Kate Beaton’s new children’s book, The Princess and the Pony, is adorably funny: The protagonist is Princess Pinecone, a warrior princess in ballet shoes who wants nothing more than to be a full-fledged warrior, complete with a war horse. But when the “war horse” the princess receives for her birthday turns out instead to be a dopey, jelly-bean-shaped pony, she must make do with what she’s got—and, of course, learn some lessons along the way. Slate sat down with Beaton to learn more about what inspired her to create the princess, that iconic fat pony, and, of course, her wildly successful Web comic Hark! A Vagrant.
I think a lot of us who religiously read Hark! A Vagrant basically imagine you as an encyclopedic font of knowledge—like the human verison of Google.
I think that I’m like a big magnet ball, running through the Internet, picking up things that I find interesting, and storing them away. I have a running file of things that have sort of caught my interest. Then when I narrow in on a topic, it’s usually something that I know a little bit about already, and then I flesh it out with more. That can be anywhere from picking up a biography, or an essay, or it’s usually somebody’s archive of material that you can find online.
When I started, I think not knowing that much didn’t matter as much. Because I only had to write one note. But now I write a more rounded version of the thing that I’ve studied, so I try to get it in from all angles. And when you’re talking about either a historical person or a book, or a piece of literature, it’s lived so many different lives from the place where it happened—from the person who wrote it, or the person who lived it, to how people wrote about it afterwards, how people reacted to it at the time, how different scholars interpreted it over the years, how it changed. You can’t phone it in. When I first started, there were times when I think I did, and now there’s definitely longer periods between updates, because I can’t just be like, “Well here’s another one about something I know nothing about.” I have to know about it!
So the research takes longer now?
Oh, yeah. ... And also, sometimes you will read a lot, and I will know a lot, and the joke will be stupid anyway! It doesn’t necessarily correlate to some insanely clever, knowledgeable, witty thing, you know?
Sometimes it’s just a poster in the background that says “Fuck the Jazz Age?”
Yeah, sometimes! I mean I remember doing that comic, the Gatsby one, and I remember finishing at 2 a.m. in my studio, and being like, “I can’t wait to bike home!” And then that one became like ... But I think it’s because everybody read The Great Gatsby.
Some of your comics are more whimsical, though, like the fat pony comics. And now your new book is all about the fat pony. Where did this pony come from?
One day, I decided to draw something really silly. Like, on purpose, I was like, “I’m just going to draw a silly comic.” I don’t really consider myself more clever than anybody else. I just like history. But then you make comics about history, people are like, “Oh, you’re smart.” But I don’t think I’m really any smarter than anybody else. I just like what I like.
So I wanted to make a comic that was just fun, without any kind of Wikipedia attached to it. And that’s what came out, is this horse. It was called Shetland Pony Adventures. And people responded to it from the beginning, with like, “This is the best thing you’ve done!”
The pony comics are always a breath of fresh air to read—are they a breath of fresh air to write?
They are kind of guaranteed to be kind of loose and silly, and less pressure. And sometimes, yeah, when I’ve done a lot of reading on something, like I can’t read about Chopin anymore, and I want to do something that just doesn’t require my brain to be on fire all the time.
How long does it take to draw, beginning to end, this fat pony?
Not that long anymore. Sometimes he’ll come out a little wonky. He’s like a jelly bean shape, kind of.
I think he’s gotten even more jelly bean-like, over time.
Everything I draw keeps getting shorter, and fatter, and smaller, and rounder. That’s how it goes.
What about Princess Pinecone? How did you come up with her?
I wanted the story to be about a girl. Because I grew up with girls—I’m one of four sisters. And I enjoyed princess stories when I was little. I think that it just depends on what princess you’re going to make. And when you read the book it doesn’t matter that she’s a princess, I just tell you that she is one. She’s a regular kid in that way. She doesn’t really have people at her beck and call or anything like that. She’s just got a regular family. But they just happen to be in a warrior kingdom.
And she aspires to be a warrior.
Yeah, it’s kind of default, though. Everybody kind of is one. They’re relaxed about it though.
I couldn’t help but think of your Strong Female Characters comics as I was reading it. In the beginning it really seems like that’s what she aspires to be—this over the top femme-hero. But in the end she finds out there’s another way to be strong. Was that intentional?
Oh definitely. When you’re a woman working in comics, you just end up being part of these conversations about female pop culture role-model-action-women. Whatever new Mad Max or Avengers or whatever, it’s going to be on your Twitter feed. And there are a lot of times when we’re told, “Well here’s an awesome character for you ladies. She kicks ass. She’s wearing armor!” Whatever. I deliberately made her quite a feminine little thing. You know, she’s got her bows.
And her ballet shoes.
And her ballet shoes. But she’s kind of dressed in a way that little girls would dress up.
I guess some people’s notion of a strong female character is that she’s got to be masculine.
Some people want to reject that part of liking being a princess is dressing up. And that’s not true! When I was little, I was like, “Yeah, give me those beads! And that dress!” I had a dress that I would only wear to parades. It was my parade dress. And there was only a parade, like, once a year. But if my mom tried to dress me in it again, I was like, “No! This is my parade dress!”
I love those Halloween pictures where little girls dress as Batman, but Princess Batman. With a tutu and the Batman stuff on, and they’re like, “I’m Batman, too!”
And I think that’s so funny and so adorable, too. Because they’re like, “Yes, I wish to fight crime, and I want to wear my tutu and my crown.” And parents are like, “Whatever. Do what you want!”
When you started your comic, was it with a goal of uncovering history everyone should know about?
I started it in the museum that I worked in. I think one of my first strips was about Admiral Nelson, because I saw his face everywhere. I was going on a date with him, Admiral Nelson, and all his body parts kept falling off, because they did. He had one eye, and one arm, and missing teeth and stuff, and I was like, “Ooh, Admiral Nelson, you’re so hot!” He was like, “Pardon me!” So I was just like, that’s funny!
I think the comic really took off when I took requests from people. I was like, “The first 20 suggestions, I’ll make a comic about it.” It was like a challenge to myself. And they were all over the map, but I liked it. I liked learning about the stuff that I didn’t know about. Because if it was just up to me, we wouldn’t be sitting here because it’d be like, “Oh, there’s that person who makes comics about prime ministers.” I can’t just do that.
But yeah, I don’t know, there was no thesis at the beginning of the comic. And there isn’t really now. There’s just whatever works at the time. Like whatever’s funny. Like the last comic I put up was a comic about the evolution of gravestone iconography. Which I think is super fascinating, and I have bored several people talking about it. It’s kind of boring when you explain it, so I was just like, “I’ll just make a comic about it. That’s funny.” And it was. And then you get the gravestone nerds, and they were like, “Finally!”
Have you been surprised by any other weird niche fan clubs?
Not really, but I didn’t know that Tesla was so huge!
So why choose Edison’s narrative over Tesla’s?
I think that he was the big showman at the time, right?
He wasn’t as eccentric.
People loved him. He fit the narrative at the time, and then he stayed in it until people took a second look. Sometimes it takes a long time for people to take a second look.
Like Andrew Jackson?
Yeah, totally Andrew Jackson! He’s still some people’s favorite president because they’re like “Old Hickory!” Or whatever.
Isn’t it weird we’re taking Hamilton off the $10 and not Jackson off the $20?
Oh yeah, that makes no sense! Maybe it was because $20 was the most popular bill, and to put a woman on that would be crazy?
So crazy! “Put a woman on money? Next they’ll be using dogs!”
Do you have a top choice for a woman on the $10?
It’s your country!
Yeah, but you probably know more about its history than half the people who live in it!
Well, I mean Harriet Tubman’s a good choice, right? She was pretty badass.
She is definitely one of the most popular in online surveys.
You can use a suffragette or something, I guess, but you want to pick somebody who’s relatively clean. You can’t have a suffragette who left out black women, because that’s crappy. That sends a bad message. There’s no flies on Harriet Tubman. She’s 100 percent awesome, so she can go on money.
I read, Harriet wanted to leave, and her husband was like “No, don’t run away!” And she was like, “I want to!” And he tried to make her stay, and she just snuck away in the middle of the night. Which is amazing. There’s something about her husband not being as cool of a cat as she was. She came back to save him and he was married to someone else!
She was like, “What?!” Then she was like, “Whatever, I’m Harriet Tubman, I’m just going to save everyone else on the earth.”