The book was in the works since 2016, I pitched it to Drawn and Quarterly in the summer of 2016.
I took a year to write it. I took several years to draw it. In between, there were a few stops and starts. I had two children, and I lost my sister Becky to cancer. Becky is in the book. There were long periods then when I wasn’t working on it but it was always on my mind. I’m sure it was helpful, but also it’s just the way it was.
Does now feel like the right time to tell this story, compared to 2014? Or, perhaps, is it a case of you being better equipped to handle it now?
In 2014, I was just in my studio and I was compelled one day to start drawing out those comics. I later called them a “test,” but at the time it was just something I was driven to do for their own sake, and as I was doing it, you could see the bigger picture emerging of what it could be. I guess I always thought this was a book I’d make, but that really made it clear that I could.
But I couldn’t do it right then. I had a picture book I was working on; I couldn’t fathom leaving Hark a Vagrant right away. But I started winding down to it. I mean—I started the book in 2016, not that long afterwards, so it’s not really a question of 2014 versus 2022, it’s just that it took this long to make the book.
One of the things that sticks with me about it is how kind it is. I feel you take great pains to emphasize that the experience of working in the oil sands dehumanizes everyone to some extent, no matter how they may believe they’re responding to it. Was that an attitude you’ve always had in this context, or was it something that came as you looked back on everything?
I’ve always had it. I didn’t come back to reflect only to find that everyone was human after all, haha. I lived with these people, they were my friends, my coworkers, my neighbors. And even when things are grim, I can see what I’m looking at. Even if it hurts.
Of course, I have had many years to think about it, too, and to get older myself, and I am sure that has made a difference at a gradient—hopefully the slow onset of wisdom. But, you care about the people you are surrounded by, don’t you?
Perhaps I’m betraying my own shortsightedness, but I had no idea of what the oil sands were, or what working there was like. The book feels very educational in that respect.
I know a lot of readers don’t know much about the oil sands. If you don’t have a connection to it, you might only have a sense of it being a place that is, you know, big and ponderous and full of dump trucks and environmental issues and money.
Luckily for those readers, I didn’t know much about it myself when I landed there, and everything in the book is from my point of view, and the reader is dropped in those shoes to learn as I learn what they are looking at. So in that sense, a gradual education works out by design and naturally, as it did for me.