Cartoonist Kate Beaton made a name for herself with laughter—droll comics that eviscerated historical figures and such literary icons as Edgar Allen Poe and Nancy Drew; comics that originally ran on LiveJournal and led to two bestselling book collections, Hark! a Vagrant (2011) and Step Aside, Pops (2015). As part of the famed Brooklyn all-female Pizza Island studio, Beaton paved the way for a generation of Instagram cartoonists. Her humorous comics now extend into animation: Pinecone and Pony, an animated series based on her 2015 children’s book, The Princess and the Pony, the story of a would-be warrior princess and her flatulent pony, is currently streaming on Apple+.
But her new book Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, published this month by Drawn & Quarterly, is anything but lighthearted comedy. A 400-page graphic memoir of her time working in Alberta’s remote oil camps, Ducks is a complex, heartbreaking narrative that paints a devastating portrait of how systemic economic oppression warps human relations. It’s a book she made to process her own memories—and to tell the real story of a place few understand.
I first met Beaton in the early 2000s at various cartooning functions—she was a comics star who not only made hilarious comics but also had killer comedic timing as revealed at various live comics readings. Her bio included the fact that she’d worked at the Fort McMurray mining camps for two years—a fact placed on a jacket flap that seemed like a quintessential “cool girl” job, full of adventure—but also something that wasn’t addressed in her work, or in conversation.
Ducks makes it clear why. One of the few women working in the camp, Beaton was subjected to constant sexual harassment and worse. That it came from neighbors and friends—men from her own province working at the camps—is one of the most painful messages of Ducks. But it’s not a story that settles scores or merely recounts one young woman’s journey. It’s about real people—well-meaning but crude bosses, small town young adults who fall into a trap of drugs and alcohol while trying to make a living—who are caught in a economic game that they can’t win. While showing the realities of life working at Fort McMurray with unflinching honesty, Beaton‘s goal is for readers to “get a sense of the humanity in a place like the oil sands,” she tells me in a phone call from the farmhouse in Cape Breton she shares with her husband, novelist Morgan Murray, and their two small children.
Beaton’s life story started in Cape Breton, a fishing town in eastern Canada. Being a cartoonist wasn’t a realistic goal, growing up in the pre-internet days. “I knew that you could make cartoons on TV and comics in the paper,” she recalls. “And that was about it.” At the time she had “crippling self-esteem issues when it came to art” so she ended up studying history and anthropology in college. These subjects weren’t much more practical, but going to school was what everybody did. “You're supposed to make this decision when you're 17 that you're gonna take out this gigantic loan and pick something that you're going to do for the rest of your life.”
Beaton had seen people who were worn down by years of crippling debt—and the thought of that happening to her was terrifying. Graduating at 21 without any real job prospects, Beaton’s anxiety over paying back her student loans led her to go work in an unlikely place, Fort McMurray, an oil shale extracting camp in Northern Alberta—a vast reserve of bitumen that’s the third largest oil reserve in the world—lying beneath a boreal forest. It was a boom time in the industry, and going off to work in the oil fields was extremely common among Beaton’s Nova Scotia neighbors. “There’s not a family around here that didn't have somebody in Fort McMurray, so I thought nothing of going there.”
While it wasn’t unusual for women to go work in the oil fields, it was unusual to go alone, as Beaton did, and to work as a general laborer, a job that entailed handling equipment and other direct contact with miners. The isolated experience—full of sexism, black humor, natural wonders, and dangers, but also, simple human moments—is captured in Beaton’s intense narrative, which is immersive by design. “I wanted to be honest about everything, and have the reader dropped into this world in the way that I was dropped in.”
She succeeds—her clean and simple cartooning style is able to capture both the quirks of her co-workers and the vast icy silence of night beneath the Northern lights. Her cartooning talent began to emerge even while she was at Fort McMurray making comics in her spare time. Hark! a Vagrant started running online in 2007 and she began talking to other web cartoonists, like Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie). It became an escape from the vulgarities that came along with working at the camp. “I’d talk to my comics friends and I’d be myself, but I’d go back to work and people would be the usual garbage.”
Her two years at the camps ended in 2008, and Beaton moved to Toronto and later New York City. “I did have a hard time adjusting—I had some crowd anxiety, and I still do, I think.” Beaton attended her first comics festival, the Small Press Expo in 2011 and she was unprepared for the long lines of fans that her appearance drew. “I didn't know how to handle it,” she recalls, and a mild panic attack ensued because “I had not been in a normal society for so long.”
Beaton arrived in New York in 2011 to a vibrant comics scene, as affordable rents in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint drew cartoonists from all over. Graphic novels were beginning to gain more traction in the publishing and library worlds, and there were new graphic novel imprints, rising book advances for graphic works, and new comics shows. Although it was nothing like the working in the oil fields, there was still a lot of sexism in the world of comics publishing.
“It was all new to me,” she says. “I was having to learn a different kind of sexism all over again. I almost preferred the kind in the oil sands because it was very in your face. And you could just say ‘fuck off,’ and they would know that they deserved it. But in comics there was so much condescension.”
Luckily, Beaton was in the forefront of a generation of cartoonists who would disprove all those sexist notions once and for all. “It was the death rattle of those ‘women can't draw’ attitudes.” After moving to New York, Beaton joined an artist studio run by comics artist Julia Wertz (Drinking at the Movies) and Pizza Island was born—members included Gran, Lisa Hanawalt (Tuca and Bertie), Sarah Glidden (Rolling Blackouts), and Karen Sneider (The New Yorker).
It was like a real-life comics-centric version of Lena Dunham’s Girls—without the extreme drama—and VH1 actually approached them about a potential reality series at one point. But the raw material would have been “people with their headphones on, bent over drawing boards,” Beaton says, laughing.
Brooklyn’s cartoonist-friendly rents didn’t last, the studio broke up, and Beaton eventually found herself back in Toronto, before moving back home to Mabou. At first, it was just for a summer but then longer when her sister Becky was diagnosed with cancer, and later died from it. Beaton stuck around to help out the family, process her own grief, and start work on Ducks, which took years to complete, and was cathartic in many ways. “I was haunted by some of the conversations [from the oil fields] and would replay them in my head—and it translated so well to comics. I needed to get it down,” she says.
She quit making webcomics a while ago, turning to children’s books and multimedia pursuits like Pinecone & Pony, which Beaton worked on from home. Although once she thought she had to escape Cape Breton to be an artist, “now here I am making a TV show from my house on a dirt road.” Since finishing Ducks, she’s started making new short fiction comics, and putting them up on Patreon.
She still thinks about some of the people she met at Fort McMurray, wonders if they are OK. And despite the traumas she underwent, her time there accomplished what she intended—it got her out of debt. “There's no way that I'd have been able to make creative leaps and have the courage to do things if I had that debt. Without Fort McMurray, you would not be talking to me today.”