Kate Beaton: 'I Stopped Drawing... I Lost Myself'

Kate Beaton
(photo: Stephen Rankin)

Canadian graphics creator Kate Beaton drew international praise for her bestseller Hark! A Vagrant! series in which she humorously, cleverly showcased famous figures. She pivots from the historical to the personal in a deeply revealing memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (Drawn & Quarterly, $39.95, reviewed in this issue), about working as one of very few women in the male-dominated oil fields of Alberta, Canada. In immersive black, white and blue-tinted panels, Beaton bears powerful witness to desperate adversity and redeeming humanity with sharp candor--and unexpected, but gratifyingly welcome humor.  

Some 15 years have passed since the events of Ducks. Your Drawn & Quarterly publisher, Peggy Burns, mentioned that this was six years in the making--and that it went through many incarnations: quick Twitter comics, a script, thumbnails, vignettes, until reaching this outcome. What prompted this creative pivot from your comicalseries to memoir?

I had been sort of winding down on Hark! A Vagrant. It had been going on for a long time. I think it was ending even before I realized it was because I was busy finding myself, doing other things and I was starting to look elsewhere. So it came to a natural end while I was working on Ducks

To be honest, my sister [Becky] got sick. When she got sick, the heart for making Hark! A Vagrant just fell out of me. I didn't feel like writing jokes. So that was the end of that. I was glad I had Ducks already in motion, a project that I had to keep going. If I hadn't, I might have just totally fallen apart.

I noticed your loving mention of Becky on the Hark! A Vagrant online archives: "I'd like to dedicate this archive to my sister Becky Beaton, who we lost in 2018, and who always believed in me."

How do I put this... at the end, well, she was so tied up with the reason I was ending [the series], so a dedication just seemed fitting there. She was the first person I ever made comics with. A long time ago...

This is also your first long-form project. Could you talk about how this creative process differed from that of your previous work?

Yeah, it was very very different. I was so comfortable in what I had been doing before, so I didn't have a lot of confidence [with the new format] and I did a lot of second guessing. Even though I had confidence in what I was making, I found myself taking big steps forward and then looking at what I made and thinking, "Is this any good, or...." Whereas before I could be very sure of what I was doing, I had to approach [Ducks] very methodically. I wrote everything out, then went over everything again and again. I didn't use thumbnails. After I had something written down, I would look at each section with new eyes. I feel like the work went through the wringer quite a few times before it finally was good enough to put into finished panels.

I was always trying to make sure I was doing the work the right way. I didn't want to be working on something so long that was so important to me and get it wrong. I tried to look up how other people do graphic novels--and discovered that everyone does their work differently.

Speaking of your previous work, Hark! A Vagrant debuted on the web when you were in the oil sands. Some of that backstory is included in Ducks. Would you share a bit more about its provenance?

I drew comics for my school paper when I was at university and I enjoyed that. But when I went to the oil sands, I stopped drawing, pretty much for the first full year, because there was nowhere to put it, there was no point. You'll notice in Ducks that the first year was especially harsh. And I felt that. I lost myself in all that.

Then I went to Victoria for a year to take a break. I worked at a museum and I started to feel like myself again and started drawing in earnest. Then I had to go back--I went to Albian Sands, an oil-mining site. I would go home to my little camp room and draw. I had Internet there, and I would go on LiveJournal to be with other cartoonists I was beginning to meet online. They had a little community, and I was feeling like a part of that. I would draw my comics and the next morning I'd get on the big photocopier at work, then post [my work] online. I could feel like myself, feel like I had something just for me. It was a real saving grace in a place where people did not see me for who I was. Comics gave me this avenue to a part of myself that had been lost and I was very grateful.

Ducks begins with a poignant tribute to your hometown, Cape Breton, which you felt you had to leave in 2005. Now you're finally back! I saw the pictures of your youngest son, Charlie, and of the ducks--both your book and the adorable waddling kind--on your Twitter feed. Did you always intend to return?

I never pictured myself coming back and I never pictured myself living anywhere else, either. It was always a big open-ended question. I grew up knowing that almost everyone leaves. But where you go, though, was always like, "well, I just don't know." I was in Toronto, I was in New York, I was in different places, but they never felt like home. When I was in my 20s, I pictured myself having a family but when I tried to picture where that family might be, I wasn't ever sure. I had spent so much time being away from home, feeling like away was the place that I had to be because that's how we grew up, being told we had to find a better life away.

I came home in 2015, just to try it out. I was feeling very done with Toronto, so I thought I'll try home. And then my sister got sick--again. She was here, she had cancer. She was sick for three years. She didn't get better, so I just stayed. And then I met my husband. It wasn't so much a conscious decision that I was going to stay here. But once I got home, it just seemed like the right place to be.

Speaking of the literary Ducks, I saw your "As good as promo videos get" tweet, in which you tell your toddler, "This book is too old for you, it's not for Charlie." Who might be your ideal audience? What are some reactions you hope for?

It's funny because I've had this one copy for the longest time, and it's going around to my relatives and they're all "hmmmm." They're all reading the same very personal book, and they all like it. I'm glad. Friends are like, "That's not my ideal audience," but it is. It's anyone--honestly, it is anyone... who's not a child.

And the reaction I could hope for is, I think, that it's a book about empathy--and that empathy could be for just about any character in the book. Of course, the main character is myself and readers are dropped into the story through my eyes. But the scope of experiences that you see was as wide a net as I could make it so that you have an idea of other people's lives, to show how much of a grey area life is. That understanding, that's what I hope for.

Because your curious groupies must know, what might we expect next?

I have some picture book stuff that I've been working on. My publishers have been so patient with me because I keep having babies. Nothing puts a halt on a project like having another baby: "How's that book coming?" "Well, I'm pregnant... again." But my publishers have been so wonderful and supportive. I couldn't ask for better publishers in the children's book world, or the graphic novels world.

I think that I'd like to steer away from memoirs next because I've been drawing myself quite a bit. I would like to do something new with comics that isn't gag humor and that isn't memoir. I'm looking at possibly fiction but keeping the themes that are important to me. I'm poking around with that, so we'll see how well I do. If it's no good, then nobody gets to see it. If it's any good, you will. --Terry Hong

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