Katie heads out west to take advantage of Alberta's oil rush-part of the long tradition of East Coasters who seek gainful employment elsewhere when they can't find it in the homeland they love so much. Katie encounters the harsh reality of life in the oil sands, where trauma is an everyday occurrence yet is never discussed.
It could hardly be more different in tone from [Beaton's] popular larky strip Hark! A Vagrant ... Yes, it’s funny at moments; Beaton’s low-key wryness is present and correct, and her drawings of people are as charming and as expressive as ever. But its mood overall is deeply melancholic. Her story, which runs to more than 400 pages, encompasses not only such thorny matters as social class and environmental destruction; it may be the best book I have ever read about sexual harassment ... There are some gorgeous drawings in Ducks of the snow and the starry sky at night. But the human terrain, in her hands, is never only black and white ... And it’s this that gives her story not only its richness and depth, but also its astonishing grace. Life is complex, she tell us, quietly, and we are all in it together; each one of us is only trying to survive. What a difficult, gorgeous and abidingly humane book. It really does deserve to win all the prizes.
Ducks is anchored by Katie’s time in the mines, but it seeks to show her experiences as typical of a much larger swath of workers who are lured to the oil sands at the cost of their health, their dignity, and sometimes their lives. The Katie of Ducks is the author’s younger self, but she is also the reader’s guide to the intricacies of an all-too-usual life ... As if to underscore the book’s distance from her old lighthearted work, Beaton has filled several of the interstices between chapters and scenes with staggering, gigantic drawings of mining equipment and aerial views of the mines themselves; the images aren’t beautiful, exactly, but they are excellent, and they suggest the scale and seriousness of Beaton’s ambition ... a work of more than four hundred pages, but Beaton has compressed its narrative in ways that make it as fluidly readable as a Hark! strip. She has also put her skill at omission to new uses. Many of the book’s important events are cropped out, into the invisible areas between pages and chapters, to be revisited later ... a rebuttal to hierarchies of silence, an attempt to draw attention to forms of suffering that are easier to ignore. The punishing and lonely experiences of the people who perform the actual labor of the petroleum industry are often withheld and concealed—they are inconvenient for employers, shameful for the workers themselves, and difficult for outsiders to grasp. They are perhaps most readily available in metaphor. Under the dust jacket of her book, Beaton has hidden the silhouette of a duck, embossed into the cover with a pretty rainbow-wrapping-paper foil that shimmers like an oil slick.
... powerful ... Beaton’s soulful masterwork ... Eschewing the distancing irony that characterized many of her Vagrant comics, it is the most gripping graphic memoir of 2022, offering an unblinking tale of personal trial set against a nation in economic flux ... Beaton expertly depicts the complexities of operating in misogynistic spaces, where sexual harassment is common ... Beyond her own difficulties, Beaton provides a wider lens on a brutal makeshift culture that leaves some workers stressed, depressed and lonely. In the afterword to Ducks — which she began creating in 2016 — Beaton considers camp life with profound empathy, weighing how the individual can get ground down by the methods and machinery of Big Energy ... Mining ever deeper into her own experiences, Beaton poignantly captures how she and her colleagues shouldered the burdens of work in the oil sands ... Throughout “Ducks,” Beaton’s pen conveys a sense of moody displacement. Camp life can feel as bleak as the book’s monochromatic grays, and we encounter so many stoic faces that we begin to question what lurks behind the sudden smile of a co-worker. She also occasionally pulls back, drawing sweeping panoramas of the landscape that remind us of the natural beauty (ah, the northern lights) amid the towering cranes and smokestacks — an aesthetic tug of war over what will survive ... provides a complex picture from a specific era, not a simple critique.