In 2005, Kate Beaton was 21, with a brand new degree in history and anthropology, student loans, she says, and little job prospects. Around her home on Cape Breton, a picturesque forested island in Nova Scotia, the joke was that everyone was, she said, “on the pog”—unemployed.
So she headed west to the tar sands fields of northern Alberta, one of the most environmentally destructive oil operations in the world, where workers lived in barracks-like camps and men greatly outnumbered women.
Her experience there — detailed in a graphic memoir, “Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands,” released Tuesday by Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly — was one of isolation and sexual harassment. It also gave her an inside look at a place and part of Canadian history that few outsiders see.
“You know how sometimes in your life certain memories just stick around and repeat themselves?” she asked. “I spent a lot of time in the oil sands like this. It seemed like the book I was always going to write, or it would be one that would always be floating around in my brain.’
The book is a marked departure from Beaton’s bestselling Hark! Tramp,” which spent five months on The New York Times Hardcover Graphic Book Bestseller list. In fact, the designs are so different that it’s a wonder they came from the same person.
In the movie “Listen!” Beaton has filmed everything from superheroes (“The Adventures of Sexy Batman”) to 19th-century child labor (“Besides, It’s Cheap”). Beaton’s irreverent treatment of historical and literary figures drew praise from The Times (“Nobody ever got so much comedy out of an omission of punctuation”), while the Paris Review noted her “lively pen and fluttering, shrewd mind”.
How did a man who could write a terribly funny three-panel comic about Benjamin Franklin (“What a stupid comic I made”) end up writing a 430-page epic (with maps!) about the Alberta oil rush and her role in it?
In “Ducks,” Beaton ditches the comedy — well, not all of it — and lets his story take center stage.
Beaton grew up in Mabu, an unlikely place for a would-be comics writer and de facto literary critic. There was no bookstore in town, let alone a comic book store.
“We had a bookmobile,” she said. “All the books will smell weird because they were about 200 years old.” As for online resources, Beaton had access to the Internet a couple of times a week in her school’s “Internet classroom.”
“I don’t want it to sound like I’ve been living in a garbage can,” she said with a laugh. “We just didn’t have the same access to a lot of things that other people did. So I just picked up everything that came my way.”
Beaton filled her time with drawing. “She was always drawing and painting, even before she went to school,” said Beaton’s mother, Marion, who made several appearances in “Ducks.” “She was always doing something creative.”
Growing up in the vacuum of comics and animation, Beaton developed her own cartoon style and sense of the comic moment. “I’ve never seen anime or Sailor Moon,” she said, “so I couldn’t copy that style even if I wanted to.”
After high school, she attended Mount Allison University, where she met Lindsey Byrd, a religious studies major. They shared the same dorm and worked together on the school paper, Bird as photo editor and Beaton on the comics page. “She was just really cool,” Byrd said. “Very sharp, very witty, very observant, one of those people who can make really funny observations about a room or a party.”
Both quickly became friends. When Beaton went to Fort McMurray in Alberta after graduation, she helped Byrd get a “camp job” there, one of the most coveted positions on the site. “My religious studies degree wasn’t getting me anywhere, so after about a year I said, OK, I’m going to get out,” Byrd said. “She knew this world much better than I did and was very protective of me.”
Beaton came to Fort McMurray at the height of one of Alberta’s oil booms, when the promise of good wages brought an influx of workers from across Canada, especially from provinces like Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, where the collapse of the coal and fishing industries wreaked havoc on local economy.
“One guy told me a joke that Fort McMurray was the second largest city in Newfoundland,” said Chris Turner, author of The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands.
Most workers during the boom were men. In the oil sands, Beaton entered an environment where male workers routinely bullied women, and worse; many didn’t think about discussing women’s bodies, including hers, at work. The experience stayed with Beaton. “When someone would ask me about Fort McMurray, I’d start talking and they’d say, ‘Please stop talking!’ They didn’t want to hear it.”
Beaton began working on the Ducks in 2016. She went through scores of old letters, emails and photos to jog her memory, and spoke to dozens of colleagues and co-workers at the camps to gather their views and get their permission to write about them. (Many of the names in the book have been changed.)
In one case, she reached out to a man who went into a tailspin after a divorce and was subsequently kicked out; in another, she contacted the family of a man who died in an industrial accident. “It’s such an amazing phone call,” she said. “But it’s better than them reading a book and saying, ‘Hey, this is my brother who died in 2008.’
Byrd was one of the first people Beaton approached. They shared many memories, including the time Bird, newly arrived in Fort McMurray, walked into the company’s feeding room with Beaton and noticed several male workers trying to lift her skirt. “It was shocking,” Byrd recalled.
This incident found its way into Beaton’s book, where the men, brought to life by the artist’s unerring pen, appear as grinning cartoonish brutes. It also made its way into Byrd’s 2019 book Boom Time, a collection of poems about her own experiences in the oil sands. “We talked about different things that stuck in our brains that were memorable or uncomfortable, and that was one of the first,” said Byrd, who is now a CBC journalist.
Among Beaton’s concerns is that her book will contribute to stereotypes about Alberta’s oil sands workers. The common perception, Turner said, is of an immature brat, a bachelor in his 20s who flocks there for the easy money and then spends his earnings on drugs and booze (and later on a fully loaded Ford F-150).
“The phrase that used to be used in Alberta’s oil industry is pigs,” Turner said. “Her story makes it clear that this was not the only thing that happened there.”
While the book has its fair share of creeps and weirdos, there are also guys who welcome Beaton and show her the ropes; the family man who brings her cookies for Christmas because she works on the holiday and isn’t home; old timers hope their bodies don’t break down on them before they can retire.
“There were loads of people just working and not bothering anyone,” she said.
In addition to “Ducks,” Beaton recently wrapped work on the first season of “Punk and the Pony,” an Apple TV+ animated series based on her 2015 children’s book “The Princess and the Pony,” about a fat, farting pony. and a mixed-race princess who loves it. Beaton is currently working on a series of comic shorts set in Cape Breton, but she is not starring.
And next month, Beaton will embark on a 10-city book tour to promote The Ducks, her first such tour since 2016, when she was set to promote The Princess.
Years before that tour, before “Ducks” and “Princess,” before the success of “Hark!”, Beaton gave one of her first author appearances at the Small Press Expo in Maryland. On a whim and sitting at a friend’s table, Beaton was surprised to see a long, winding line of fans waiting to take poorly made photocopies of her cartoons. “I must have looked stunned,” she said.
This time, Beaton said, the circumstances are different. She is different.
“I have two children. I haven’t seen the outside world for years. Now I have a dog, two cats and five chickens,” she said. “Life has changed since people last saw me.”
Still, she added, “I expect I’ll come across as stunned again as I did at the beginning.”