If you’re only experience of Kate Beaton up to now has been via her light-hearted collections of comics, Hark! A Vagrant and Step Aside Pops! or her children’s books, The Princess and the Pony and King Baby, then Ducks may come as some surprise to you.
What we have here is a graphic memoir about Kate’s time in the first decade of this century working what is called the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Now, Ducks is a sizable graphic novel (clocking in at just over 400 pages and running to ever so slightly bigger than regulation hardback size) so answering the question ‘what is Ducks about?’ might take us a couple of paragraphs. Here goes.
On the one hand, Ducks is the story of a young woman attempting to pay off her student debts by doing the one thing that is guaranteed to give her a lot of money very quickly. Lots of people (mostly men) leave their families and work the oil flats because it pays more than anything else for miles and miles around. So, as you’d expect from that set-up, Ducks has things to say about what capitalism has done to modern society.
But that’s far from all. The work that goes on to remove the oil from the ground is environmentally awful, as you’d expect (the ducks of the title are hundreds of animals who are hurt by the work – Kate is privy to ridiculous projects established to try and stop it happening a second time). As the book progresses, the author’s awareness of the environmental damage grows, along with her guilt for not just knowing about it from the start.
Ducks is also a little like Sea State, Tabitha Lasley’s memoir about life on and off the North Sea oil rigs – in that Kate has to endure a steady stream of awful male behaviour. Ducks is particularly magnificent when it comes to articulating the confusion around complaining about behaviour and worrying about a job and attempting to understand why some men behave the way they do (whilst at the same time being aware that not all men behave the way that certain men do). Of course, Ducks gets darker as it goes on and you’ll inevitably read portions of the book groaning and feeling immensely, immensely sorry for her.
All told, it is, as we hinted above, a magnificent piece of work. I’ll be extremely surprised if this isn’t all over the end of year best of lists (both for best graphic novels but also, more simply, for best books of the year). Ducks feels like a book that holds its own alongside the likes of both Guy Delisle (for the travelogue-y aspects of the book) and Joe Sacco (for the more political aspects of the book) whilst, crucially, carving out something of its very own.
Any Cop?: We recommend this with all of our might. One of (if not the) standout graphic novels of 2022.