“Hark! A Vagrant’s” Kate Beaton Returns to Long Form Comics With “Ducks”

by rory midhani

Kate Beaton, the writer and illustrator of one of the best webcomics of all time, Hark! A Vagrant, recently released in five parts a long form comic about her time spent working on the oil sands of Alberta. These vignettes tell about tragedies, loss, daily interactions and the lasting effect that working there had on her. If you’re unfamiliar with the Athabasca Oil Sands, they’re the largest known deposit of bitumen in the world, in the form of semi-solid crude bitumen, sand, clay and water. Beaton worked there for a while to pay off her college debt. These comics deal with Beaton’s memories of her time there and how she’s still trying to work out her feelings about it.

Ducks is about part of my time working at a mining site in Fort McMurray, the events are from 2008.  It is a complicated place, it is not the same for all, and these are only my own experiences there.  It is a sketch because I want to test how I would tell these stories, and how I feel about sharing them.  A larger work gets talked about from time to time.  It is not a place I could describe in one or two stories.  Ducks is about a lot of things, and among these, it is about environmental destruction in an environment that includes humans.

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The first part is where the entire story gets it’s name. In it, Beaton remembers a time when 500 ducks landed in pond filled with waste from the oil sands. Only a handful of the ducks survived, and so the area she worked at took precautions to avoid the same thing happening to them. Later, an announcement is made that one of the other workers passed away on-site. Beaton is so good at this kind of storytelling. Even though there’s not really a lot of excitement or thrilling plot points and there are even a lot of panels where no one talks at all, it remains completely compelling. I could honestly read this kind of story all day long as long as they were being told by Kate Beaton.

The second comic is a story that starts out with Beaton and a coworker just chatting about things like fishing and work conditions. They run into one of the older workers who’s just standing in the middle of the road. The bad news piles on when she finds out that there was a horrible head-on collision involving “a couple of young fellas from out [her] way.” She scrambles to find out where exactly they were from and if they were people she knew. Beaton is so talented at using small stories that take place over such a short amount of time and involving only a few people and making them seem giant and monumental. We don’t even directly witness the wreck or it’s aftermath, but it still hits like a ton of bricks.

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The next story is the most subtle. Here, the emotions are more melancholy and subdued. We get to know the characters a little bit by seeing little slices of their lives. Even though the theme might be sad events that stick out in Beaton’s memory, there are also little funny and heartwarming moments, like the lunch conversation in this story. These moments of levity really help to make you get to know and care deeply about these people. Instead of just being random characters who sad and tragic things keep happening to, we get to see them as hard workers who really care for each other and each have their own little quirks and eccentricities.

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Beaton wraps up the story with two more comics, again letting us get to know the people who worked there better. We see their struggles, we see how hard it is leaving their families, and we see their relationships with each other and with the oil sands themselves. Part four starts out feeling a lot better than some of the other stories, with nice moments shared between coworkers. Then, it takes a quick turn when Beaton is asked to help calm down a woman who is thought to be high and is refusing to leave the women’s restroom. Part five continues with even more stories about the hardships of working out there, but it also ties everything up wonderfully.

Beaton really may be my favorite writer when it comes to telling this kind of story. She is a master when it comes to making the minutiae of life into the most interesting stories I’ve ever read. They always leave me wanting to know more about these people and their lives. The sketch style of the comics really adds to the experience. It gives them a real memory-like feeling, and gives them an extra personal touch. They aren’t polished and proper. Instead, they seem like a story that you are being told face-to-face by a close friend. I especially love the end of this comic. Beaton perfectly sums up how complicated memories are. She doesn’t try to wrap everything up in some clever and deep soliloquy about the meaning of life and death (although those can be great too). Instead she says what most of us would say. And it’s perfect.

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This isn’t the first time Beaton has addressed her conflicted emotions about working on the oil sands. She had previously made this incredibly touching comic about one Christmas that she spent there. She also addressed the fact that she was one of only a few women (especially young women) working there and the sexual harassment she dealt with as a result. As much as I absolutely adore her Hark! A Vagrant comics, these stories about her own life are really touching and special in their own way. Aside from her Hark! A Vagrant site, Beaton also posts comics to her Tumblr and Twitter, and she has a store where you can buy all sorts of items with her designs.


Welcome to Drawn to Comics! From diary comics to superheroes, from webcomics to graphic novels – this is where we’ll be taking a look at comics by, featuring and for queer ladies. So whether you love to look at detailed personal accounts of other people’s lives, explore new and creative worlds, or you just love to see hot ladies in spandex, we’ve got something for you.

If you have a comic that you’d like to see me review, you can email me at mey [at] autostraddle [dot] com.

Header by Rory Midhani

Mey Rude is a fat, trans, Latina lesbian living in LA. She's a writer, journalist, and a trans consultant and sensitivity reader. You can follow her on twitter, or go to her website if you want to hire her.

Mey has written 574 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. Ahhh I love ‘Hark! A vagrant’! Just wondering if Beaton is an example of a queer cartoonist, or just another awesome female one?

    (I know it doesn’t actually matter. I would just really enjoy it if she was queer.)

  2. I love Kate Beaton so much. My college roommate introduced me to Hark! A Vagrant and I still read it. I like “Ducks” a lot, because it is really touching and so down to earth about her experiences working at the oilsands site. What people don’t get (like the girl she talks to in the epilogue) is that the people working at those sites and on big oil rigs and things that represent the destruction of the environment to the rest of us are just trying to get by. Normal people don’t always have the luxury of handpicking the company they work for and doing tons of research on their history. I have so many friends that work/have worked at Chick-Fil-A, Papa Johns, JP Morgan Chase, Walmart, and other companies that don’t have the best track records as far as the LGBTQ community, labor laws, environmental issues. Would they rather work at places that don’t discriminate against people like them, that treat their workers fairly, that don’t pollute the earth? Hell yeah, but we also need to put food on the table and pay the electricity. This is why I love Kate Beaton. She knows and shows the same struggles we all deal with. We want to be “morally right” people in our own eyes, but at the same time, we know we need to feed ourselves.

    • I agree completely. One of my friends got a job working for Monsanto, and I congratulated her sincerely when she told me because this is a really good job that puts her chemistry degree to use, instead of being stuck at the movie theatre she’d been working at for 6 years.

      I think it’s more important to target legitimate protests towards those who are in a position of power, rather than the little people who are just trying to make ends meet.

  3. I know that this is more than a year late, but I came here looking for a critique of this work in particular because I found Kate’s “Ducks” to be very profound and I wanted to know if others felt the same way.

    I want you to know that I am so happy to read your thoughtful and insightful opinion of her work. Most of the folks I know don’t quite get it, and I’m so glad to know that others do.

    Thank you.

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