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Conan’s Party Is Much Politer

The music forms more of a background statement than an omnipresent cavalcade of reggaeton airhorns, so that’s all right. Let’s talk about Saturday, a day that began and ended with Furiosa.

The first one I met walking into the Kate Beaton Spotlight panel — an excellent costuming job, really great fabrication all around. The second one sat talking to a friend in the bar where I ate dinner, and I wasn’t sure if it was the same Furiosa as this morning. I noticed that Furiosa #2 had an even greater reason to draw inspiration from the character than Furiosa #1; namely, she has no lower left arm, with only empty space between the three struts that connected the elbow cup to the hand. I didn’t ask for a photo in the bar, but I complimented her on the quality of her costuming and left it at that. It wasn’t the only time today that a cosplayer incorporated a physical challenge into the costume, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that today, but we’ll come back to cosplay later.

As has been noted, last night Kate Beaton won her first Eisner Award — it’s honestly a bit shocking it took this long — in the category of Best Humour Publication¹ … a first for a woman working alone. She spoke with Hilary Chute, professor of English at Northeastern University, and if the nature of a Spotlight panel means that a fair amount of information will have been conveyed in prior years, remember that for somebody, today was the first time they saw Beaton and learned her story.

Namely, second of four daughters (but one played hockey so Dad figured that was okay) in rural Nova Scotia, where if you were interested in something you dove in hard and honed your skill, both because there was little else to do, but also because you were likely the only one in your class of 23 kids to be interested in history and drawing and being the funny one in class. The downside is that once you reached the wider world outside of rural Nova Scotia, you might well find that the best drawer and teller of jokes back home might not be as good as all the others you’d meet.

The path of that sounds cool took Beaton to Mount Allison University and a course of study in history and anthropology, with a desire to make comics for the school paper profoundly mixed with a sense of shyness that kept her from making regular submissions until her third year². Her humour column actually provided the impetus to start writing comics for publication — they were already in the margins of her class notes, a useful review device if nothing else — which led to a feeling of power. When you’re on a campus of 2000 or so students, the one thing they all read in the paper is the comics page and hearing them laugh in the dining hall can be downright intoxicating.

Timing and luck played into Beaton’s ascent, graduating just about the time that Facebook launched and photo albums (which might contain comics) became one of the earliest features. Working in a museum in Vancouver with Emily Horne, who encouraged her to put up a website. Making the acquaintance of Ryan Pequin, who encouraged her to get a LiveJournal. Breaking just about the time that TopatoCo launched, and hearing that she could send in shirt designs and never have to handle the logistics of merchandise sales (That sounds just like printing money!). Having a dedicated audience that’s ready to follow you as you do comics about a variety of topics, one that’s more interested in the creator than genre or form.

There was also a sense of deliberation and planning to her plan to be a cartoonist; two years in the oil sands of Alberta cleared her college debt and socked away ten grand to fund the new career, which worked despite the intensely solitary and random work patterns. A strip of a smoking cursing Wonder Woman is in the bag, but the reward for finishing a comic is another empty page that needs filling. Meanwhile, there’s literature and history that needs to be read an contextualized: anything that happens never exists on its own; there’s changes in attitude and scholarship, conversations that take place an shift over time and need to be understood in order to get to the nugget, the core idea about whatever that’s caught your fancy. Now there’s a structure where a joke can be constructed and edited down to the key idea, and then, you just draw a bunch of farts.

Okay, not really, but there is a unique idiom, both visual and textual, in Beaton’s work, that sticks out and sometimes sticks around to mutate into a part of the internet’s common DNA. It can be as simple as being stuck for ideas and drawing renderings of, say, a Nancy Drew cover from the ’40s and then wondering What happens in the book based just on the cover?

Looking forward, Beaton is now working on a full-length graphic novel of her time in the oil sands; like a lot of Atlantic Canadians working in isolated places with only primary industries, the oil sands had a compelling attraction — here was a place with jobs, with the potential for money, at a remove from the elite, educated, liberal, artistic world. Stories and profiles of the oil sands don’t represent it well, especially treating the working class nature of the work and environs in a superficial and judgmental way; her book will look at issues of politics, gender roles, economy, environmental concerns, politics, and especially class; there are stories of what it’s like to live and work in such a place, stories that need telling, stories that different from Beaton’s usual work but which have to get out.

That book is going to be a hell of a thing, especially given that Beaton’s artwork (scribbly; bad) is strong on gesture and expression; maybe somebody else could educate the reader more, but Beaton’s going to be able to show us from the inside what it’s like to be there. Her unique style doesn’t do everything you can do in comics, but doesn’t need to; her strengths make for comics that feel honest and unmediated, in a way that unmistakeably hers and hers alone. She may count the likes of Searle and Yeoman as artistic influences, she make go back to Leacock to remind herself what’s funny, but in the end somebody’s got to draw the googly eyes in a way that conveys the joke, and there’s nobody that can do that they way she does.

There’s lots more, of course, but there’s only so much time to talk and then they’re shooing you from the room, but because Kate Beaton is Kate Beaton, she wrangles all the cosplayers to take a photo with her in the hallway purely because it’s a fun thing to do. She is, as I may have remarked in the past, The Best.

Speaking of cosplay, the day started with Dr Sidney “New Jersey” Zweibel of the famed Hong Kong Cavaliers, progressed pretty quickly to a captive Mad Max (the young woman’s Segway was for mobility purposes, but the sense of her zooming at you in a terrifying, out of control fashion gave a real theatrical effect), and then careened wildly to King Of The Beach Joker³. Funniest costume was either Master Chef or Dr Krieger and his holographic girlfriend (they can legally marry in New York!); the most badass characters were women that can shoot down TIE fighters, kill you for messing up her forest, or just eat your planet, so watch it.

¹ In honour of Ms Beaton, we will endeavour to use Canadian spelling in this post.

² Beaton did make one submission in her first year, by stuffing it unsigned into the submissions box and running.

³ Complete with Cesar Romero-style moustache under the pancake makeup.

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