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Zach Worton’s graphic novel, The Klondike, which comes to us from Drawn & Quarterly and retails at $24.95 (it’s a good chunk of comics at 332 pages, though), is a unusual animal. I liked it, but I have a feeling it’s because I’m clearly in the target audience. If you’re not, Worton’s book probably won’t do much for you. I know that’s often the case, but with The Klondike, I think it might be more true than usual.
In this book, Worton tells the story of the Yukon/Alaska gold rush of the 1890s. If you couldn’t figure that out, you might not be the target audience for this comic. He tells it by focusing on several important characters during the late 19th century in Canada and Alaska, some of whom interacted directly with each other and others who were instrumental in some ways during the gold rush. He begins with several seemingly unconnected vignettes, and then slowly draws the characters into closer contact with each other. Eventually, the book turns into a conflict between good and evil, as much as those terms apply in a rough-hewn place like the Canadian/Alaskan frontier. “Soapy” Smith, a gangster who sets up in Skagway, Alaska, in order to dominate the gates to the Yukon, is opposed by Frank Reid, the town’s surveyor, who wants things run by an elected government. Their fight becomes the climax of the book, even as Worton continues to focus on many other characters, mostly on the Canadian side.
One thing Worton does well is show the many ways people got involved in the gold rush and who got involved. Brenda Mulroony set up a store near the gold rivers and learned hard lessons about how women were treated by men in the late 19th century, but she kept working hard. George Carmack was married to a Tagish Indian woman, so he was stuck between two worlds, a situation exacerbated by his huge find on Rabbit Creek. Joe Ladue was in Dawson City, supplying the prospectors in exchange for a cut of the profits. These people came from everywhere, drawn by the lure of gold, but Worton shows how the smarter people didn’t go out into the gold fields but set up in towns and created a civilization in the wilderness. He also doesn’t shy away from the casual violence and casual racism, as when workers in Skagway straight up murder a Japanese laborer unloading a boat because it’s their job to do so and they didn’t like the captain trying to undercut them. Worton shows how brutal and short life could be on the frontier, and what’s unnerving about the way he tells the story is that there are no epic clashes – people just get killed almost randomly. There’s not a ton of violence in the book, but the fact that it lurks around every corner makes the book more tense.
Worton’s unusual art is a good fit for the story, too. Worton’s characters have large heads and hands, which is a bit odd, but isn’t too distracting. He does a very good job keeping the characters differentiated – the book has a large cast, so it’s always good that we can recognize everyone fairly well. It’s in the beautiful drawings of the wilderness and the misc-en-scene that Worton excels – we get a wonderful sense of these tiny towns (with grandiose names like Dawson City) clinging to the edge of a gigantic wilderness that men will never tame. At times, Worton simply draws full-page images of the wilderness, bereft of people, imposing and silent, and it makes a tremendous impression. Worton gives the reader a very good sense of what these men encountered when they went into the Yukon to make their fortune and why some of them never came out. He does this most effectively at the very end, when the confrontation between Soapy Smith and Frank Reid comes to a head. The mountains care not for the affairs of men, and the conflict, which seems so important when we’re in the middle of it, loses its heft as Worton shows us the grandeur of the wilderness.
The biggest problem readers might have with this book is that Worton almost writes it like a history book. Each chapter is prefaced by a brief text piece, explaining who the people in the chapter following are and what they’re doing. Even as he fictionalizes some of the people and events, the actual writing in the book is a bit dry, mainly because Worton is trying to show us what life was like rather than create a grand narrative of the Klondike Gold Rush. The reason I don’t have a big problem with it is because I rather like history books, and Worton does such a nice job with the art that the occasional didacticism doesn’t bother me – I didn’t know much about the Klondike, and reading this book gave me some basic knowledge about it. If you’re not interested in the gold rush, you might have a tougher time with it, because even the conflicts of the book are often cut short or diverted or avoided, much like in real life. Even the big fight between Soapy Smith and Frank Reid is weirdly anticlimactic, much like I imagine it actually happened. So while I don’t mind that Worton occasionally slips into dry prose, I can see why others wouldn’t like it as much.
I will say that if you’re interested in the Klondike Gold Rush or life in the late 1890s, Worton does a very nice job showing how similar and yet different that time was from our own. His art is idiosyncratic and often gorgeous, and it makes the book more interesting than Worton’s writing, which is solid but unspectacular. Worton is an interesting young creator, however, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.
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