In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant webcomic was, to a certain brand of internet user, a very big deal. It was the sort of thing you would probably read if you also read The Toast and The Awl and Hyperbole and a Half (all of which, of course, I did): whimsical, sweetly ridiculous little sketches about Napoleon, the businesswomen of the 1980s, and the love between a pirate and his nemesis.
Now, 11 years after the collected Hark! A Vagrant became a New York Times bestseller, and seven years after its follow-up Step Aside, Pops followed suit, Beaton has returned with her new graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. Bleak, lonely, and with a boldly graphic line, Ducks is a very different reading experience than the comics that Beaton first built her name on.
Ducks begins in 2005, with Beaton as a 21-year-old newly minted college graduate. Saddled with an arts degree that leaves her feeling unemployable and a small mountain of student debt, Beaton leaves her beloved home of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for the oil sands of Alberta, where work is plentiful and life is cheap. Her plan is to work so much that she can pay off her student loans in two years. It will be a break from her life, a lark. When it’s over, she’ll go back to the real world.
Alberta’s oil sands are the third-largest oil reserve in the world. The mines are large enough to be seen from space. They’re also considered some of the most environmentally destructive oil fields in the world, and Indigenous populations say the mines have been ruinous to their way of life.
None of that was exactly clear to Beaton when she set off for Alberta in 2005. What she knew, she writes, was that Alberta was “the place to go to find the good job, the good money, the better life.” But Ducks quickly makes it clear that “the good life” is relative.
In Alberta, Beaton bounces from mine to mine. Sometimes she lives in an empty little apartment that requires a 6 am bus ride into camp; sometimes she lives on site in a dorm equipped with only a bed and a shelf. When she makes it to a camp where the dorms come with fake plants, she’s overwhelmed. “It’s like a hotel,” she breathes.
The camps are populated mostly by men, who outnumber women in the oil sands by 50 to 1. Most of the people who work there have minimal education, and many of them have migrated from their homes, as Beaton did, in search of better wages. Resources and entertainment are limited. In the isolated, macho social landscape that results, sexual harassment becomes the norm.
Beaton finds the doorknob of her dorm room jiggling at night and has to keep it locked. When she arrives at one new camp, men line up around the building to get a look at her and loudly discuss their opinions of her body. She asks her supervisor if she can be put on another task that leaves her less on display, and he tells her he can’t offer her special treatment. The harassment keeps going and escalates.
Yet Beaton feels a certain amount of protectiveness for the men she works with. When she’s interviewed by a journalist who wants her to go over all the worst harassment she’s experienced at camp, her hackles rise.
“I don’t think people like her believe that the men they know wouldn’t be any different,” she says. “They don’t think that the loneliness and homesickness and boredom and lack of women around would affect their brother or dad or husband the same way.”
She wonders whether, if her father had needed to support his family by working on the oil sands, he would have found himself resocialized into one of the leering men who surround her, or whether he would have been one of the quiet ones who keeps his head down and says nothing. Given the right stimulus, it could probably have happened to almost anyone, she thinks.
Throughout Ducks, Beaton’s figures are rendered in scrunchy, expressive lines; a little less cartoonish than the figures of Hark! A Vagrant, but vividly expressive. In the background, the silos and sheds of the camps are stern geometric shapes, while the natural landscape appears in brief, breathtaking flashes: a half-page panel showing the aurora shimmering over a watery-eyed Beaton, a full-page spread showing the shock of open-pit mines scarring over a swampland.
The imagery here is richer and more cutting than the imagery of Hark! A Vagrant, more suited to this lengthy, ambitious memoir. In its 430 pages, Ducks sets itself the task of placing a very personal experience into its political, economic, gendered, racial context. As Beaton stays in the oil sands, she begins to joke casually about what kind of cancer she’ll develop from their polluted air; she watches the wildlife driven out of its habitat. Eventually, it occurs to her that the camps are displacing Native people and destroying their landscape.
Ducks paints a picture not just of the camps on the oil sands but of the economic and political pressures that produced them: all the workers fleeing dying industries and jobless provinces to go to the one place where they could imagine being able to build “a good life,” and all the ways they were failed once they arrived there. And it becomes clear, in the book’s final, devastating panels, that who a person becomes on the oil sands will always be a part of them.