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

“‘The Klondike’ captures characters from the Gold Rush era” / The Fairbanks News-Miner / David A. James / March 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.

Share on Facebook
Share on Tumblr
Share via Email