This year, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival kicked off with an hour-long panel discussion with Kate Beaton and Lynn Johnston, moderated by Raina Telgemeier. Almost an embarrassment of riches for the audience, the cartoonists chatted informally about their careers, their ambitions, and the state of the comics and cartooning industries.
It was savvy scheduling, particularly with the recent finalization of Beaton’s Ducks, which garnered her renewed critical praise and was fresh on the minds of many attendees. Johnston and Beaton have come to represent different generations of cartooning, and the panel was an opportunity to explore an industry in transition, and women’s role in it.
Johnston’s For Better Or For Worse, which ran from 1979 to 2008 and is currently being reprinted (check your local newspaper!), was a childhood mainstay for many cartoonists of Beaton’s generation (also mine!), and for the millions of people who read it every day. Combining gag-a-day and soap opera formats, FBofW followed the ever-growing Patterson family as they grew, changed, and aged in real time. Johnston is famous not just for her incredible momentum, but for her artistic choices. The strip, set in a fictional suburban town outside of Toronto, made a point to feature a diverse cast of characters, although the Pattersons themselves are fairly white bread. In 1993 Michael Patterson’s lifelong best friend, the boy next door Lawrence, came out as gay. Even in 2014, prominently featuring the stories of LGBTQ people is all too rare in family-friendly entertainment. As you’d expect, Johnston was inundated with mail, some positive, some negative, but at the end of the day, forty-five papers dropped her comic strip — but fifty-five others picked it up.
Like Johnston, Beaton’s comics are deeply personal–though less veiled–and mix humour and social commentary with seeming effortlessness. 2011’s Hark A Vagrant! has been called “the wittiest book of the year,” and her new webcomic Ducks is unique in sharing the perspective of a Canadian oil sands worker. The Fort MacMurray oil sands, popularly called the tar sands, are known world-wide as a looming environmental apocalypse, but they’re also the engine of the province’s growth and the largest employer for ex-pat Maritimers. Like many other Eastern Canadians, Beaton moved to Alberta to work in the oil sands in 2008. As she says in her introduction, “it’s a complicated place.” Ducks is about being away from home, a cultural transport, and the economic, environmental, and personal costs of the oil sands. But Beaton’s usual deft touch means that it’s an easy read despite the heavy material: death, environmental degradation. Ducks is serious but never maudlin.
Webcomics of the kind that Beaton does, more cartoon than sprawling adventure, are the descendants of newspaper comics. It’s easy to see the enduring influence of traditional newspaper comic formats on the new medium — everything from panel design to character beats. And it’s not just lessons in technique that cartoonists like Beaton have learned from those of Johnston’s generation–and now they’re learning from each other — but more personal ones. In addition to being informative, the discussion was sweet, with Telgemeier, Beaton and Johnston sharing stories of what their work has meant to each other, and to other women, cartoonists and readers alike. Although Johnston had few female role models when beginning her career, she and her contemporaries were invaluable to younger generations. As Beaton said, “seeing a woman in the credits [of cartoons and comics] made it seem possible for me to do it.”
They share too, a certain anxiety and discomfort about the way the internet collapses distance between artist and reader. Although Beaton’s career depends on online distribution networks (including social media, her website, and her previous self-publishing efforts), she’s consistently criticized readers who share her work without crediting her, or go out of their way to disrupt her income streams. And Johnston, who has yet to make the move to online publishing, evinced similar discomfort, both with the economics of webcomics and modern newspaper strips and with the shrinking distance in the artist-audience relationship. She echoed those sentiments in Funny Pages In Canada, a panel held the following Sunday (also featuring Steve Murray and Jeet Heer!). “I don’t know how a young cartoonist is going to be able to make a living.” She also proposed creating a website where trolls could just stew in their awfulness with other trolls — she hasn’t seen 4chan or Reddit yet, I guess.
And unsurprisingly, the panel was funny as hell. Both Beaton and Johnston are charming, natural comedians. I can’t do them justice, so check out our tweets from the event, below: