Comics artist Kate Beaton, creator of the award-winning satirical webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant,” demonstrates her remarkable range and storytelling prowess with her debut graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. With strong prose and striking art, she captures the complexities of a place often defined by stark binaries: the Alberta oil sands, one of the world’s largest deposits of crude oil.
In 2005, 21-year-old Beaton’s goal is to pay off the student loans for her arts degree, so she leaves her beloved home on Cape Breton, a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, for a job in oil mining. Over the next several years, she works as a warehouse attendant in the town of Fort McMurray, as well as at various temporary work camps owned by several oil companies.
Beaton recounts her experiences—often harrowing, sometimes poignant—with dazzling clarity. She’s one of only a few women in an industry dominated by men, and misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual violence occur nearly every day. In scene after scene, she depicts men laughing over sexist jokes and demeaning the women they work with, and bosses dismissing her concerns.
And yet, without once making excuses for any of this behavior, Beaton honors the humanity of the oil workers. She illuminates the larger contexts of work camps, including labor exploitation and corporate greed, toxic masculinity and a lack of mental health resources. She puts everything, good and bad, into the book: moments of connection with men from the eastern provinces, bleak humor, environmental destruction, stark natural beauty, her own feelings of complicity and homesickness, and the oil companies’ blatant disregard for the Indigenous communities in which they operate.
Beaton’s art conveys the inherent strangeness of living and working in such isolated places, giving Ducks a sense of loneliness that words alone can’t express. Her talent for drawing people, and especially facial expressions, adds layers of emotional depth to every scene. She depicts her own face, and the faces of her many co-workers, in moments of fear, pain, anger, exhaustion, despair, pride and laughter. Meanwhile, her illustrations of massive mining machinery make these people seem small and insignificant.
It is no small task to convey the messy truth of a place in words and drawings, to tell a story that is at once intimate and sweeping, and to resist simplification. “You can’t just paint one picture,” Beaton tells a female co-worker during a moving conversation about the impossibility of summing up the oil sands for an online article. In Ducks, she paints a thousand pictures. It’s a powerful account of the ongoing harm of patriarchal violence, and an equally powerful testament to what is possible when we pay attention, seek out each other’s humanity and honor the hard truths alongside the beautiful.
Illustration © 2022 by Kate Beaton. Reproduced by permission of Drawn & Quarterly.