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Zach Worton heads to the final frontier in "The Klondike"

Updated June 14, 2012

‘The Klondike’ captures characters from the Gold Rush era

The Fairbanks News-Miner
by David A. James / Book Review
Mar 11, 2012
FAIRBANKS - Few topics are as ripe for the graphic novel treatment as the Klondike Gold Rush. That brief but truly epic period was fraught with high drama, foolhardy adventuring, colorful characters, instant wealth and sudden death, as well as a self-made mythology that emerged in real time thanks to the writers and reporters who covered it as it happened.

For graphic novelists who have spent decades exhausting the possibilities of the Old West, the Yukon is something of a final frontier that only a few have thus far visited, and fewer still for the purpose of exploring its history rather than using it as a setting for fiction.

Canadian artist and writer Zach Worton has jumped in to fill this void with his episodic, somewhat inconclusive, but nonetheless enjoyable debut book, “The Klondike.” It’s an attempt at telling the historic story of the Gold Rush from its beginnings, with an emphasis on a few of the key figures who made their names — if not always their fortunes — in the gold fields of the far North.

Worton begins with George Holt, the first white man to cross the Chilkoot, opening up the possibilities of exploration of a region that the local Natives had fiercely guarded. This led to a growing number of intruders who quickly found the shiny metal they were looking for and sparked a stampede that forever changed the northern landscape.

From the first pages, it’s clear that Worton is a gifted artist with a deceptively simple style. Working in black and white, he deftly alternates between scenes dependent on heavy line work and others that are nearly blank. This approach nicely conveys the way in which northern landscapes can be filled with mountains and trees and yet simultaneously appear desolate. It’s an atmosphere that differs from more lushly forested lands to the south that would require a broader brush, but that needs a greater emphasis on details than would be required for stories set in the desert or prairie. Worton pulls off this feat well, and readers familiar with the North will feel at home while absorbing his work.

This same ability to find the middle ground between too much detail and too little is found in Worton’s renderings of people. Rather than painstakingly attempting to make characters look as they did in real life, Worton focuses on a few key aspects of their appearance that convey their personality. No two of his characters look the same, yet despite the spare way they are drawn, they never seem cartoonish either.

Hence we get the sometimes shady businessman Big Alex McDonald with droopy eyes and a walrus mustache hiding a mind that was clearly always at work. Capt. William Moore, an old sourdough and the founder of Skagway, is depicted with a fur cap, a bushy beard, the perpetually hunched shoulders of a man who has lived his life on the land and the scowling expression of someone with no use for all the newcomers who have invaded his domain. Samuel Benfield Steele, the strict law and order Mountie who arrived in 1898, has a huge chin and wears his hat perfectly straight and his shirt buttons fastened all the way to his neck.

All of these drawings are fun to look at, but perhaps the best are those of two of the most well known players in the drama. Belinda Mulrooney, the no nonsense businesswoman with a steel spine who became known as the Queen of the Yukon, looks and behaves something like a cross between Sarah Palin and Muammar Gaddafi. Meanwhile, Soapy Smith, the most infamous man of the era, is appropriately dark and swarthy with his black suit, black hat, black beard and an ever-present, subtly nasty, tight-lipped smile. The adventures of these two form two of the major story arcs of the book.

The tales contained here aren’t quite as satisfying as the artwork, but much of this is due to the limitations of the form. In addition to Smith and Mulrooney, the main story lines Worton explores are the efforts by Charles Constantine and others to enforce law and order on the unruly gold-seekers, and the shifting fortunes of George Carmack and Skookum Jim Mason, the discoverers of Yukon gold.

We also learn of the desperation and occasional violence experienced along the Deadhorse Trail, watch a miner discover the dangers of being out in the country alone and far from help when needed, see how fortunes can turn on a moment of drunken foolishness, and witness the horrific 1898 Palm Sunday avalanche along the Chilkoot Trail. None of the accounts are extensively detailed, but for readers unfamiliar with northern history they do provide a nice introduction. Worton offers a lengthy bibliography for those looking to go deeper.

The biggest drawback of this book is the rough language that will keep it out of school libraries. This is a shame, because otherwise the material is appropriate for junior high ages and beyond. Graphic novels like this are a great way to get kids interested in history, and Worton has sacrificed a good opportunity here. He might consider publishing a cleaner version for younger audiences.

The book effectively ends with the 1898 killing of Soapy Smith, so Worton doesn’t cover the peak days of Dawson or the playing out of the Gold Rush, leaving open the possibility of a sequel. It would be nice to see this happen. Worten is a highly skilled artist and decent storyteller who has brought new life to an oft-told tale. “The Klondike” could be the beginning of a productive career for him.

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Zach Worton

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The Klondike

  Zach Worton's KLONDIKE on the Juneau Empire

Updated January 3, 2012

Amy Fletcher
December 15, 2011

“The Klondike” by Zach Worton (graphic novel). Cartoonist Worton tells the historic story of the Klondike through a graphic novel, depicting such characters as George Carmack and Robert Henderson, con artist Soapy Smith, Belinda Mulrooney and “Skookum Jim” Mason against the backdrop of the Canadian wilderness.

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Zach Worton

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The Klondike

Zach Worton of THE KLONDIKE talks Tintin on the National Post

Updated January 2, 2012

December 29, 2011

Alison Broverman is an arts writer and playwright.
Mark Askwith is the producer of special projects for Space Channel, and a lifelong Tintin lover.
Zach Worton is a Toronto-based comic book artist who recently contributed a piece to Toronto Draws Tintin. His graphic novel The Klondike was published by Drawn and Quarterly last spring.

This week’s film: The Adventures of Tintin

Alison With only vague memories of Tintin from my French immersion elementary school, I am not the target audience for this movie (plus, that motion-capture animation gives me the heebie-jeebies). But I was delighted right from the stylized opening credits. The opening nod to the original comics was adorable, and even the animation wasn’t as creepy as I expected — they found the right balance between “uncanny valley” and appropriately cartoonish. Even better, the zippy plot made me want to go and read a few Tintin comics.

Zach I’m a pretty big fan of Tintin and did not have high hopes. I was a little creeped out the whole time by the way the characters looked. Tintin stood out the most because he looked the most human. Aside from the creepy, exaggerated/realistic features of the people in that world, there were some incredible scenes, like the entire Crab With The Golden Claws desert scene transitioning between the Red Rackham story and Haddock reliving it.

Mark I became a Tintin fan at the tender age of four, and I have never escaped from the influence of this series of graphic novels. I wanted to be a boy reporter, and I fell in love with the comic book medium. I loved that the movie combined three Tintin stories, and actually found a plot that would sustain a movie. I also thought the performance-capture [technology] worked, and was not trapped in the uncanny valley, but there were times when the faces were too human. Thompson and Thompson worked wonderfully, as they are more of a caricature than a likeness. The story was so briskly paced, and the camera angles so faithful that I wasn’t focused on the limitations of the performance capture. I was swept along with the story, and thrilled by the sheer epic nature of the adventure.

Alison The entire desert sequence was gorgeous, which isn’t a word I expected to use to describe this film. But I agree, Zach, that Tintin himself was a bit too real — perhaps if they’d made him slightly pointier he would have better fit in this world of rectangular bulbous noses? I also took issue with Snowy, who is way more adorable as a flat 2D cartoon. Motion-capture Snowy isn’t soft enough and his beady little eyes were unsettling.

Mark The desert scene, particularly the transformation of the dunes into a raging sea, was remarkable, and I cannot imagine that working with any other kind of film technique. In the comics, Tintin is a marvel of simplicity, and the reader can read into the character because he drawn in such a spare manner. In this movie he becomes more of a character, and less of an Everyman. One aspect of the movie I found jarring was the John Williams score, which echoed the Indiana Jones films too much for me.

Alison Mark, funny you should mention Indy — a recent tweet I read called Tintin “the third-best Indiana Jones movie.” The score did take itself far too seriously — much better was the light, winking music used in the opening sequence. Sneaky, rather than triumphant — in truth, I wanted that opening to be the whole movie.

Mark In interviews, Spielberg has mentioned that a French critic compared Tintin to Indiana Jones, and it prompted the director to read the books. Tintin is very similar to Indy: I love the archeological quests that Tintin embarks on, and I love how the stories are laden with puzzles and clues. I have to disagree slightly with the tweet — I think this is the second-best Indiana Jones film!

Zach Partway through the film I found myself wanting to smack Tintin — he was so much more of a moralist, which I never got from the comics. Spielberg seems to have that effect on everything, though. I also didn’t feel the epic scale of things as much as I wanted to. They went a little too far in making it 3D, and somehow made everything seem confined. Also: not enough Thompson and Thomson!

Mark Tintin did not seem preachy or moralistic to me. He is very earnest, and forthright. A clean-cut boy scout. That works in the books, and I think it works in the movie because it is a period piece.

Unpopped Kernels: The panel discusses which Tintin books it would like to see in the plot if the hinted at sequel gets made.

Mark I think Tintin in Tibet is the most powerful and heartfelt story.

Zach The two books that make up the Seven Crystal Balls story, or the Blue Lotus, my favourite.

Alison The movie’s opening sequence (which I apparently cannot shut up about) seemed to contain tributes and nods to other Tintin adventures, but I’m not familiar enough to recognize them — am I right, though? Would reading a few Tintin books give me a greater insight into this film … or at least the opening credits?

Mark The opening of the movie was a real treat for me because it reminded me of Tintin’s various adventures, and it echoed the “gallery” endpapers of the graphic novels. I think you are right, Alison — reading the graphic novels would add to your enjoyment of the movie.
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  CBC interviews Zach Worton about KLONDIKE

Updated August 1, 2011

A lot of books have been written about the Klondike Gold Rush, but there haven't been many comics.

Zach Worton has brought that to an end, in a big way, with a 300-page graphic novel that tells some of the more famous stories of the gold rush.

Click on the link below to hear Zach speak with Dave.
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Zach Worton

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The Klondike

KLONDIKE "is a powerful, valuable work of comic art" says Uptown

Updated July 11, 2011

It's quite the task Saskatchewan-born, Montreal-based cartoonist Zach Worton seems to have set himself with his first graphic novel.

The Klondike attempts nothing less than to approximate the very essence of the legendary Yukon gold rush. It's a comprehensive portrait of time and place Worton seeks - a staking out of the very moral landscape.

To that end, the artist has embraced a more episodic structure that, from a narrative standpoint, is less dramatically satisfying. Thematically, however, Worton forcefully shows how a straight line can be plotted from the Klondike to the now.

Violence lives at the heart of Worton's account - sudden, mean, ugly violence. There's one incident in which a belligerent prospector first shoots another, then the arriving RCMP officer's mount. He's livid with defiance, even after being forcibly subdued.

Later, a man pistol-whips another to a bloody pulp after his victim gives him too much guff. Then he stands and grins, seemingly pleased.

This is the dark underside of the rugged individualist mythos that defines the American (and, to a considerable extent, the Canadian) self-image. "A lot of them have no respect for the law, or others in general," says one Mountie of the prospectors.

Drawn to the Yukon were not only those with gold fever, but men attempting to carve from the world that which they saw as coming to them. And no one was going to thwart them - or tell them what to do. The Americans, in particular, hadn't thrown off a monarchy for nothing.

Yet how easily the line between independence and ruthless self-interest was blurred (it was over slave owning, after all, that the Civil War was fought). The key character in developing that theme is con man Soapy Smith, whose sociopathic logic is that his victims deserve what they get for falling prey to him.

Fast-forward to now, when representatives of America's financial institutions testified before congress that no one had to actually listen to their investment advice. Also note how Soapy ingratiates himself to the community as slickly as our own coolly lying prime minister, privately chortling over getting away with it.

This is splendid material and Worton's elegant art does it tremendous justice, despite a sometimes overly busy style early on. His use of classic cartoon strip devices - such as lightning bolts and skulls to represent profanity - provide effective contrast with his sometimes grim subject matter, taking some of the barb off the violence while simultaneously underlining it.

Worton also makes arresting choices when it comes to filling his frames - such as when one man is slapped across the face by pioneerwoman Belinda Mulrooney and the shock of the moment is emphasized by its isolated freeze in time. Then there's Worton's ingenious, abrupt use of a pure white panel in an avalanche sequence.

Reading The Klondike, you realize why we read history at all: to grasp the present. And Worton's debut tome is simply bracing in its resonance. This is a powerful, valuable work of comic art.

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Zach Worton

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The Klondike


Updated June 27, 2011

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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Zach Worton

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The Klondike

National Post says KLONDIKE is the next LOUIS RIEL!

Updated May 26, 2011

At the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, in 1898, approximately 40,000 men, women, and children had made their way to Dawson City, seeking their fortunes. By the following year, the population had dropped to 8,000. Worton, in this ambitious debut graphic novel, revisits this tumultuous period of Canadian history; his colourful cast includes canny prospectors, Native Americans, sneaky criminals and those in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police whose job it was to ensure law and order were maintained. He even includes tips on how to pan for gold, just in case you hope to strike it rich yourself. Woton may do for the Klondike what Chester Brown did for Louis Riel.
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Zach Worton

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The Klondike

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