For those who paid attention to the webcomics scene of the 2010s or just enjoyed writing in a good mood, the name Kate Beaton is probably familiar. Canadian Cartoonists Listen to a bum— a dizzying mix of literary and historical references, disrespect for institutions that didn’t deserve it, and gleeful nonsense that ran throughout 2018 — was a staple of best-of lists for years, whether online or in your home. two Print collections.
Outside of that work, Beaton has created children’s books (The princess and the pony other baby kingthat won awards) and earlier this year an animated series based on one of those books: pineapple and bangs on AppleTV+.
This week, his latest project hits the shelves and is arguably his biggest achievement to date. Ducks: two years in the oil sands is a memoir of his experiences working in the Athabasca oil sands of northern Alberta. It’s a serious, poignant, heartfelt cartoon that’s as lovable as it is fearless and easily one of the most impressive graphic novels of this year, or works of any kind in the last decade.
WIRED caught up with the author via email to ask about his memoir, the ending of Listen to a bumand teach readers about life in Canada’s oil sands.
CABLING: Ducks it is absolutely devastating. It feels like a reader, like it’s something you’ve been working on for some time. I know you published an early and significantly different version of this as a webcomic in 2014. One of the things that both versions share is a feeling of, perhaps, emotional disconnection, a feeling of being so overwhelmed that it was almost impossible to share what it had been like in reality. How did you get over that to make this book?
Kate Beaton: hmm I’m not sure if I agree with the question. I don’t think I have an emotional disconnect or ambivalence. In any case, too much otherwise.
It is my intense connection and deep concern that makes this a difficult and impossible story to tell: as soon as I describe one thing, I feel bad that I haven’t described three other things to make sure I’m giving the full picture, because there are there is no detail that makes you understand what I want to show you; the contradictions are infinite, the complexity enormous.
When I started talking about tar sands with someone, I couldn’t stop, because there was no point where I could be satisfied that I had explained it. I needed editors to help make this book so it wasn’t 2,000 pages, and it’s still 500 pages, and all sorts of things are missing. But that’s probably for the best. It has to be a readable book.
How long was this in process? You mentioned when you closed Listen to a bum back in 2018 you were working on a graphic novel. what that Ducks?
The book has been in the works since 2016, I submitted it to Drawn and Quarterly in the summer of 2016.
It took me a year to write it. It took me several years to draw it. In between, there were some stops and starts. I had two children and lost my sister Becky to cancer. Becky is in the book. There were long periods when I wasn’t working on it, but it was always on my mind. I’m sure it was helpful, but it’s also like that.
Do you think now is the right time to tell this story, compared to 2014? Or maybe it’s that you’re better equipped to handle it now?
In 2014, I was in my studio and one day I was forced to start drawing those comics. I later called it a “test”, but at the time it was something that I was driven to do for its own good, and as I did it, you could see the big picture emerging of what could be. I guess I always thought this was a book I would do, but that really made it clear that I could do it.
But I couldn’t do it at the time. She had a picture book that she was working on; I couldn’t imagine leaving Listen to a bum immediately. But I started to hook up. I mean, I started the book in 2016, not too long after, so it’s not really a question of 2014 versus 2022, it’s just that it took so long to make the book.
One of the things that sticks with me is how kind he is. I feel like he goes to great lengths to emphasize that the experience of working in the tar sands dehumanizes everyone to some degree, no matter how they think they’re responding to it. Was that an attitude you always had in this context, or was it something that came from looking back at everything?
I always have. I didn’t reflect back only to find that they were all human after all haha. I lived with these people, they were my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors. And even when things are bleak, I can see what I’m looking at, even if it hurts.
Of course, I’ve also had many years to think about it and to grow old, and I’m sure that has made a difference on a gradient, hopefully the slow onset of wisdom. But, you care about the people around you, don’t you?
Maybe I’m betraying my own shortsightedness, but I had no idea what the tar sands were, or what it was like to work there. The book feels very educational in that sense.
I know that many readers will not know much about tar sands. If you don’t have a connection to it, you might just have a sense that it’s a place that’s, you know, big and heavy and full of dump trucks and environmental issues and money.
Fortunately for those readers, I didn’t know much about it myself when I landed there, and everything in the book is from my point of view, and the reader steps into those shoes to learn while I learn what they’re looking at. So in that sense, a graded education works by design and naturally, like it did for me.
Are you nervous about what the public will think of the book? Use all the tools you developed during Listen to a bumbut with a direction and ambition very different from that of that project, which was basically a humor strip.
I’m not nervous about what the audiences are used to Listen to a bum will make of it. I think anyone who has followed me and my work for a while has an idea of who I am, where I’ve gone and what I have to say, even if this is a very different book.
I’m more nervous about doing a book on what people consider to be a very polarizing issue here in Canada. I’m not sure what will come with that. But all he could do was tell things honestly.
how did you do Ducks impacted what you are doing in the future? I feel like If I can’t have my own on your Patreon demonstrate a similar tone, as well as a similar sense of rhythm, for example.
Well, that’s a story I’ve had in my head for probably a decade, so I don’t know anything about it. It is loosely based on an anecdote my father told me a long time ago that I thought about and tossed around.
I think most likely I had these things in me, but I kept doing Listen to a bum maybe for longer than it should, or shouldn’t, but something like that. I have no excuses. We all have to grow and change. Losing my sister the way we did, how terrible it was, made me lose all desire to write jokes for a living for a long time. Although now that I’m done Ducksmaybe that will come back.
That leads to my last question: How does it feel to have finished the book? There is such a sense that it is an intense and personal experience that I wonder if it is a relief to be able to share it.
Well, I’m answering this before the book is fully published in the world, so it’s hard for me to say. It’s still in that in-between time where not many have read it. I do not know what is going to happen. I hope everything goes well. I hope I have done well.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.
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