WHEN KATE BEATON announced recently that she would be posting her webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant” less often for a while, I softly applauded.
Don’t get me wrong: As a fellow “history-and-lit” cartoonist, I seriously relish her inventive and uniquely voiced feature — “Hark!” deserves all the attention and acclaim that has come its way (including its shortlisting last week for a 2012 Doug Wright Award).
What made me smile, though, was that Beaton was taking some time away to take advantage of some other opportunities — including some potential screen projects. A writer and artist as gifted as Beaton is right to pursue these chances not only to grow her profile and her audience and perhaps her fiscal pockets.
Such ventures can also feed and nurture one’s talent and imagination. Chicken soup for the creative soul.
Cartoonists’ approaches to such career diversification, of course, are nearly as varied and individual as artistic styles.
My mind immediately goes to the late, great “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, who is said never to have missed a week of strips over a half-century. Yet he made time to create classic TV animations and oversee the ”Peanuts” empire. Lee Mendelson, the producer on dozens of those Charlie Brown animated specials, told Comic Riffs that Schulz didn’t mind all the other projects and commercial ventures, as long as they didn’t interfere with his pure process of sitting to create that print “Peanuts” each day. The strip was sacred.
Coming from that perspective, though, Schulz was critical of subsequent syndicated cartoonists who took sabbaticals. But for some of his fellow greats, it is difficult to argue with the results.
Bill Watterson took sabbaticals and his “Calvin and Hobbes” achieved rare comic-strip heights. And after he retired the strip, he channeled his creativity into other visual art — talent that was very evident in his painting last year for the Team Cul de Sac campaign (and which will be seen in the Team Cul de Sac book due to be released in June).
Garry Trudeau took time off in the ‘80s to mature his “Doonesbury” characters, and today, into its fifth decade, the Pulitzer-winning strip is a landmark of relevance and comic-strip continuity. (Plus, Trudeau has channeled his creativity into screen and stage projects, and his work with the military speaks for itself.)
Scott Adams, of course, has diversified the “Dilbert” brand with such projects as business books, an underappreciated animated TV show and his sometimes-controversial blog — and seems not to take time off.
By contrast is “Bloom County” creator Berkeley Breathed, who, between and after three syndicated strips, has grown tremendously as an artist.
I could continue with hundreds of examples — including “Big Nate” creator Lincoln Peirce’s online games and books, and “Pearls Before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis’ deeply engaging new iPad app — but suffice to say, Kate Beaton can choose her own path in an especially distinctive way from syndicated cartoonist.
The webcomic audience can be especially devoted as it follows the creator’s decisions, invested as a community.
As Beaton wrote on “Hark! A Vagrant” site earlier this year:
“The website schedule for Hark has never been.. uh.. something to set your watch to, I know, and here's the news I am sad to give: it's going to slow down more. At least for now. So that I can give some other things a chance. It's a little scary, and who knows, maybe I'll fall on my butt right away and we will be back on track here next month. I don't know. But I'll keep you informed.
“Webcomics are often cited as the future of comics and the internet and I don't know what else, but the fact that no one has retired from them yet means that I, at least, rest a little uneasy in these shoes sometimes if only for the lack of having a dependable compass by which to steer the ship.”
In 2012, Beaton’s faithful crew is right with her.