Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2022)
Last August, Kate Beaton’s Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands arrived in my mailbox. Beaton revels in a cringe aesthetic—weighty humor, if you will—and Ducks, standing at 7.25 by 1.65 by 9.3 inches, is a materially weighty object. But there is an emotional and literary weightiness to the book, as well. The reviewer’s copy came with a special request to the reviewers from Beaton herself. The dustjacket of Ducks shows a lone figure with her back turned; her body is positioned outward, toward the vast terrain of the Alberta oil sands; and the gender of the figure is implied, but not confirmed, by a braid swaying below the hardhat. Shades of blacks, whites, and grays wash over the image; the dust jacket is a sheen and glossy but coarse surface, as if to match the textures of the extractive machinery in the foreground.
Beaton is most famous for gag cartoons on historical novels and figures, but Ducks marks a departure of sorts: this is a sprawling, 430-plus page comics memoir, a quiet (and quieting) workplace drama, and, most fundamentally, a migration and generation story that’s specific to the Canadian provinces. It documents a young woman’s journey to pay off her student debt in oil rich Alberta. The narrative indexes a web of social and environmental relations, mirrored in the ongoing violence inflicted onto the ducks, and yet still there is one core aspect of the story I will not mention: this was specifically requested in the artist’s note. “I have worked hard to build for the reader the environment that chips away at you,” Beaton writes in the reviewers note. “Let the reader find out what happens.”
Ducks devastatingly tracks the accumulation of mundane and experiential acts of violence, and thus requires the reader’s suspension of belief. (Even as the reader slowly begins to follow the narrative logic, page by page, chapter by chapter.) The comics strip is an ephemeral form, constrained by the grammar of serialized formats, but books can also insert non-narrative elements in a sequence: Beaton interrupts her memoir with maps of the oil sands, traffic and workplace safety signs, character charts, and ducks in flight. These curious emblems persistently direct our attention away from the narrative, and this too orients the reader: we see how different environments and people are interconnected and entangled. Early on, when narrating her departure from her childhood home in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to the oil sands of Mildred Lake Alberta, Beaton inserts renderings of family and graduate photos, newspaper clippings and web articles. These objects, meticulously hand-drawn, push the artist outward, to Albert, but pull also inward, to Cape Breton, where the artist currently resides. “There is no knowing Cape Breton without knowing how deeply ingrained two diametrically opposed experiences are,” Breton narrates over the images of a lighthouse and a cabin. “A deep love for home, and the knowledge of how frequently we have to leave it to find work somewhere else.”
Beaton often juxtaposes her personal narration onto a landscape. Here, the lighthouse and cabin pull Beaton into the past, an alternative reality to the ghostly possibility of a life that could have been but never was. Other times, the landscape magnifies the toxicity of an environment or a place (the two-page layouts of the oil refineries) or acts as a site of mourning (the picture of rainbow as quiet acknowledgement of a friend’s substance abuse; the eponymous ducks). But the landscape always defies comprehension, it exists outside of time and place, and the page layout deftly interweaves the personal and the ecological: for example, a cramped succession of panels of the artist in a car segues to a full-page image of the aurora borealis. As Beaton notes, in the afterward of the book proper: “The oil sands operate on stolen lands. Their pollution, work camps, and ever-growing settler populations continue to have serious social, economic, cultural, environmental, and health consequences for the Indigenous communities in the region.” Dilating and expanding moments of time, Beaton’s comics memoir subtly encompasses the quiet and unassuming tragedies that mark our present moment. To live fully in the present moment is to live atop spectral ruins: personal stories, family histories, and colonial legacies that are either over-written or under-remarked.