Main menu


Cartoonist Kate Beaton found humor and humanity in the Canadian oil fields

featured image

In 2005, Kate Beaton was 21 years old, had just completed a degree in history and anthropology, felt like student loans were on her neck, and had little prospect of a job. Around her home on Nova Scotia’s picturesque wooded island of Cape Breton, there was a joke that everyone was “crazy” about unemployment.

So she headed west to the tar sands fields of northern Alberta, one of the world’s most environmentally destructive oil operations. There, workers lived in barrack-like camps, and men far outnumbered women.

Her experience there, recounted in her graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, published Sept. 13 by Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly, is about isolation and sexual harassment. was one of It also gave her an insider’s perspective on places and parts of Canadian history that her outsiders had rarely seen.

“Did you know that in your life some memories can stay there and regenerate themselves?” she asked. “A lot of my time in the Oil Sands was like that. right.

The book, Beaton’s best-selling cartoon series, “Hark! A Vagrant,” was on the New York Times bestseller list of hardcover graphic books for five months. In fact, the projects are so different that it surprises me that they are from the same person.

In “Hark,” Beaton skewers everything from superheroes (“The Adventures of Sexy Batman”) to 19th-century child labor practices (“Plus, It’s Cheap”). Beaton’s irreverent views of historical and literary figures garnered praise from The Times (“No one gets so much comedy by omitting punctuation”). Paris, on the other hand, her review noted her “vivid pen and zany, sharp wit.”

How someone who can write a ridiculously funny three-panel comic about Benjamin Franklin (“What a Stupid Comic I Have Made”) will write a 430-page epic (with a map!) about the Alberta oil rush and her role. Did you decide to write it as Initialization?

In “The Ducks,” Beaton ditched the comedy for a lead role in her story, if not all.

Beaton grew up in Mabou, an unlikely place for a future cartoonist and de facto literary critic. There were no bookstores, let alone comic bookstores.

“We had a bookmobile,” she said. “All the books smell weird because they are 200 years old.” As for her resources online, Beaton had access to the internet several times a week in an “internet class” at school.

“I don’t want to sound like I lived in a trash can,” she said with a laugh. “We didn’t have access to as many things as other people. I picked up anything.

Beaton filled up his time painting. “Even before she went to school, she was always drawing and doodling,” said Kate’s mother, Marion Beaton, who has made several appearances on “Ducks.” “She was always doing creative things.”

Growing up in the void of comics and animation, Beaton developed a unique cartoon style and sense of comic timing. “I never watched anime or Sailor Moon,” she said.

After high school, she enrolled at Mount Allison College, where she met Lindsey Byrd, a religious studies major. The two lived in the same dormitory and worked together on the school newspaper, with Bird as a photo editor and Beaton on the comic book pages. She said, “She’s very sharp, very witty, very observant, and she’s one of those people who can make really funny observations about a room or a party.”

The two quickly became friends. After graduation, when Beaton went to Fort Her McMurray in Alberta, she helped Bird get a “camp job” there. “My degree in religious studies was getting me nowhere, so after about a year, I said, OK, I’m coming out,” Byrd said. He knew the world well and was very protective of me.”

Beaton came to Fort McMurray during one of the heights of Alberta’s oil boom. At that time, high wages were expected and workers flooded in from all over Canada, especially provinces such as Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, where coal and fisheries had collapsed. The industry wreaked havoc on the local economy.

“One joke a guy told me was that Fort McMurray was the second largest city in Newfoundland,” says author of “The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands.” said Chris Turner,

Most of the workers during the boom were men. In the oil sands, Beaton entered an environment where male workers routinely ridiculed women. Many thought nothing of discussing women’s bodies, including her, in her workplace, but her experience stayed with Beaton. She said, “When someone asked me about Ft. McMurray, I started talking. And they were like, ‘Stop talking!’ They didn’t want to hear it.” is.”

Beaton began working on “Ducks” in 2016. She revisited dozens of old letters, emails, and photographs to trace her memory, and spoke with dozens of colleagues and colleagues at the camp to gather their opinions and obtain permission to write. rice field. About them (many renamed in the book).

In one case, she reached out to a man who stalled after a divorce and then got canned. In another case, she contacted the family of a man who died in a workplace accident. “It’s a very strange phone call,” she said. “But it’s better than them reading a book and saying, ‘He’s my brother who died in 2008.'”

Byrd was one of Beaton’s first contacts. The two had many memories in common. For example, when Bard, who had just arrived in McMurray, went with Beaton to the company canteen, he noticed some male workers trying to examine her skirt. “It was devastating,” Byrd recalls.

The case becomes Beaton’s book, and the man brought to life by the artist’s unmistakable pen appears as a grinning cartoonish fool. It was also used in Bird’s 2019 book Boom Time, a collection of poems about her own experiences in the oil sands. “We talked about different things that were memorable or uncomfortable and stuck in our brains, but that was one of the first,” said Byrd, now a journalist for CBC.

One of Beaton’s concerns is that her book reinforces stereotypes about Alberta’s oil sands workers. According to Turner, the general perception is immature slackers, single guys in their 20s who flock there for easy money, then drugs and booze (and then a fully loaded Ford F-150 ) to blow off your salary.

“The term used in the Alberta oil industry was rig pig,” says Turner. “Her story makes it clear that that’s not the only thing that happened there.”

Sure, the book contains creeps and weirdos, but some welcome Beaton and show her the ropes. The family man who brings cookies for Christmas because she works away from her house on the holidays. A veteran who hopes his body doesn’t collapse before he retires.

“There were a lot of people who were just working and not bothering anyone,” she said.

In addition to “Ducks,” Beaton recently completed work on the first season of the animated series “Pinecones and Ponies,” streaming on Apple TV+, based on the 2015 children’s book “The Princess and the Pony.” A half-breed princess who loves it. She is currently working on a series of short fiction comics set in Cape Breton, although she has not starred.

And starting next month, Beaton will embark on a 10-city book tour to promote Ducks. This is her first tour since 2016 when she started promoting “Princess”.

Years before that tour, before “Ducks” and “Princess”, before the success of “Hark!” Tramp’ Beaton made her one of her first writer’s appearances at the Small Her Press Expo in Maryland. Seated at her friend’s table on her whim, Beaton was surprised to see a long, meandering line of fans trying to get their hands on a crude copy of her cartoon. “I must have been stunned,” she said.

Beaton said things were different this time. she is different

“I have two children. I haven’t seen the outside world in years. I now have a dog, two cats and five chickens,” she said. Told. “Life has changed compared to the last time people saw me.”

Still, she added, “I think you look stunned again, just like you did the first time.”