The Klondike, a graphic novel by Zach Worton (Drawn and Quarterly), came into my possession in an unusual way: a friend and I were in our local bookstore looking at the northern books display, which included The Klondike, and discussing the reviews we’d each read of TK, when we decided to share the purchase of the book 50-50. He’d get the first shift and take it on his two-week canoe trip, and I’d get the book when he was done. He likes graphic novels; I’d never cracked the cover of one. Two weeks became six, then eight, during which the book travelled in a canoe on the waters of a river deep in the Yukon, then back to Whitehorse; it hung out at my friend’s house for a while, then relocated to the office of another friend, where it lay forgotten before finally reaching me.“What did you think?” I asked. He never finished it. “That bad?” No, he just put it down and didn’t get back to it. This did not bode well for TK.
Of my vast collection of books perhaps half are books I’ve started, lost interest in, put down and never picked up again. I settled in to begin reading. Within the first ten pages I found myself wondering if all graphic novel dialogue was so corny. I wrote an email to another friend who is a graphic novel aficionado, asking if it’s the genre: was I missing the point? To which he replied “No,” and “Don’t abandon the genre!” When a man who makes his living writing for a high-profile men’s magazine tells you not to abandon a reading project, emphasized with an exclamation mark, you continue reading. I laboured on. I speed-read the rest of TK, almost skimming over the crowded black-and-white images. The characters are drawn so similarly, and there are so many of them, that it became difficult to differentiate them and to keep track of whose story ended where and when another character’s story began.
What struck me most about the characters was how angry they were. Each was short-tempered and pissed off or about to be pissed off. The emotional arc of the story starts at a high pitch and never really lets up: there is very little tenderness or relief from violence, hate and/or anger. Worton set himself a gargantuan task in trying to tell the story of the Klondike Gold Rush in such a compressed form: the characters must constantly explain their actions and motivations in small bubbles of text. All this said, at about the halfway mark in the novel, the dialogue began to shift away from the expository and into the story of a meaty and complex character, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, gang leader and terror of Skagway and the Chilkoot Trail. Reading The Klondike hasn’t turned me off graphic novels, but it has me wondering what else is out there.