“Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands” Depicts a World of Inequalities

For people who read regularly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that men are often depicted as acting like apes when women aren’t around. Think Pat Baker’s The Silence of the Girls, Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory, or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Moreso, when just one or two women are thrown in with the nether-region-scratching lot, men have the distinction of behaving as if they have paste for brains. At least, that’s how Kate Beaton’s graphic novel, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, paints them, but it does so to criticize how sexual harassment gets swept under the rug, how the working class continues to be left behind, and how the environment suffers from capitalist greed.

Detailing Beaton’s own time working in the Canadian oil fields to pay off her student loans, Ducks illustrates an all-too-familiar, male-dominated, working-class industry in unsparing details of sexual assault, intoxication, and depression. Her situation — and by association her family’s situation — shows just how hard it is not only to make a mere living, but to keep the debt collectors at bay. “This student loan is a foot on my neck,” the narrator tells her family.

And like families, workspaces are not always happy ones. Integration into a new workplace is never easy, as the narrative so easily, and swiftly, proves. What makes it harder is the fact that Beaton must navigate a world regulated by greed, masculinity, and silenced suffering. “Learn to take a joke, right?” one worker tells her. But the real joke is how ridiculous it is to get any help. To report something almost does more harm than good for the victim. When the narrator tries to explain her recent encounters with male harassment to her superior, Jeff, he says, simply, “You knew this was a man’s world when you came. It’s not always nice.” Well, no kidding. Instead of managers doing anything to change the environment, the workers (the women, specifically) have to change. But the worst part, for Beaton, is “that they are familiar […] that they look like my cousins […] that they sound like me, in that accent.” And all that she can do is deal with it, hoping she can dig herself out of debt and move on to doing what she loves best: drawing.

Beaton’s art style is a typical comic strip type that reads well enough, but isn’t really innovative — it’s more focused on solid storytelling. Those who enjoy the surreal artwork from The Golden Age by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, Junji Ito’s body horror-infused manga, or Richard McGuire’s masterful Here, the 400 pages of mostly undifferentiated layouts can get a bit tiresome. Every once in a while, a page or a spread will be dedicated to a full image (a “splash”) or will have a large top panel and two smaller panels underneath. The art is most poignant when it mirrors what is happening in the narrator’s mind. Of course, if Beaton were to take the time to do this for every emotional moment, these often bleak scenes would lose their power — not to mention run the work well over a thousand pages.

Oddly enough, for a graphic novel titled Ducks, there is not a lot of the feathered aviators to be found. One wonders if they aren’t all stranded in ponds turned into toxic sludge death traps by oil-sands operators. It isn’t until page 329 that Beaton comes across a New York Times article describing an investigation into the death of ducks. Yet there’s an insistence by workers and even the local populace that environmental mishaps are worth the money and the jobs made available to a mostly unskilled labor force. That is what is truly frightening, but also soberingly expected. Beaton never preaches to the choir though, she allows her experiences to speak for themselves, hopefully getting readers to want to speak out against the oil company’s practices.

In the end though, Beaton brings in some hope when she finally pays off her school debt and moves away from the oil fields to pursue her dream of being a cartoonist  — but not without a lingering fishing lure hooked on a shadow of danger. The last three pages depict the narrator and three friends walking along a road in town and running into a worker from the office at the Long Lake oil field. After telling one girl “‘we even had, like, a bet to see who could sleep with you first,’” the man, oblivious of how awkward and rude he’s acting, says he looks forward to catching up with her at one of the bars. So yes, you can get out of the oil fields, but it seems that there will always be a bit of crude substance stuck to you.

Beaton’s experiences speak volumes about how people should be more aware of social inequality and gender inequality in the workplace. Readers, if not already angry with such situations, should certainly be lining up to vote for better practices and reform. The cartoon form of the story further connects with readers as it not only tells but shows the hardships faced and makes you feel like you are there with the narrator. That’s Ducks’s true power, positioning the reader inside these struggles so as to demand change and acknowledgement.

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
By Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly
Published September 13, 2022