More than a decade after the release of her first bestselling comics collection Hark! A Vagrant, Cape Breton cartoonist Kate Beaton returns with her first long-form graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. Chronicling her time in Northern Alberta, Ducks is a remarkable glimpse into the fraught and under-explored daily lives of the people who work in one of Canada’s most contentious industries.
Beaton rose to prominence during the webcomics boom of the aughts thanks to the popularity of her hilarious comics, which riffed on topics like Canadian history, pop culture, feminism, and classic literature. Back then, Beaton worked in shorter formats – newspaper-style comic strips and the occasional page-long piece or short series on a recurring theme. Her economical and expressive linework, biting irony, hilarious anachronism, and a delicious sense of irreverence caught the attention of Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly, and Beaton’s comics collections landed on bestseller lists and garnered a host of awards in Canada and the U.S.
Her new book, also from D&Q, represents a significant departure from her earlier work in theme, tone, and – at almost 500 pages of continuous narrative – length. But the strengths that made Hark! A Vagrant such a success are still very much in evidence, and, in Ducks, her deft oscillations between the absurdity and the ordinary human reality of her stint working in and around Fort McMurray can be clearly traced back to her formative years as a humorist.
The memoir opens in 2005 as Beaton has just graduated from Mount Allison University with a B.A. in history and a huge student loan. With few job prospects in her hometown of Mabou, she – like so many Atlantic Canadians – reluctantly turns her eyes westward to the oil sands in search of a job.
After she arrives in Fort Mac, some creative answers in an interview land Beaton a job in a “tool crib,” signing out wrenches and ratchets to the workers in the field. The work itself is fine, and her school debt diminishes as she jumps between oil companies in search of higher wages, the highest of which she finds at a remote “camp” where greater isolation and longer hours equal a big boost to her income. Much of the book is an exploration of the strangeness of living in these industrial settings, a strangeness which simultaneously encompasses bland office work, the constant threat of industrial accidents, the doublespeak of corporate life, and the occasional shocking intrusion of nature. The rarified geography of this setting, crowned by the northern lights, never ceases to bewilder, and the bizarre demography – a population drawn largely from the most economically depressed communities of the Atlantic provinces, in which men outnumber women about 50 to one – contributes to the unreality of it all.
The memoir is linear and ground-level, following Beaton’s life at these sites, both on and off the clock. Her perspective is important (this is one person’s story, not a bird’s-eye view) and the work makes no claims to universality, offers no monolithic takeaway or easy summary of a much-politicized locale or the people who inhabit it. Her visual style has evolved since the early webcomics, and the signature expressiveness of her characters’ faces is now even more confident – clear foreground lines contrast with the realism of her backgrounds and landscapes, contributing to the liveliness, the beauty, and the menace of this otherworldly setting.
What Beaton has assembled is a collection of personal moments – a chat during a coffee run, an uncanny training session, a public dressing-down, a private trauma – that show how the grander political, environmental, cultural, and economic questions posed by Canada’s love–hate relationship with its oil industry play out in the lives of individuals. Myriad small moments and details coalesce into a broad and surprisingly empathetic portrait of the Alberta oil sands, and certainly not the portrait some might expect. We meet dozens of Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians who want to escape their former lives or dream of a better life back home, and we are given glimpses of community, culture, and even family that somehow survive despite the isolation and the harrowing cold.
There are, of course, limits to empathy, and for all the generosity toward its subjects, Ducks is also a book about real flesh and blood, about how care for the self and for others degrades in a context of routine industrial accidents and air thick with carcinogens. And it’s a book about a dangerous brand of heterosexual masculinity, one unbound by the cultural norms of Corner Brook or New Waterford, unconcerned with routine decencies, and amplified by boredom, booze, and cocaine. Beaton lays bare the unique social and personal destructiveness of these liminal communities and asks if anyone emerges from them without being changed, often for the worse.
In Ducks, Beaton reveals her life before she became the internationally successful cartoonist we know today. We meet a young artist sneaking time at the company photocopier to produce the smart, feminist comics that will become part of her path away from Fort Mac and, eventually, back to Mabou. We see her inventing a life for herself from within a situation that seems to destroy lives by its very design. Ducks is political, personal, monumental, intimate, generous, upsetting, surreal, and disarmingly human: Kate Beaton has produced a work that will resonate with readers for a long time.