ferries. We were like, 'Come and check this out!' and people were like, 'Why?' " she laughs. "The content was genuinely interesting, but you had to sell it. I do the same thing, kind of. I'm like, 'Look at this! It's so interesting!' to people who are reading the regular Internet – their Tumblrs and Facebooks and Twitters."
A cartoonist and quasi-historian who launched her comic strip Hark! A Vagrant in 2007 while still working at the museum, Beaton has harnessed the power of Tumblr and Facebook and Twitter to become a ubiquitous presence online, where her sketchy, clever, perfectly imperfect strips are often copied, spoofed, remixed and memed by others.
"There isn't a single person in comics, or who reads comics, who hasn't seen a Kate Beaton strip pop up in their newsfeed or on Twitter," says her friend, the comic-book artist Steve Murray. "She's the most naturally funny cartoonist I think I've ever known."
Like a Heritage Minute as imagined by Monty Python, her work exists at the intersection of history and humour, appealing to classics majors and drama club kids, aspiring novelists and political junkies – how many cartoonists, after all, can riff on Romantic poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron on one page, and French revolutionary Georges Danton the next, or would think to round up Alexanders Pushkin, the Great, Pope and Graham Bell for a series of irreverent strips about "Famous Alexanders"? All are included in her third collection of strips, Step Aside, Pops, which arrived in stores this week; her publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, has ordered a first printing of 50,000 copies, the largest in its history. If she keeps up her current pace, Beaton threatens to become as famous as some of the historical figures she (lovingly) mocks in her work.
"She should be a national treasure," says Peggy Burns, Drawn & Quarterly's publisher. "Everyone in Canada should know who Kate Beaton is."
"In my mind, her comics still haven't gotten the recognition they deserve," says Ryan North, her friend and creator of the popular online strip Dinosaur Comics. "There's probably a grandmother in Alberta who has not heard of Kate Beaton. She should probably check her out – I think she'd like her."
Beaton works out of a small studio in Toronto's Kensington Market that she shares with a handful of artists, though the space is empty on the September morning when I visit. Her desk is mostly bare, except for a laptop, a large drawing tablet and an unopened box containing copies of her new book. She grimaces after sitting down; she sprained her sacroiliac joint last fall and is still feeling the effects. "Every now and then it acts up again because I'm old," she says. (It turns out it was her 32nd birthday.) She wasn't sure how it would affect her book tour, which was starting in a couple of days, and would take her across the continent and back.
"I was like, 'I'm going to get in shape before this book tour,' because there's a bunch of people who'll be taking pictures [of me] and stuff. And then I went home for a month to Nova Scotia and my mom was like, 'Would you like 18 biscuits a day?' And I was like, 'Yes, I would. Can I have jam on those?' "
Beaton was born in the Cape Breton village of Mabou, N.S., and speaks fondly of the community. One of four sisters, she began to draw at a young age and "if you have a certain talent there people really recognize it," she says. "I remember doing school projects, and someone saying to me, 'Call me when you're famous.' I don't know if I would have gotten that in a bigger place because there would have been 18 kids in the classroom who liked to draw. But I was just the one. So I've always felt this insane support from my community, even when they didn't know what the hell I was doing." It helped, she adds, that Mabou is also the home of the acclaimed Celtic folk ensemble the Rankin Family.
"They were stars," she says. "It was like, they grew up in that house and now they're on TV. It was a really big deal to someone like me just to have an example. … Maybe without them I would have been a bit more hesitant."
She was hesitant in other ways. After graduating from high school Beaton wanted to study animation at Sheridan College, in Oakville, Ont., "but I didn't think that I was good enough to get into art school," she says. "In the end I was just too scared to make that plunge." Instead, she enrolled at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., where she majored in history and anthropology and, during her third year, began cartooning for the school paper. (Her most popular strip, she says, saw Charles Dickens visit the campus.) "It's like I figured out what I wanted to do."
After university, like many young people from Atlantic Canada, she moved to Fort McMurray, Alta., where she "lied" her way into a job working for one of the mining sites: "I told them that my dad owned a Home Hardware and I knew a lot about tools." (Her father was a butcher.) Last year, Beaton published a five-part webcomic called Ducks which chronicles her experiences in the oil sands, working during the day and drawing comics at night. It was a strange time in her life, and the work, which she may yet turn into a full-length book, reflects this; the strips are more personal, scrutinizing, plaintive.
"It's an extremely complicated place," she says. "I felt very alone there. I wasn't like the other people."
She moved to Victoria after a year and, while working for the museum, set up her website, which went live on September 25, 2007. She's not gloating when she says that she "had a fan base almost right away." On Nov. 8, less than two months after posting her first strip, Beaton was praised in Wired for writing "the most well-drawn, funniest comic that I've read in awhile from a person who doesn't have a book out yet." She recalls receiving her first fan letter, an email, and showing it to her roommates. "I was like, 'Look at this!' I made them all read it."
Still, she returned to Fort McMurray in 2007 in order to pay off her student loans. A year later, after saving $10,000, Beaton moved to Toronto in the fall of 2008 in order to work on comics full-time. By then, it seemed everyone in the comics community have taken notice of her work.
"It really came out of left field," says Chris Oliveros, who at the time was the publisher of Drawn & Quarterly. "In terms of everything, actually – in terms of her drawing approach, her cartooning approach, the humour, the writing, the timing of her jokes. There really was not any precedent."
The precedent, in a way, was what she'd learned working for the museum. She was trying to make history accessible, to make it fun. In her earliest strips Beaton would appear as a character, interacting with figures from throughout history, and although she soon dropped the conceit, to this day she often comes across as a sort of demented tour guide. "If you have a good museum guide they usually know how to warm the crowd up by cracking some [jokes]," she says. Her first book, 2009's self-published Never Learn Anything From History, is full of strips about Ben Franklin skipping out on signing the Declaration of Independence to fly a kite, and Jacques Cartier and John Cabot fighting over who discovered Canada. She tricks you into learning.
"Comics are an amazing mnemonic device. It's very difficult to remember the chapter that I just read of a book. Even now, I read a history text and then I'm like, 'What did I just read? I forget!' " she laughs. "But when you read a comic, you pretty much remember it all. I think that's why my comics are being used in classrooms."
After rebuffing Oliveros a couple of years earlier – he'd offered to publish her work, but "she said she wasn't ready yet," recalls Oliveros – Beaton eventually signed with Drawn & Quarterly and published her first "official" book, Hark! A Vagrant in 2011. Burns, who at the time handled the company's marketing and publicity, remembers launching the book at San Diego's Comic-Con, to which they'd brought 300 copies of the book. They started selling it at their booth on Wednesday night, and were sold out by the following afternoon. "We then had to spend Thursday through Sunday telling every single Kate Beaton fan that came up to the booth that we were out of her book." They immediately ordered a second printing – this was before the book was even available in stores – and have sold 65,000 copies to date.
"We were expecting it to do well," says Oliveros. "But we weren't expecting it to do that well, that fast."
Step Aside, Pops – the book takes its title from a strip in which a smirking, cigarette-smoking "velocipedestrienne" offends the sensibilities of a bearded, tea-sipping bicyclist – is poised to do even better. While still rooted in her love of history and literature – the book contains cartoons about the Memoirs of Hadrian, about John Hancock, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights and Patrick Henry, to just list the names under H in the index – Step Aside, Pops explores questions of gender, race and identity. Take "Nasty," an 11-page strip that takes the video for Janet Jackson's 1986 single of the same name and spins it into an increasingly disturbing tale of sexual harassment, vengeance and public shaming.
She's also branching out into picture books – Scholastic published her first picture book, The Princess and the Pony, the charming tale of a young warrior and her unfortunate steed, this past July – and her work regularly appears in publications ranging from Harper's to the New Yorker.
"I think I'll be fine, but I never want to rest on my laurels," she says. "I'm from the place where the cod went away, and then everybody was fucked. Like, there's always a bit of insecurity."