Gutter Talk: Kate Beaton’s “Ducks” Portrays a Working Class I Recognize

Six panels of vintage horror comics. The center says GUTTER TALK

Gutter Talk – art by Viv Le

There’s a stretch of road in Canada called the Highway of Death — aka Highway 63 — that leads into Fort McMurray, which for a time was the place to go if you wanted to earn a lot of money in Canada. Young people from all over flocked to Alberta in the early 2000s in an effort to shore up enough money to live the life they drew for themselves in their heads. The highway of death is named as such due to the sheer amount of fatalities on that stretch of road. Trucks and cars that have succumbed to desolate weather and desperate drivers. One of the many remembrance markers on the side of the road is for my childhood friend Rob, whose truck went end over end one morning as he and others, also in trucks, rushed to get back to work.

It’s a part of the country, staunchly blue collar and working class, that was easy to look down liberal noses at. Roughneck men making money and burning it away on the endless parties of their off hours. When the oil sands were at their peak, those who didn’t work in this kind of work talked a lot about the sort of people that did. That talk was often never flowery or pretty, lacking a certain depth. I was a blue collar worker then too; I knew it felt like the barbs of their thorns.

Kate Beaton’s (Hark! A Vagrant) new graphic novel Ducks is an autobiographical account of her two years working in various work camps in the Fort McMurray oil sands in an effort to pay off her student debt as she emerged back into the world from her post-secondary education.

The story Beaton lays out in Ducks is one we don’t hear very often. People that were drawn to this sort of work in an effort to provide for themselves, to stave off debt or to prepare for their future. Beaton is from the east coast of Canada and, as many of the workers in the oil sands were in those days, was in search of work that just wasn’t available in their home province.

There is something in Beaton’s work I have always loved: her whimsical love of people and humanity and the various ways people as a whole are largely kind of fucked but in a silly kind of way. She was always able to make people feel real, be it a fictional Canadian prime minister demanding Brian Adams be put on the phone or the “toxic” love of Marie and Pierre Curie. It’s hard to see the flaws in people, to want to commit them to print, but to also make sure they’re presented as real.

Before I came out, before I transitioned, and before I was *waves arms* any of this, I was a very different kind of person. I too was a blue collar worker, working in a trade to make money when I saw no other option or opportunity for myself. My dad told me to quit my job working at a men’s clothing store (lol) called Men’s World (LOL) and to instead come and work in his glass shop. Which I did. By the time I was 23 I was a red seal, journeyman Glazier.

When I worked with my hands, the perception of me changed. I have been insulted a lot of times in my life in a litany of ways, but never so cutting as when educated and liberal people were out of earshot of their peers. For a spell of time, I was literally the only person in the entire Yukon who could properly fix the automatic doors in every store in town. One night, 6:30 p.m., when everyone else was home and watching TV, I was working for the eleventh hour in as many days and a curious child asked their mother what I was doing. I had a motor in my hands, Arms, hands and forehead covered in grease, blood, sweat and exhaustion. She pulled him close to her — safely away from me — and announced, loud enough that I could hear, that I was doing what happens when you don’t graduate from high school.

Excuse me ma’am, I’ll have you know I had the top marks in my English class, and that yes okay I actually did fail my graduating year. But still. Ouch.

I was viewed as less than many, valuable only as far as my tools and my blood and sweat covered hands could fix their problems. I nearly died on the job three different times myself. But I was a worker, a tradesperson. A tool, or an extension of one.

Beaton finds balance in this world. In Hark! A Vagrant, she crafted whimsical portraits of history’s most memorable characters. And Spider-Man. In Ducks, she draws and portrays the very real people that existed in the spaces around her as she entered a world she didn’t know, one so similarly full of grease and sweat and blood. And she finds ways to make each person real.

This is not to say she polishes every person working in the oil sands to a perfect diamond, they exist as all their flaws and proclivities marked them. Doting husbands — with east coast accents you can hear through the way she writes each sentence — get too friendly with the women they work with; men succumb to their addictions. There are stark and heartbreaking depictions of sexual assault.

But it is real, it is the most real I have ever felt reading about an industry I used to inhabit surrounded by the men that used to be my peers on every jobsite I worked for the almost 20 years I spent working in trades. Every building she draws, I can smell the way the walls have absorbed the cold air, the body odor and stale coffee to create a scent you will never encounter anywhere else. The accents come alive in print. And the smell of the spring as it melts away a long winter in the cold depths of the kind of Canada most would rather forget.

You may wonder why I’m writing about this in my comics column for a queer website.

This kind of work, roughneck and dangerous, is often swept aside in our lives. But it is real. For a lot of us, it is the most real thing you can ever imagine. This was my whole life, it is my father’s life, it was his father’s too. It’s my uncle’s and my cousins’. My friends who are marked by crosses on roads driven in a hurry to make their furious fortunes. This is part of my history, a mark of my past, and it is rare I get to read something set in a past so many would never expect a femme trans woman in her forties who writes for a living to have.

I wanted to write about this because I think it’s important for all of us to read about these places, the people that were in them. The people they drew in, those they cast out. And who lives in the world around us, who makes it work. Who damages it and who rebuilds. These spaces, blue collar work and roughneck locales, exist and are very real. And queer people, trans people, work there too. And their stories are untold. Maybe that will change, but it is incumbent on us to give those stories space to be heard, to be complicated. Portraits of people flawed and whole. Beaton does that so perfectly with Ducks. It is a difficult read at times, sad and lonely and desperate and, in others, charming and uplifting. It is real, it is the most real thing I have read in a while. I hope you read it, too.


Every week, I’m going to end with a little wrap-up of comics and comic-related bric-a-brac that I’ve been digging lately. There’s no homework or anything here, just some stuff I’ve been digging that you might too.

Niko’s Pull List

I hate to say it, but I didn’t read a lot of comics over the holidays other than my regular reads that I’ve written about here in the past (X-Terminators, Moon Knight, She-Hulk, etc Marvel etc). I chose instead to read through my massive to-read list of novels while I had brief moments of time off!

SO, here’s what we’re gonna do.

Sound off in the comments! Tell me what you read this holiday!


Gutter Talk is a biweekly series by Niko Stratis that looks at comic books from a queer and trans perspective.


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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 41 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you for being you. I appreciate you sharing your experience, strength and hope. I can empathize with you. Being a “Jane of all trades but master of none” seems to hold less value these days. I too have experienced judgement from “the educated and liberal”.Yet this queer woman from the East coast will continue on to be there for others using my skillsets. Unsung heroes will find their tribe and I think I just found mine.

  2. I worked in this area in one of the low-paying remote camp employee positions in the early 2000s, and this book resonated with me more than anything I’ve ever read about Alberta or the oil sands, so it’s nice to see it reviewed here.

    It’s really hard to strike a balance between describing the dangers that man camps impose on women and surrounding communities while also remembering that all of these workers are dehumanized and sacrificed to the oil and gas Hellmouth; I think Beaton is incredibly fair. All settler environmentalists working on oil and gas issues should read this book.

  3. Thank you so much for this piece, Niko! Class is such a huge taboo in the US and I guess also in CA.

    I have a mixed-class background in Central and Western NY and Cheyenne, WY, and I am endlessly fascinated, angry, outraged, and contemplative about class issues.

    I’ve lived in NYC since 1988 when I got a scholarship to Barnard College, a Seven Sisters school and part of the Ivy League that I had idealized in my teens. I tell ppl that I was a fish out of water there, and that I didn’t understand until years later that I was constantly being treated with classism. And I wasn’t even working class, so I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for working class ppl to enter that world or others like it.

    After dropping out due to past trauma, I became (among many other things), a dog walker on the Upper East side. That was a world unto itself where I sometimes had to use the service elevator. Doormen treated me like shit and the residents and certain clients treated me like less than shit. I learned a lot about how the world works.

    I’m afraid to reconnect with most of my extended family because I fear they are all right wing Trumpies and I really don’t want to spoil my fond memories of them.

    So much of what gets written and published, seen and heard, is by ppl with resources, and that means ppl from more privileged classes. We all need to hear/see/read/absorb more creative output from ppl who are not from privilege, and that means ppl with fewer resources having to somehow pay the bills while making their creative output.

    I had so many conversations with friends when we were in our 20’s in NYC about which jobs could pay the bills and leave us enough time and energy to make our art. Dog walking was mine, and waiting tables was popular with some, but I performed my music at night so afternoon work was better for me.

    I think about class all the time. I work as a school social worker now and I am realizing that most teachers and school staff in NYC public schools are working class and that makes me very middle class in comparison to them, which can be tricky. I am not always welcomed.

    I am sick to death of hollywood depicting every fucking story as upper middle class – huge nice apartments, giant houses, cute clothes, nice cars, who are these people?

    When I visit my folks in Syracuse the city is all broken down houses and cars, and people with outdated style, if any at all. And no food I want to eat or movies I want to see.

    Who will tell their stories? Where is our new “Roseanne?” Where are the stories of working class people that are not tragedies and oppression porn?

    I don’t know if I can create anything true about working class people or experiences because I am more middle class and I’m not really close with all the working class parts of my family for other reasons. So anyone who can create work that tells working class stories has such an important job to do!

    I hope that with all of your writing talent, Niko, that you might bestow upon us something bigger than an article that we can savor and absorb. I hope I get to read something like this piece someday but that has a lot more pages…

    • I went to a pretty average university and still felt the class difference. My classmates had leisure time and savings; they lived at home or their rent was paid. They went overseas in the summer; I worked in a factory.

      I’m perceived as being more middle class than I am. As an adult I’ve noticed my lack of connections, poise and social training (for want of a better word), in comparison to actually middle class peers.

  4. I am currently in trade school, after nearly 2 decades working in education. Part of me thinks I’m absolutely out of my mind, and part of me is… just tired of being underpaid to be the emotional sham-wow for people with more money than me.

    For some reason Hark! A Vagrant never resonated with me (I would get the joke, and think it was clever, but somehow not laugh anyway?) but this seems like it might be a different vibe and I’ll check it out! Thank you Niko for the review and thank you Autostraddle for your continued publishing of things found nowhere else on these wild interwebs.

  5. Electrician from Seattle here, it always surprises me how many liberal folks are willing to look down on the blue collar people who make their lives possible. That moment you described of the parent telling her child this is the job you have when you don’t go to college hit me hard. Especially because I love my job more then any I’ve ever had. The trades are hard as a queer woman for many, many reasons, but I also love being a sparky so much.

    I love your column as a queer comic book nerd!

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