Why This Famous Cartoonist Moved to a Secluded Canadian Island

We talked to Kate Beaton of 'Hark! A Vagrant' about banjo picking in Williamsburg, living next to nuns in Nova Scotia, and her two years in Fort Mac.

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May 16 2016, 3:51pm

"A lot of people who do what I do are stressed out and anxious a lot of the time," says cartoonist Kate Beaton. "There's always a fire under my ass. I never work fast enough, and I feel like I should be producing faster, and it's never good enough."

You can get why Beaton, 32, might feel the teensiest, weensiest bit of pressure to keep the momentum. Her webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant—which riffs on history and literature from Kierkegaard and Peter Mansbridge to Henry VIII and The Great Gatsby—has been collected in three books. Her work has also appeared in the The New Yorker, in Marvel superhero comics, on the animated show Adventure Time, posters for the Criterion Collection and as a Google Doodle of Canadian suffragette Henrietta Edwards. She's been profiled in The Paris Review, Salon, People, on NPR, and made TIME's top fiction list in 2011. Most recently, she's written an award-winning children's book, The Princess and the Pony (2015). Legendary director Guillermo del Toro was so impressed he invited her to an advance screening of Crimson Peak ("He was so nice. He liked my Brontës comics, and I like his movies. He's an extremely personable guy.")

With those kinds of credentials, you might think Beaton would be working in New York—where she, at one point, made up one-sixth of badass Brooklyn all-women cartoonist's studio Pizza Island—or maybe Toronto, where she also lived for several years.

But instead of doing the big city thing—say, paying $5,000 a month for a windowless basement apartment and an hour-long commute—last December she moved to Mabou, Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island. Claims to fame: low-lying mountains and ocean vistas, great getaway for Americans looking to flee Donald Trump, home of the Rankin Family. But while the former coal-mining community, population 1,200, is definitely picturesque, Beaton remains iffy on the glossy, official tourism depictions of her hometown.

"The tourism industry tends to manufacture a nostalgia for this untouched experience," Beaton says. "The TV ads, they use all this beautiful music, these colourful scenes, all that 'wouldn't you love to get away here?' stuff. But for the people who live in those houses and do those things, life is hard. Services keep getting cut. They're places the government just crushes."

Still, Beaton says, "I wasn't sleeping well in Toronto, and I was paying a lot in rent. I needed to get out of the city. Most people leave here because they have to. I can take my job with me." Such a move back home is either the stuff of quarter-life crisis fantasy, or of nightmares, for many young urban professionals with podunk childhood stomping grounds.

Nor is coming back home typical among the 1,300 people aged 20-29 who leave Nova Scotia every year. Historically, a majority of displaced Maritimers have ended up in Western Canada, and especially Fort McMurray, where massive wildfires recently necessitated the evacuation of over 90,000 people. Even when global oil prices fell by 75 percent between 2014 and 2016, jobs in Fort Mac remained more plentiful than they were on the East Coast.


Fort McMurray, Alberta

Beaton was no exception. After earning a history degree from Mount Allison University in 2005, she says, "I had a giant student loan, and I didn't want to have it chained to me, so I was one of the people who went to Fort Mac." Following the advice of an uncle, who advised getting a job in the tool crib "because you can live on-site and not have a trade," she says.

She stayed for a total of two years, taking a year in Victoria, BC in between. "I don't know if I could've done it for two years straight," she says, "It was 12 days on, two days off, and you don't stop. You normalize things. You just inhale it."

Being "a 21-year-old woman by myself, in a camp full of 50 men for every woman, on a job site that destroyed the planet" was "not a good time," says Beaton. "It isn't like anywhere I've been." It was also the fodder for some serious writing and drawing: her time in Fort McMurray formed the basis for her five-part comics series, Ducks, which you can read for free on her site. It's a short read, as hilarious as it is deeply sad. In disconnected vignettes, she captures the homesickness, the sexual harassment, the crap food, the chemical ugliness and physical hazards of the work—but also the pride, rhythms of blue-collar speech, and the beauty and pathos of a complicated place.

"Part of the reason I wanted to tell stories from [Fort Mac] is that that place altered my world," she says. She was sick of reading "exposés by some fucking guy who worked for Rolling Stone, bummed around for two weeks, and wasn't connected to anyone or anything. It grossed me out. They're like 'the smoke peeled back and I saw this wasteland,' and I'm like, 'fuck you, you rich asshole. You stayed in a hotel for two weeks. Cool. Thanks for coming.'"

"I longed to read something that felt like the place that I saw, and it wasn't there."

Recently, Beton received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to "write a book about Fort McMurray," she tells VICE, a major project for which she's currently working out a framework. Given that a massive wildfire has now consumed a significant part of Fort Mac and a surrounding area 50 percent larger than Toronto, doing the book might be, shall we say, more complicated than initially anticipated. But Beaton doesn't have much patience for those who want to turn the disaster into a trite moral lesson on climate change and karma.

"All I see are people's lives," she says. "I don't want to paint a picture of anything less than how complicated it really is there."

While Beaton doesn't rule out going back to the city someday—"Maybe the moon next time, who knows?" she writes on her About The Author page—for now, she's "trying to figure out the reasons to stay [in Nova Scotia], and whether I can."

"There's a narrative in a lot of people's heads that there are no young people and nothing going on, but I'm very busy, and there are more young people here than you'd think," she says. Be that as it may: her closest neighbours are literally nuns. ("There are four of them in the convent. The youngest is 80," she says.)

Not that she'd have tonnes of time to hang out, anyway. She's launching her next children's book, King Baby, the second of a two-book deal with Scholastic which deals with a toddler whose life is being ruined by an "awful" new baby, this fall.

"The baby narrates it, and is like, 'I'm here, rejoice! Do this for me! Do that for me!'" says Beaton, adding the story was "hard to figure out until my nephew was born. Because he's the first baby in our family, everything he does is perfect. If you see pictures of him with his aunts, we all look drunk. We're drunk on that baby. That's how adults act around babies. Like our brains fell out of our heads."

More time with family is a clear upside of living back home. As well, she says, "there's a lot of looking to the past around here, and some people hate it, and some people love it. I'm one of the people who love it."

Beaton compares her relatively quiet, working-class existence and those of the folks she used meet, say, in Williamsburg. "You'd meet people and ask them what they did, and they'd be like, 'just taking it easy, trying to learn the banjo.' And you're like 'wow, we don't live on the same planet or operate on the same rules.'"

While the banjo-playing trust fund kids might be wracked by FOMO if they were transplanted to a place like Cape Breton, Beaton sees the solitude as an opportunity to draw, and write.

"If you stop making those comics then you cease to be, in a way. You become one of those people that other people used to like, or used to read, and then they aren't around anymore. When you're working on TV projects, let's say, and there are no updates and no one sees you, and then that doesn't work out and you're like, 'Well, I guess I'll just go back to comics now,' you find your audience has gone away."

Living as an artist in a small community has also, she says, "brought me an awareness of who's represented and who isn't. I'd love to read more working class comics. I'd love to read more working class everything. It's a voice that's missing—of course it is. These aren't the people that went to art school. If they're in bands, they're probably making country covers, they're not avant-garde guys that Pitchfork likes."

Beaton's relatively rapid, stratospheric rise as one of North America's top cartoonists seems to have happened as a result of an MO— whether writing about Fort McMurray, skewering obscure historical figures, or making adorable Twitter comics about her family—to accurately show people and places that don't usually make it into art.

"I want to be true to people who are there, or were there," she says. "For them to say that it rings true is the biggest compliment. That's all that I want.

"But I'd love to be that banjo guy, picking it, figuring it out: maybe he likes it! Maybe he doesn't! He'll figure it out, sittin' there, strummin'."

"I'll never be there. It sounds nice."

Follow Julia Wright on Twitter.

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