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

“The Moral Tarnish of the Quest for Gold” / The Winnipeg Free Press / Uptown Magazine / 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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