Here is a sketch comic I made called Ducks, in five parts.
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. Thank you for taking the time to read it.
I’ve been reading these amazing comics and Kate Beaton drew and posted them. (Conveniently, they read really well on a phone, so I would stop wherever I was and just read the latest installment.)
These are the most subtle and nuanced comics I’ve read in a while, and I wanted to take a moment to analyze and learn from them.
There’s a danger that in analyzing something, you can ruin it, but I think it’s valuable. Still, you should read the comics before you read my post.
Here are my thoughts:
- They are a perfect example of “show, don’t tell”. Beaton has points she wants to convey, but there’s no lecturing; there’s no character standing in for the opinions of the writer. It’s an easy trap to fall into—explaining yourself with words when the medium is pictures-and-words. Instead, Beaton tells the stories, and structures it so the repeated weight of what happens (deaths, rashes, freaked out hookers) draws you to her conclusion. (I think, in fact, the epilogue could have been skipped, though that last picture of the duck is so powerful, and the perfect punctuation to the story.)
- The sketch as medium is a very immediate, emotive style. The simple style allows the reader to project him or herself into the characters much more than with very detailed, carefully rendered art. Beaton is particularly skilled with it—her face when she says “you worry too much, mom” is so evocative, and there are countless other examples in this piece.
- The pacing is perfect. It is slow and ruminant, told in episodes that are each punctuated with a simple picture. It reads like chapters. Some episodes are very intense (the hooker, for example) and some are just portraits of the people who are there; they are balanced. Each episode serves a function is the greater thrust of the story, but most of them are subtle; the function isn’t obvious. (You never find yourself saying, “now here Kate Beaton wants me to think X…”)
- The arc holds it all together. Not every episode is about the ducks, but Beaton keeps returning to it through the end. In the process, we get a nice parallel of the how much the company cares about ducks and how much they care about humans (not to mention the outside focus on the ducks but not the humans).
- Ambiguity. As Beaton says, she has a lot of feelings. There’s human misery, but people are making money. Cedric sends money back home to his kids, and they have things he never had—but he never gets to see them.
- Economy of words—Beaton uses as few words as possible to get the point across. At the same time, she liberally adds panels–silent panels, all in a row.
Reading and analyzing these comics makes me revisit my own work—which is very different, but there’s always something to learn. I could introduce a lot more subtlety.