Review: Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton

Review by Marin Mills

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, by Kate Beaton, has remarkably little to do with actual ducks. Instead, Kate Beaton’s autobiography focuses on her experiences working in the Alberta Oil Sands. Her comic tells the story of why she got into the oil business and her experiences working in an isolated, male-dominated community, where workers’ health and safety are less of a priority than not getting sued. Beaton tackles the struggles she faced with uncomfortable honesty and surprising compassion, making this an unconventional biography well worth reading.

Artistically speaking, Ducks is more akin to a cartoony newspaper comic than a realistic superhero comic. Each change of location includes a character list that introduces the reader to the main cast of that section. Every character has a unique face and role that the reader can keep track of, even if the reader is like me and forgets character names all the time. Beaton’s characters are dynamic and alive, even if their hands end up being squiggles most of the time.

However, interspersed across the comic are these beautiful, monochrome landscapes, where Beaton’s artistic skill is most easily seen. These landscapes feature intricate linework and shading that capture both the natural beauty of the landscape and the jarring presence of the oil sands operations. Much like these landscapes, Ducks simultaneously presents the reader with a fairly normal day-to-day life, and layers upon layers of trauma inflicted on the men and women working in the oil sands.

Beaton doesn’t shy away from dealing with emotionally sensitive subjects, only cutting away when scenes would otherwise be too graphic for the average reader. During her time in the oil sands, Beaton experienced near-constant sexual harassment from co-workers as well as sexual assault. Despite this, Beaton manages to have compassion for the men around her. She works hard to show how isolation eats people up from the inside, how bad behavior gets excused, and how people can have vastly different experiences even in the same circumstances. In doing so, Beaton paints a more complete picture than any singular story could tell.

If you like reading about ordinary people, you should check out Ducks by Kate Beaton. It’s a well-written biography with beautiful artwork and an emotionally intricate narrative that will broaden your perspective on the world.