I settled in to read this quick graphic novel on a warm autumn evening. Sitting in my Muskoka chair in the backyard, sun streaming down on me, I soon felt the cold and frost of Jack London’s classic tale brought to visceral life by the pen of Christophe Chaboute. You’d be tempted to think this is a black and white comic right until the first fire is lit, which is when we finally see flashes of red, orange and yellow, but a closer look will reveal that Chaboute uses muted and faded colours all throughout the narrative. I kept looking up from the book to see my garden and the colours of the summer, and then down at the nearly white page, to remember that I wasn’t actually there with the narrator.
To Build A Fire is a visual retelling of the Jack London short story, following a Yukon prospector as he takes the long way home with his trusty dog in -60 weather. The unnamed narrator begins cocksure and arrogant against the cold, insisting that the man he met at a trading post was foolish to believe that you need a buddy if you go out into the wilderness after -40. He thinks he’s fine on his own, he is, after all, a man’s man. The harsh elements of the Yukon have something else in store for him though.
I’m really starting to enjoy the work of Chaboute and I hope he becomes better known in North America, because he really takes his time to tell the story. He carefully and deliberately sets the scene, with long panoramas and little cut aways to details, like snow on a tree or a bird in the air. He’s a confident, careful and precise artist, and you could probably understand the entire motivation of the main character without the narrative bubbles of Jack London’s prose. A thoroughly enjoyable read.