The Cartoonist Kate Beaton Found Humor, and Humanity, in Canada’s Oil Fields

In 2005, Kate Beaton was 21, with a brand-new degree in history and anthropology, student loans she said felt like a foot on her neck, and few job prospects. Around her home in Cape Breton, a picturesque, wooded island in Nova Scotia, the joke was that everyone was “on pogie,” she said — on unemployment.

So she headed west, to the tar sand fields of northern Alberta, one of the world’s most environmentally destructive oil operations, where workers lived in barracks-like camps and men vastly outnumbered women.

Her experience there, detailed in the graphic memoir “Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands,” out on Sept. 13 from the Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly, was one of isolation and sexual harassment. It also gave her an insider’s view into a place and piece of Canadian history few outsiders ever see.

“You know how some times in your life, some memories, stay there and replay themselves?” she asked. “A lot of my time in the oil sands was like that. It seemed like a book I was always going to make, or it would be the one that would always be sort of swimming in my brain.”

The book is a marked departure from Beaton’s best-selling cartoon series, “Hark! A Vagrant,” which camped out on The New York Times hardcover graphic books best-seller list for five months. In fact, the projects are so different that one marvels that they came from the same person.

In “Hark,” Beaton skewered everything from superheroes (“The Adventures of Sexy Batman”) to 19th-century child labor practices (“Plus, It’s Cheap”). Beaton’s irreverent takes on historical and literary figures drew praise from The Times (“Nobody’s ever gotten so much comedy out of omitting punctuation”), while The Paris Review noted her “lively pen and waggish, incisive wit.”

How did someone who can write a wickedly funny, three-panel comic about Benjamin Franklin (“What a Stupid Comic I Have Made”) end up writing a 430-page epic (with maps!) about the Alberta oil rush, and her part in it?

In “Ducks,” Beaton ditches the comedy — well, not all of it — and lets her story take center stage.

Beaton grew up in Mabou, an unlikely place for a future comic book writer and de facto literary critic. The town had no bookstores, let alone comic book stores.

“We had a bookmobile,” she said. “All of the books would smell weird, because they were like 200 years old.” As for online resources, Beaton had access to the internet a couple of times a week, in her school’s “internet class.”

“I don’t want to make it sound like I lived in a garbage can,” she said with a laugh. “We just didn’t have the same access to a bunch of stuff as other people. So I was just picking up whatever rolled my way.”

Beaton filled her time drawing. “She was always drawing and doodling, before she even started school,” said Marion Beaton, Kate’s mother, who makes several appearances in “Ducks.” “She was always doing something creative.”

Growing up in a comics and animation vacuum, Beaton developed a cartooning style and sense of comic timing all her own. “I never saw anime or Sailor Moon,” she said, “so I couldn’t have copied that style even if I wanted to.”

After high school, she enrolled at Mount Allison University, where she met Lindsay Bird, a religious studies major. The two lived in the same dorm and worked together at the school newspaper, with Bird as a photo editor and Beaton on the comics page. “She was just very cool,” Bird said. “Very sharp, very witty, very observant, one of those people who could make really funny observations about a room or a party.”

The two quickly became friends. When Beaton went to Fort McMurray, in Alberta, after graduation, she helped Bird get a “camp job” there, one of the site’s more desirable posts. “My religious studies degree wasn’t getting me anywhere, so after about a year, I said, OK, I’ll come out,” Bird said. “She knew that world much better than I did, and she was very protective of me.”

Beaton had come to Fort McMurray at the height of one of Alberta’s oil booms, when the promise of good wages had sparked a rush of workers from across Canada, particularly from provinces like Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, where the collapse of coal and fishing industries had played havoc on the local economies.

“The joke one guy told me was that Fort McMurray was the second-largest city in Newfoundland,” said Chris Turner, the author of “The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands.”

Most of the boom time workers were men. At the oil sands, Beaton entered an environment where male workers routinely leered at women, and worse; many thought nothing of discussing women’s bodies, including hers, at work. The experience stayed with Beaton. “When someone would ask me about Fort McMurray, I would start talking, and they’d be like, ‘Please stop talking!’ They didn’t want to hear it.”

Beaton began working on “Ducks” in 2016. She revisited scores of old letters and emails and photos to jog her memory, and talked to dozens of colleagues and co-workers at the camps to gather their side of things and get their permission to write about them (many names in the book were changed).

In one case, she reached out to a man who went into a tailspin after his divorce and subsequently got canned; in another, she contacted the family of a man killed in a workplace accident. “That’s such a weird phone call to get,” she said. “But that’s better than them reading the book and going, ‘Hey, that’s my brother who died in 2008.’”

Bird was one of the first people Beaton reached out to. The two had many shared memories, including the time when Bird, newly arrived at Fort McMurray, went to the company chow hall with Beaton and noticed that several male workers were trying to look up her skirt. “It was shocking,” Bird recalled.

The incident made it into Beaton’s book, where the men, brought to life by the artist’s unmistakable pen, appear as grinning, cartoonish boors. It also found its way into Bird’s 2019 book “Boom Time,” a collection of poems about her own experiences in the oil sands. “We talked about different things that had lodged in our brains that had been memorable or uncomfortable, and that was one of the first,” said Bird, who is now a CBC journalist.

Among Beaton’s concerns is that her book will feed into stereotypes about Alberta’s oil sand workers. The common perception, Turner said, is of an immature lout, a single guy in his 20s who flocks there for the easy money, then blows his paycheck on drugs and booze (and later, a fully loaded Ford F-150).

“The phrase that used to be used in the Alberta oil industry was rig pigs,” Turner said. “Her story makes it clear that that wasn’t the only thing happening there.”

Indeed, while the book contains its share of creeps and weirdos, there are also the guys who welcome Beaton and show her the ropes; the family man who brings her cookies on Christmas because she’s working on the holiday and away from home; the old-timers hoping their bodies don’t collapse on them before they can retire.

“There were tons of people who were there just working and not bothering anybody,” she said.

In addition to “Ducks,” Beaton recently completed work on the first season of “Pinecone & Pony,” an animated series streaming on Apple TV+ based on her 2015 children’s book “The Princess and the Pony,” about a fat, farting pony and the mixed-race princess who loves it. She’s currently working on a series of short fiction comics set in Cape Breton, but not starring herself.

And beginning next month, Beaton will embark on an ten-city book tour to promote “Ducks,” her first such tour since 2016, when she set out to promote “Princess.”

Years before that tour, before “Ducks” and “Princess,” before the success of “Hark! A Vagrant,” Beaton made one of her very first author appearances at the Small Press Expo in Maryland. Going on a whim and setting up at a friend’s table, Beaton was surprised to see a long, snaking line of fans waiting to snatch up ill-made photocopies of her cartoons. “I must have looked stunned,” she said.

This time around, Beaton said, circumstances are different. She’s different.

“I’ve had two children. I haven’t seen the outside world in many years. I have a dog now and two cats and five chickens,” she said. “Life’s changed since the last time people saw me.”

Still, she added, “I expect I’ll seem stunned again, just like in the beginning.”