The Klondike – a sprawling, epic that distracts when it should have fascinated
By Zach Worton
Drawn & Quarterly
It’s the 1890s, and we’re in the Yukon, at the time of the biggest gold rush in American history, where everyone, no matter who they were, no matter where they came from or how impossible it may have seemed, all felt the lure of gold.
Worton’s 300 plus page graphic novel is full of craft, lovely artwork, impeccably researched, full of details of the people and events of this pivotal time in North American history and in places, genuinely absorbing but….. but…. but…. at the same time, it’s a frustrating, overly long and a book that struggled to keep my attention.
As a historical text, on the colonisation of one of North America’s remotest territories it’s beautifully done. As a historical snapshot of the moment, of the lives and conditions of men and women caught up in gold fever it’s fascinating. But there’s just something essential missing here, something that would have turned a difficult, interest sapping read into something so much better.
The first impression of The Klondike is one of the sheer attractiveness of debutante Worton’s big nosed, wide eyed cartoony style. Herge’s Thompson Twins sprange to mind after just a couple of pages… and that’s rarely a bad thing.
The cartoony stylings of his characters contrasts nicely with the more realistic detailing he puts into his backgrounds; forest passes, gold prospecting towns, steamships, bars and other buildings (but a lot of bars – what else could you do back then in the Klondike?) – all are drawn with a detailed, less cartoony line. All in all, it’s a visual treat.
But once the buzz of seeing the artwork fresh subsides, you find yourself looking at each page trying to remember who all these very, very similar looking mustachio’d types are. And page after page of seeing the same old familiar faces, indistinguishable at times, just feels too wearing. As a narrative it’s hard work. Worton seems to have acknowledged some of the identification issues, with a character guide at the back of the book – but really, it’s just an extra thing to pull you out of the work, having to continually flick back and forth between story and character sheet.
Worton describes The Klondike as something like 80% real and 20% made up. And that feels pretty much right – it’s definitely more historical artefact than fictionalised story.
Worton tells his tale by concentrating on the many characters of the time, the pioneers, the prospectors, the mavericks, all caught up in the gold fever, and he starts with seemingly disconnected vignettes, each one introduced by a text piece that summarises the ten or so pages following.
Each looks at iconic and important figures of the Yukon legend and all of these character portraits build up a picture of the men and women of the Klondike, but more than anything it emphasises the harsh world of the Klondike itself, and brings it to the fore as one of the key players in this tale. This isn’t just about pioneers and explorers, this is about the very land they are attempting to bring under their collective control. But slowly, too slowly it seemed to me, he brings together the individual tales, with these characters becoming part of the larger developing tale of the place and it’s people.
In the final third, the focus shifts and we’re into something feeling more like a straight story of good vs evil, of law and order against the criminality of these harsh lands. Jefferson “Soapy” Smith is the clear villain of the piece, establishing a criminal empire based in the lawless town of Skagway, Alaska. And Frank Reid, the town’s surveyor is the man seeking to bring order and civilisation to the town.
In the end, as I said at the beginning of this review, something important was missing in The Klondike. In some ways it feels too worthy, with Worton wanting to tell a lavish, all-encompassing historical recounting but also wanted to turn it into a proper story at some point. And it’s just too much. 300 pages, and he never really manages to decide what he wants to do with it, so in the end, he does both, but it doesn’t join up well enough, and at too many points throughout, the over-riding feeling was an unsettling sense of distraction.
It’s certainly not a bad book, but I was left unsatisfied and ended it feeling it could have, should have been so much better.