Did Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) Rip Off Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant?

Napoleon Carol Kate Beaton

Here’s a breaking story from 2015: did Todd Haynes‘s 2015 award-winning movie Carol rip off award-winning cartoonist Kate Beaton‘s Hark! A Vagrant? Specifically her iconic design for Napoleon, via a made-up sign for the town of Waterloo, Iowa?

The short answer is: yes, probably. But first, some background on all of this.

In the movie, based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and set in 1952, we meet a shopgirl and aspiring photographer named Therese, played by Rooney Mara. She meets an older woman named Carol, played by Cate Blanchett, and the two strike up a friendship that blossoms into something more. Specifically, an illicit lesbian relationship that causes friction (to say the least) with both Therese’s boyfriend and Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband. It’s a beautiful movie that was unfortunately snubbed for a variety of reasons at the Oscars but has stood the test of time as a key piece of queer cinema.

So why are we talking about it again now, in the year of our lord 2024? Because, uh, I watched it for the first time the other day on Netflix. Despite being enthralled by the performances, the sweeping score, the intricate cinematography, and ultimately brought to tears by the ending, one scene completely took me out of the proceedings. Specifically halfway through the movie, when Carol and Therese are on a road trip across America and stop in Waterloo, Iowa.

As they enter the town, the camera lingers on a large sign welcoming them to Waterloo, Iowa, with a cartoon version of Napoleon on the left:

Welcome to Waterloo Iowa sign featuring Napoleon in Carol (2015)

Despite the seconds-long nature of the shot, my eyes were immediately drawn to the Napoleon cartoon, which had the same sort of positioning, form, and general look of the face as the one famously drawn by Kate Beaton. In recent years, Beaton is probably best known for her adorable Apple TV+ show Pinecone & Pony, or her recent award-winning graphic novel memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands.

However, she rose to prominence thanks to her long-running comic strip Hark! A Vagrant, which was collected into several volumes by Drawn & Quarterly. In the strip, she had several recurring characters, usually of a historical nature; and one of those was Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, he appears prominently on the cover of the Hark! A Vagrant collection, albeit in a different positioning than seen above in Carol.

After a far too lengthy intermission in viewing Carol to see if there was any information online about Beaton’s possible participation in Carol, I did find the Beaton drawing that seems to have been directly used for the Waterloo sign. Not surprisingly, it’s in a post titled “Napoleon Drawing” on Beaton’s site, from around February 3, 2012. (Principal photography on Carol, for what it’s worth, started two years later on March 12, 2014).

Here they are side by side, for comparison purposes:

Napoleon Carol Kate Beaton

As you can see (sorry about the blurry screenshot), the color and some of the outfit is changed, and the expression has been simplified. But otherwise, it’s pretty much the same drawing.

So to loop back to the original question, did Carol rip off Kate Beaton? As of publish time, Todd Haynes’s reps had not replied when asked for comment; but Beaton got back to us almost immediately. “Yeah that’s mine but I wasn’t involved in anything,” Beaton said via email. “I imagine some art person on the movie googled Napoleon cartoons and just ripped it! I got a lot of emails when the movie came out.”

Added Beaton, jokingly, “They owe me big time haha, where’s my Oscar?”

So clearly she’s not too upset about this, nor are we here at Comic Book Club trying to do a skewering takedown of Haynes just as he’s in the middle of his Oscar campaign for May December or anything. But it is an annoying (to say the least) habit of filmmakers to take someone’s art without asking. On two opposite ends of the spectrum, Haynes’s first feature was titled Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and was told entirely through using Barbie dolls. It’s a cult classic, but was mired in legal issues both for the use of the dolls and that Haynes used licensed music without permission. And recently, Vili Fualaau, whose story was used in part for May December, has revealed he was never consulted about the film.

The use of Beaton’s art in Carol becomes more curious when you realize that the sign doesn’t — and seemingly never — existed. When I posted about this first on my Threads account, multiple people pointed out the population, listed as 12,070 on the sign in the movie, is nowhere close to the actual residents of Waterloo in the 1950s. A chart shared shows over 65,000 residents. And a cursory internet search shows several Carol fans have made the trek to — spoiler — the mecca where Therese and Carol first made love, with nary a view of the famous sign.

So that makes the choice to use this sign, and Beaton’s art, as a specific choice on the part of the production. Also of note, they didn’t film in Iowa; the entire production was centered around Cincinnati, with trips to other parts of Ohio.

A potential interpretation of the clearly fictional sign is that Haynes and company were trying to convey the remote nature of where the burgeoning couple found themselves as potentially a safe place without prying eyes (they end up being wrong about that)… As well as a place that symbolizes both their potential victory, and eventual loss — just like how Waterloo was for Napoleon himself.

But they still could have given Beaton credit or employed her for her work.

You can purchase a copy of Hark! A Vagrant on Amazon or at other fine booksellers, and it’s well worth it. We’ll update this piece if and when Haynes’ team responds to comment.

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