September 2, 2012


This review originally ran on Comics Bulletin.
Jason SacksIt goes without saying that Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived. Every American learned in school about the life of the great man who freed the slaves, wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, led the country through its worst period and was assassinated for his trouble. 

Some of us know a bit more about Lincoln than we did in Elementary School, facts that help us to appreciate the great man even more. It's well known -- though not especially well-taught - that Abraham fought a deep and debilitating depression throughout his life, a depression that Lincoln would refer to as "The Hypo." His beloved wife, Mary, suffered from even more debilitating depressions than Abraham experienced. It's an act of great personal triumph that a man who lived with so many literal demons -- depression was often thought of as a sort of demonic possession in the 19th century -- grew up to be so great. Many a high school history essay has been written on this very topic.
It takes a skilled and insightful writer to show us Abraham Lincoln in a different light, to give readers a unique view of one of the most-discussed figures in history. Noah Van Sciver takes on that challenge with his new graphic novel The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln, and he succeeds in showing me a Lincoln that I seldom have thought about before.
The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln
Danny DjeljosevicI imagine most people perceive Lincoln not as a person, but as a series of signifiers: a stovepipe hat, a beard, a giant gaping hole in the back of his head as he's surrounded by the remains of dead vampires or beaming aboard the USS Enterprise. In the 147 years since his death, Abraham Lincoln has become a cultural icon, an image we emblazon on our money or render in marble.
So yeah, a figure we put that much emphasis on could use a re-injection of humanity, and it appears that Van Sciver is just the man for the job.
Daniel Elkin: Wait... Lincoln? Is he the guy on the five dollar bill or the guy on the penny?
Danny DHe's the guy they named all those cars after.

JasonVan Sciver's book takes place between 1837 and 1842 in Spingfield, Illinois. As we meet Abraham, he is painfully young, painfully earnest and painfully strange compared with his peers. He is a scrupulously honest and solemn man in a town that doesn't value such earnestness.
Rather ironically, shortly after he moves to Springfield, Lincoln becomes fast friends with a man who is pretty much his exact opposite -- the womanizing, carefree Joshua Speed. The contrast between the two men gives the book much of its zest and fascination. Lincoln almost seems to envy the way that Speed is able to meander through life, embracing what he wants seemingly without a care in the world. Meanwhile, Speed is confused by his friend Abraham: Abe’s melancholies, his overly complex way of looking at the world and the vast and deep pain that the man seems to carry are alien to Speed’s view of the world. The contrast between the two men is even more intriguing because Lincoln and Speed look very similar to each other. Under Van Sciver's brushstroke, it's hard to escape the feeling that the two men are almost doppelgängers for each other, two sides of the same personality.
We see a deeply flawed, and even more deeply fallible Lincoln in this story -- unable to commit to marriage, plagued by deep and persistent emotional pain, cruel to some people and to himself -- and all of this adds up to a fascinating and intriguing portrait of Abraham Lincoln that paints him with very different strokes than the myth-making portrait.
Danny DExactly, and I'd argue that's exactly what we need when it comes to figures like this. As important as he is, Abe Lincoln is still a man, much like how John Lennon was kind of a dick who also wrote some really, really good songs with Paul McCartney. Those tics and foibles and, yes,flaws are essential to these people and probably even had a hand in driving them to do that which made them so iconic. To leave out the inherently human parts borders on idolatry (or worse,worship), and we can't be having that. I'll take my humans as human, thank you very much.
That the Abraham Lincoln we see in The Hypo will one day come to run the country in its one of its darkest hours is (mostly) immaterial to Van Sciver's story, I'm glad to say. Knowing who he'll become is a good hook for reading, but The Hypo could have been about a modern dude or a nobody of Lincoln's era and retain most of its potency, thanks to Van Sciver's portrayal of the protagonist. Lincoln is an intriguing character -- more than just insecure or perennially bummed out, his all-consuming lack of confidence, his belief in his shortcomings and his to-a-fault apologetic honesty is unconscious self-destruction, and ultimately tragic. It's a story perfectly suited to so-called "alt-comix," but divorced from the confessional navel-gazing that once characterized the scene. 
Daniel E: Well said, Danny. For me, The Hypo is, at its heart, a Wes Anderson film. Here we have this quirky love story between two people who are both socially awkward and who each suffer from a number of debilitating emotional problems. That Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln could find each other at all is a testament to the force of their individual wills. The scene in The Hypo during the December 1839 ball where Lincoln has to cross the crowded dance floor and maneuver through both Mr. Shields and Mr. Douglas in order to dance with Mary is the perfect encapsulation of what I am talking about.
What Van Sciver seems to be pointing out in this book is that Lincoln on his own could only go so far. It was when he finally connected fully with Mary Todd that he was able to stand up straight and look towards the future with a clarity of purpose and a strength of character. When Lincoln is without Mary is when the Hypo hits. When Mary is without Lincoln she suffers as well.
Danny DWes Anderson is a good touchstone for The Hypo, as is Nick Hornby, surprisingly enough -- Lincoln's inability to commit to a woman -- first he gets dumped by his fiancé and realizes he's in love with her, then falls for Mary Todd only to take a shine to the newest young woman in town -- is pretty reminiscent of Rob Fleming/Gordon in High Fidelity, but with the earned elitism of a law degree as opposed to the unearned elitism of "being a guy who listens to a lot of records." The two characters have different motivations -- Rob fears commitment because he doesn't want to watch a loved one die, Abe seems to fear commitment out of soul-crushing insecurity.
I don't know if that's actually Van Sciver's point, Daniel -- at least, I feel like it's not as simple as "Lincoln needed a girlfriend to help him focus" -- but it's clear that he's a new man once he commits to Mary Todd. Try to imagine the shivering, depressed Lincoln trying to take part in the duel later in the book -- why, that Lincoln would have likely drowned himself on the way to Bloody Island…!
Daniel E: Those scenes of Lincoln's suffering are tremendously poignant and emotionally powerful. Of particular note are the splash page of Lincoln wandering among the streets with the pigs while the woman empties the chamber pot from the window above, as well as the four-panel page where Lincoln sweats out his "illness." What Van Sciver is able to do with his art in this book is to capture the pain and the suffering of a soul in crisis, abandoned and adrift, unsure of its place in the world.
Compare those pages with final splash page of Lincoln after his wedding and you can see the transformation in his character now that he has found his connection to the world, now that Mary Todd is by his side. Van Sciver shows us that here is the Lincoln that can become President. Here is the Lincoln that can hold the country together during its most challenging period. 
Danny DVan Sciver is on fire with the comicking happening in The Hypo, which is the sort of historical piece that could only come as a result of a singular vision and intent, as opposed to some sweeping big-budget affair (but even Spielberg knows he can't successfully cover the man's entire life). No, Van Sciver knows to keep it focused on one hyper-specific period of Lincoln's life, with leitmotifs like the swirling, exploding Hypo effect and the roof leaking into buckets adding a degree of artiness to the affair. This may be a biographical work, but our man's not trying to make a textbook here.
Daniel EThe Hypo is an artistic triumph. Van Sciver shows an expert hand in this book. The labor of the cross-hatching, the delicacy of the floral backgrounds, the intensity of the swirling smoke -- all of these details combine to propel this human story of fallibility and transformation into something spectacular.
Danny DVan Sciver's pencil makes for deceptively complex renditions, with all his crosshatching and lines upon lines building to create complete images with weight and depth. It's an effect that, under his hand, gives a tactile effect to the objects in a given scene like suit jackets, barrels or whatever. Noah Van Sciver does more with his seemingly limited toolset than an entire assembly line of journeymen working in the mainstream.
JasonBut it's impossible to forget that this incredibly fallible man, this thoroughly human figure who's going through tremendous emotional pain, intense estrangement from society and astonishing personal turmoil, will one day be the man who would lead the United States through the worst years of its history.
Van Sciver takes Lincoln off of Mt. Rushmore and puts him on a human level. He turns an American demigod into an American everyman. And in doing so, he helps make us appreciate Lincoln's greatness even more. Lincoln is a man who had every reason to fail, but he ends up succeeding. In this book Abraham just succeeds in taking the hand of the woman he would love, and that was one small but important step in moving him towards being the man on the mountain.
So I agree with you, Danny, that to some extent that it's immaterial to Van Sciver's story at hand that Lincoln would one day be great. But on a meta-level it's precisely Lincoln’s everyman elements that serves to make The Hypo more than yet another indie book about a weird outsider. By seeing Lincoln as an empathetic human being, Van Sciver paradoxically makes our greatest President both more human and more fascinating.
Danny D: More to the point, Van Sciver never has Lincoln awkwardly try on a stovepipe hat to no avail or proclaim he'll never, ever grow a beard. I think The Hypo is going to surprise a lot of people in that respect, being a bit like a comic book Motorycycle Diaries sans the acoustic guitars -- we know what's in store for the characters in their future, but we're so enthralled with the immediate present that their destinies -- good or bad, violent or peaceful -- don't factor in.
Daniel E: I think we all agree that The Hypo is Van Sciver's best work to date for all the reasons we have mentioned above. In a way, the book is almost a natural progression from the last book of his I read, 1999The Hypo takes some of the same themes: making connections, finding one's purpose, and building community -- and takes them one step further. Like we have been saying, this is entirely a human story -- it just so happens to be about Lincoln.
I think the focus of the book reflects Van Sciver's sensibilities acutely. I want to say that it takes a true hipster to devote so much of his life telling the tale of the Emo-Lincoln, but that completely undermines both Van Sciver's talent and the book he has created. What he has done, I think, is tell a distinctly American tale -- the flawed and (at times) dangerously introspective hero overcoming doubt and awkwardness to stride forth and stomp on the terra, to lead a nation, to set the mythology of the American character and codify the American Dream.

Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him or friend him on Facebook.

Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential FuckeryHis webcomic The Ghost Engine,with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.

No comments:

Post a Comment