Pluralistic: Kate Beaton's "Ducks" (14 Jan 2023)

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The cover of the Drawn & Quarterly edition of Kate Beaton's 'Ducks.'

Kate Beaton's "Ducks" (permalink)

It's been more than a decade since I began thrilling to Kate Beaton's spectacular, hilarious snark-history webcomic "Hark! A Vagrant," pioneering work that mixed deceptively simple lines, superb facial expressions, and devastating historical humor:

Beaton developed Hark! into a more explicit political allegory, managing the near-impossible trick of being trenchant and topical while still being explosively funny. Her second Hark! collection, Step Aside, Pops, remains essential reading, if only for her brilliant "straw feminists":

Beaton is nothing if not versatile. In 2015, she published The Princess and the Pony, a picture book that I read to my own daughter – and which inspired me to write my own first picture book, Poesy the Monster-Slayer:

Beaton, then, has a long history of crossing genres in her graphic novels, so the fact that she published a memoir in graphic novel form is no surprise. But that memoir, Ducks: Two Years In the Oil Sands, still marks a departure for her, trading explosive laughs for subtle, keen observations about labor, climate and gender:

In 2005, Beaton was a newly minted art-school grad facing a crushing load of student debt, a debt she would never be able to manage in the crumbling, post-boom economy of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Like so many Maritimers, she left the home that meant everything for her to travel to Alberta, where the tar sands oil boom promised unmatched riches for anyone willing to take them.

Beaton's memoir describes the following four years, as she works her way into a series of oil industry jobs in isolated company towns where men outnumber women 50:1 and where whole communities marinate in a literally toxic brew of carcinogens, misogyny, economic desperation and environmental degradation.

The story that follows is – naturally – wrenching, but it is also subtle and ambivalent. Beaton finds camaraderie with – and empathy for – the people she works alongside, even amidst unimaginable, grinding workplace harassment that manifests in both obvious and glancing ways.

Early reviews of Ducks rightly praised it for this subtlety and ambivalence. This is a book that makes no easy characterizations, and while it has villains – a content warning, the book depicts multiple sexual assaults – it carefully apportions blame in the mix of individual failings and a brutal system.

This is as true for the environmental tale as it is for the labor story: the tar sands are the world's filthiest oil, an energy source that is only viable when oil prices peak, because extracting and refining that oil is so energy-intensive. The slow, implacable, irreversible impact that burning Canadian oil has on our shared planet is diffuse and takes place over long timescales, making it hard to measure and attribute.

But the impact of the tar sands on the bodies and minds of the workers in the oil patch, on the First Nations whose land is stolen and despoiled in service to oil, and on the politics of Canada are far more immediate. Beaton paints all this in with the subtlest of brushstrokes, a thousand delicate cuts that leave the reader bleeding in sympathy by the time the tale is told.

Beaton's memoir is a political and social triumph, a subtle knife that cuts at our carefully cultivated blind-spots about industry, labor, energy, gender, and the climate. But it's also – and not incidentally – a narrative and artistic triumph.

In other words, Beaton's not just telling an important story, she's also telling a fantastically engrossing story – a page-turner, filled with human drama, delicious tension, likable and complex characters, all the elements of a first-rate tale.

Likewise, Beaton's art is perfectly on point. Hark!'s secret weapon was always Beaton's gift for drawing deceptively simple human faces whose facial expressions were indescribably, superbly perfect, conveying irreducible mixtures of emotion and sentiment. If anything, Ducks does this even better. I think you could remix this book so that it's just a series of facial expressions and you'd still convey all the major emotional beats of the story.

Graphic memoirs have emerged as a potent and important genre in this century. And women have led that genre, starting with books like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006):

But also the increasingly autobiographical work of Lynda Barry, culminating in her 2008 One! Hundred! Demons!:

(which should really be read alongside her masterwork on creativity, 2019's Making Comics):

In 2014, we got Cece Bell's wonderful El Deafo:

Which was part of the lineage that includes the work of Lucy Knisley, especially later volumes like 2020's Stepping Stones:

Along with Jen Wang's 2019 Stargazing:

2019 was actually a bumper-crop year for stupendous graphic memoirs by women, rounded out by Ebony Flowers's Hot Comb:

And don't forget 2017's dazzling My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris:

This rapidly expanding, enthralling canon is one of the most exciting literary trends of this century, and Ducks stands with the best of it.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago RIAA opposes the Hollings Bill

#15yrsago Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind: book explains magic, hypnosis and the rationale for rationalism

#10yrsago DoJ drops charges against Aaron Swartz

#10yrsago How Internet copyright laws let Big Content get away with paying less to artists

#10yrsago MIT president appoints Hal Abelson to investigate university’s role in Aaron Swartz’s prosecution

#10yrsago Aaron Swartz’s politics weren’t just about free technology: they were about freeing humanity

#5yrsago Congressional Democrats have so little faith in Trump’s leadership that they’ve awarded him the power to conduct limitless, warrantless mass surveillance of Americans

#5yrsago Peter Thiel, “libertarian,” wants to buy Gawker’s archive, which would give him the power to censor stories he didn’t like

#5yrsago German steelworkers demand the right to take two years’ worth of “work-life balance” 28-hour work weeks to look after children or aging parents

Colophon (permalink)

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