Kate Beaton chronicles her Alberta work experience in Ducks

Comics | Emmet Matheson | Sept. 29, 2022

Kate Beaton
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
Drawn & Quarterly

Kate Beaton is a national treasure. Between the two collections of her popular online comic, Hark! A Vagrant! (2011) and Step Aside Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection (2015), she’s won pretty much every comic book, cartoon, or graphic novel award you can name: the Doug Wright, the Ignatz, the Harvey, and the Eisner. And her 2015 kids book The Princess and the Pony — which has been adapted as an Apple TV+ series — won a CBC Children’s Choice Award.

She better clear some room on her trophy shelf. Her new book, DUCKS: Two Years in the Oil Sands (Drawn & Quarterly) is already being hailed by Wired Magazine as “the best graphic novel of 2022.”

The hype is legit: Ducks is a complex and rewarding read that takes an unflinching look at Beaton’s two years (2005–2007) working various jobs in Alberta’s oil sands to pay off the student loans she’d accumulated in art school. It’s a deeply moving, personal story that deals with working-class realities, creative hopes, oppressive sexism, trauma and so much more.

Planet S caught up with the Cape Breton-based cartoonist via e-mail.

I can’t imagine a riskier move. You’re best known for Hark! A Vagrant, a series of short, smart, and silly cartoons that mostly focus on literary and historical themes. Ducks is a dense, rich, layered memoir that touches on a few really hot-button issues of this moment in time. Not only that, it leaves you personally exposed in a way that your other work didn’t, necessarily. In light of all that, what made you want to do a full-length book?

I don’t find it risky actually! I don’t think anyone who follows my work closely will be surprised by this, I’ve been talking about it for a long time, and I have often made short autobio comics online. But to anyone who is only a casual reader, it will come as a surprise, yes. I don’t think anyone who does what I do — comics — can sit on their laurels for too long, though. If I kept doing Hark! A Vagrant, it would have been diminishing returns. People would get tired of it, and so would I. But I wanted to do this book because it had been on my mind a long time, and it was time to do it.

Can you tell us a bit about how the process of a major undertaking like this differs from your Hark! A Vagrant! strips? How long did you spend working on it? Did you break out any new tools or gear for it that you hadn’t used before?

Well it’s different in… pretty much every way. One is gag strips of three or four panels each and one is a 500-page book. So, very different! I wrote this out as a script, and it took a year to do that, and then I started drawing it out section by section, page by page, chronologically, in Photoshop, on a Wacom Cintiq. That was helpful because I knew there would be a lot of edits, and, there were. You don’t start a giant project like you haven’t done before without expecting quite a few edits. I felt out of my depth in the beginning but acclimated to it as time went on.

Anyone who’s followed your work, especially Hark! A Vagrant, knows you’re a serious reader. Were there any books — memoirs or not, graphic or otherwise — that influenced Ducks?

I read many comic memoirs, and there are plenty of those. But in the end you have to do it the way you are going to do it. It is almost good in a way to read things to get a sense of what you don’t want to do. For instance, I decided not to use text boxes that narrate anything to the reader, everything is dialogue driven. However, I did take the character lists — drawings of the character’s faces with their names at the start of each chapter — from Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki. He was drawing people dressed similarly in the army, and it was good to have that there to help tell them apart. I was drawing people dressed similarly in PPE, and found the same thing.

One thing that jumps out, almost immediately, in Ducks is the warmth of the Beaton family. That, and the thoughtful conversation about what it means to support someone’s creative ambitions, pulled me right into the story. What were some of the challenges of creating art about real people, especially people who will certainly hold you to account?

Everyone in my family knew they were going to be in the book. They were very supportive, but they are also used to being in my comics. They are very good sports. I do have a warm and supportive family, and I am grateful for that. I am also grateful for all the people I contacted to tell them they were in the book, some of whom I haven’t talked to in many years, none of whom objected. Many said I could use their real names, but of course, I changed them for privacy. I’ve been lucky.

Another thing you may be called to account for is your portrayal of Alberta and the oil sands. There’s a small but very loud and well-funded cohort of people who get very angry about just about anything, as we certainly saw in August with Chrystia Freeland in Grande Prairie. On the one hand, a Drawn & Quarterly graphic memoir might not cross their paths. On the other hand, last year they got upset about a Bigfoot cartoon. Have you heard anything? Are you braced for anything?

Well, I missed the Bigfoot cartoon. I think there are some people who won’t like the book because they hear it has some negative things to say, even if they don’t read it. But I think if they do read it, they will see it for something that is honest, and that is all it is. That was my time there. I can’t tell you it isn’t. I spent two years in the oil sands, and these things happened. Other things happened that did not make it into the book, I couldn’t put everything in, but these things did. And to me, it’s a book about empathy, in a lot of ways. About community.

I don’t know what the reaction is going to be, it could go either way. If something isn’t 100 per cent in praise of a certain image of oil and gas, maybe some people will hate it. But if other people are looking for a nuanced look at life in a camp, maybe they will like it. I don’t know. You can’t make a book everyone will love at the best of times, never mind on a polarizing subject to begin with.

On that note, one thing I love about Ducks is how the character guides make note of where everyone comes from. I always find it so hilarious that a faction of Alberta positions itself in opposition to the rest of Canada, and yet so much of what’s best about it comes from the fact that it’s a place where people from the rest of Canada (and beyond) come together. In my own youth, I too travelled from the east (Regina) following the call of big money and adventure (washing dishes in Banff).

Thank you. Actually, one of the guys we worked with in the tool crib who isn’t in the book (like I said, a lot had to be cut for pages and clarity) was from Saskatchewan and he often lectured me on how Saskatchewan had much more oil than Alberta did but never had the solid government party run in power to get it up and running. And honest to god I never looked into the truth of anything he said, but that was his big lecture. He ate cold Chunky soup out of a can for lunch every day, he was your Saskatchewan ambassador. I can’t believe he isn’t in the book. He deserved to be.

Another, very different thing I love about Ducks, is the use of very detailed illustration for exterior shots, especially chapter breaks. It puts me in mind of the way every now and then in Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson would do a few panels of very detailed dinosaur action. I think it’s a great narrative effect, but how does it feel as an artist, to work in a different mode from your cartooning style?

Those took ages and were a pain to make! ■

This interview has been lightly edited. Ducks is now available at comic book shops and better book stores.