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Ducks: a Damn Good Comic
Of all the classic webcartoonists, *of course* Kate Beaton is the one to produce a masterpiece
ok, let’s just stipulate that it’s been a while—too long—since I put one of these out. Many irons in the fire, and also an 85-pound furry hooligan running around trying to pull irons out of the fire with his mouth. Just know that I perpetually feel bad for not doing these more often! I’m reusing this stipulation because it’s still true!
Last year something happened that I think was close to inevitable in hindsight: beloved (former) webcartoonist Kate Beaton released a comics masterpiece.
Back in the wild west days of webcomics in the early part of the century (of which I was a tiny but very enthusiastic participant,) Beaton didn’t have to be making comics for too long before she was almost universally recognized as one of the best in the game. She was just so damn funny; her point of view was so unique; and her art so fluid and lively. Her work—usually coming in strips of a few panels, sometimes in larger, connected series of strips—centered on history and literature for the most part, and sneakily made astute points while being deliriously funny. Occasionally she’d veer into other topics and own them just as thoroughly.
Beaton’s webcomic, like the wider DIY era of webcomics in general, eventually ran its course and we were all the poorer for it. But then last year we got a hardcover release of a project that had been rumored for years: her lengthy cartoon memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands.
Ducks really is something. Drawn a style that, while a touch tighter, largely carries over from Beaton’s webcomics, it does exactly what it says in the subtitle: chronicle Beaton’s two years working in remote oil-mining camps in northern Alberta, a series of jobs she took to pay off her sizable student loan debts after college. There are several themes at play here: the push-pull between Beaton’s love for her home of Cape Breton Island and the brutal economic facts that make everyone leave; the wide-angle view of what life in the isolation of the oil camps does to people; and the much more specific concern of how terrible an environment for women these camps are. And to that point: this book is wonderful, but if reading about sexual assault is difficult for you, you should stay away from this book.
(an additional layer to the narrative: for those of us who were lucky enough to hear about Beaton’s webcomics in the early going, Ducks gives a fascinating look at what was going on in her life as those comics were produced; there’s a whole lot of turmoil that never made it into the comics)
Working in the modes of comics at their best, Ducks really makes you feel the narrative. Beaton’s travails and triumphs come across as real, and land with weight. It’s really something.
Officially, I have an M.A. in art history; as a practical matter, between the research choices I made in seminars and the direction I went with my thesis, it might be more accurate to say I have an M.A. in indie comics (let’s put it this way: I have a lot more to say about Charles Schulz than I do about Renoir, although I do talk a pretty good Rothko). My thesis, which was half academic project and half manifesto, was about the way that DIY comics allowed women to amplify their own voices, take control of their stories, and create and assert their own identities.* Seeing Kate Beaton, maybe the greatest of the webcartoonists, use the form** at such a high level is, well, it’s pretty fucking awesome.
*Beaton was in fact a person I approached to talk to for my thesis project; she very nicely demurred, saying she was too busy.
**True, Ducks isn’t DIY in the sense that it was released by a major publisher; but it’s very much of a piece with her DIY work, without which it almost certainly wouldn’t exist. And the fact that she’s doing all of the work here—writing the script, drawing it, and lettering it—gives it the deeply personal quality that’s common to most DIY works.
One of my big points in my thesis was that comics made in the lone-auteur fashion offer a pile of different windows inside the creator that other art forms just can’t match: you’ve got Beaton’s storytelling mind revealing itself through the script, her perception of the world revealing itself through the drawing (and Beaton’s quirky drawings of people are a big part of why her work is such a delight), even her handwriting showing up on the page to convey a little bit about her. I think this kaleidoscope of revelation is a big part of why comics like this hit so hard—you’re inside the creator’s head in several channels.
Here’s another thing I said in that thesis (sorry about the academic phrasing):
This may sound facile, but it’s dead serious (and fairly profound, I think): at this writing, there are approximately 7.6 billion people living on Earth. I am completely ignorant of the life stories and worldviews of over 99.99% of these people. But I am aware of, and know important things about, Julia Wertz, Ariel Schrag, and Deena Mohamed [the three women I profiled for the project; note that Wertz went on to be a studiomate of Kate Beaton’s shortly after the time described in Ducks]. I know they exist, and have some idea of who they are (or at least how they want the world to see them). I know some stories about them that they think are important. This is incontrovertible proof that they have succeeded in using comics to shape their identities and put their stories out into the public consciousness, or at least some subset of it. These women are not household names. But knowledge of their existence is certainly much more widespread than that of most people. If my argument is that these autobiographical comics are tools through which women can tell the world who they are and why they matter, the fact that we are discussing these women (whom I as a person would otherwise have no reason to know) is proof of their success.
And this is the thing I come back to again and again about comics. As an art form, they can do all sorts of wonderful things. But the thing they do best, and the thing that no other form can do quite as well: they god damn well let us get to know people.
Right on. Stay safe.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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