Ducks

Created by: Kate Beaton

ISBN: 1770462899 (Amazon)

Pages: 436

Ducks

There are two Ducks. There’s Ducks by Kate Beaton and now there’s Ducks by Kate Beaton. Kate Beaton’s 2014 comic, Ducks, was roughly between 27 and 40 pages long (depending panels per page), and at the time I described it as “sad and funny and poignant and altogether human.” Kate Beaton’s 2022 comic, Ducks, is torrentially longer, expanding most of the original work into a 436-page heavyweight. It also, by nature of the expansion, becomes less funny and poignant as those elements retreat further into what is an absolutely harrowing recitation of grim realities (partially enhanced by having known a version of Beaton and her family through the stories she’s told for years on Hark! A Vagrant).

Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton

As if anticipating the dissonance felt between the two Ducks, Beaton includes on pages 265 and 266 of her 2022 Ducks a brief anecdote that almost feels out of nowhere save for to explain how these two very different Ducks by Kate Beaton could exist. As young Kate relates to George, her boss at the museum library, that there is an author named Helen Creighton who removed all the off-color stories from her own book written in the Fifties, a collection of folk tales from the Maritimes. Creighton’s reason was that they weren’t suitable for reader’s eyes. Thinking on this, young Beaton in that library (as told by Beaton-the-author) is thoughtful: “Makes you wonder what was left out though, doesn’t it? It’s nice, but it’s not the whole picture. And what good is that?”

Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton

It’s a strange moment and if you’re coming to Ducks for the first time in this 2022 incarnation, you might just think that it’s included as a statement of intent. With the additional context of what Beaton produced as Ducks before though? It reads as repentance, as a righting of the ship. Ducks, as it was, is “sad and funny and poignant and altogether human.” Ducks, as it is now, as true and whole a Ducks as we will see, is dark. I’ve mentioned grim and harrowing already, but throw in some other descriptors: heart-breaking, rage-inducing, tragic, awful. There are moments of humor, moments of poignancy, but the whole thing is smothered by the absolute, unquenchable awfulness of men when they are not at home.

Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton

While Beaton’s earlier attempt at telling stories from the Albertan oil sands (she worked for Syncrude and Shell) focused on the inhumanity of the work, the environmental impact of the oil extraction process, and the essential humanity of the workers cut off from their homes and families, in the present telling, Beaton tells more of the whole story, and that is a story of how a project focused on stripping resources from the land as efficiently as possible unsurprisingly also builds a world steeped in misogyny, sexual objectification, harassment, assault, and rape. As a result, many of the things that felt central to Ducks (2014) fade into the background of Ducks (2022). Beaton still includes most of the stories she used in the earlier Ducks, but the horror of asshole men is so exhaustingly pervasive that it dominates the book.

Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton

And that’s not a criticism. As young Beaton asks, what good would Ducks be if it elided the most everyday and constant of Beaton’s experiences on the oil sands? Ducks (2014) reminds us gently of the human cost of industry. Ducks (2022) will not allow us to forget the human cost of industry. It’s like Grave Of The Fireflies like that. Maybe Ducks‘ll be the lever that turns some kid toward empathy (Grave Of The Fireflies was one of a few works that did that for me)—and wouldn’t that be something!

Beaton juggles a lot here—and most of it successfully. We’ve got, of course, the culture of casual female assault here, but also the effect of being torn from home, the humanity of the individuals who get sucked into the oil sands vortex, the effect of dehumanizing labor on those individuals, the economy that prompts people to sacrifice themselves to industry like this, the importance of family, the difference between real world and the camps and if there’s actually a difference, and the issue of environmental calamity and how that calamity affects disproportionally the native populations that Canada has never properly cared for or valued. As I said, there’s a lot to juggle here.

Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton

Some of it gets a lot of space, and some of it just a couple thoughtful pages of ruminations from men in trucks. The only time I felt I wanted more was in Ducks’ discussion of the environmental crisis. There’s a moment, almost out of nowhere, where young Beaton turns on a Youtube video (after discussion of whether the company has blocked the site like it’s already blocked Facebook) and we get a 3-page interview clip from Celina Harpe (this clip in fact!) about the affects of the industry on the local population. It’s set differently from Beaton’s style of dialogue beats so I kind of, uh, tuned out. I realized it was important because it ends with a 2/3-page panel, rare in the book’s usual 6- and 9-panel grids, so I went back to pay closer attention. It’s good, but it still feels abrupt to me—especially with so little prior interest in the environment shown in the narrative.

That quibble aside, Beaton’s done something wonderful here in taking a familiar work and exploding it out into something truly daunting. Ducks is physically uncomfortable to read, being an heavy-with-ink hardcover but also having a jacket that feels coated in sandpaper—which kept me texturally unnerved for the duration. But all that is just foreshadowing for the discomfort and anxiety that comes from actually reading, thinking constantly, Oh, Katie, this is bad. Oh no, how are you going to get out of—oh. oh. oh no. oh no.

Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton

Our world is full of bad men. And of men who are bad but don’t think of themselves as bad. I am one of their victims and chances are you are too. I know that I know a lot of their victims. I’m glad Beaton drew the curtain back on Two Years In The Oil Sands, and I’m sorry she was able to have something to write about it at all. I don’t know if I’ll reread it. I haven’t rewatched Grave Of The Fireflies either. Ducks is good. Ducks is great. And it breaks my heart into this rage-shattered thing. I try to be a pacifist, but I’m not very good at it, and books like this just evaporate my inclinations toward peaceful solutions to the terror that people inflict on others.


One curiosity with the expansion of the work is that the titular ducks are no longer quite as large a part of the story. Their death in the Syncrude tailings pond occurs late in the book, once Katie is working for Shell and it’s kind of there and gone. Still, with the new book’s more expansive purpose, the title becomes something more. This is not just the environmental tragedy of sixteen hundred ducks dying as a sacrifice to human greed. Instead, the ducks are people like Kate, assaulted by the world that greed creates. The ducks are the workers who use drugs to get through and then get destroyed by them along the way. The ducks are the Cree, the women, the families, the destroyed marriages. The ducks in Ducks are those people sacrificed on the altar of Lord Mammon, careless castoffs that the corporations will never know or care about.


[note: if you’re concerned about the sensationalization of sexual assault, this book is not that. There is nothing exciting or titillating going on here. Beaton’s lens averts its eyes so that we get the before and the after but not the during so much. It’s careful in that respect, but perhaps no less traumatizing to read.]

 

 

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