The Abraham Lincoln at the center of Noah Van Sciver’s graphic novel, “The Hypo,” isn’t exactly the Lincoln canonized in legend and pop-culture — and not just because this Lincoln visits a brothel and swings a sword in a duel to the death. Van Sciver, also known for his one-man indie anthology “Blammo” and slice-of-life journal strips, shines a light on a dark territory of Lincoln’s past, telling a story that’s historically accurate as well as personal.
The Lincoln introduced in “The Hypo” is a debt-ridden, depressed, 28-year old lawyer on the verge of breaking up with his fiance. From there, young Lincoln settles into Springfield, befriends ladies’ man Joshua Speed, courts Mary Todd — and splits up with her — and eventually suffers a horrible mental breakdown, dubbed “The Hypo.”
Van Sciver spoke with CBR News about the research and process behind a new story featuring one of American history’s most popular subjects.
CBR News: Noah, between your journal comics, your strips for the Denver alt-paper, and “Blammo,” a historical comic about Abraham Lincoln doesn’t seem like an obvious topic for you to take on. What compelled you to take on Lincoln’s “forgotten years?”
Noah Van Sciver: I just do what interests me. A few years ago, I started illustrating a true story called “The Denver Spiderman.” It’s about a guy who had killed an old man and quietly lived in the crawl space of his house for months without the old man’s wife’s knowledge in the 1940s. It was really fun for me to do the research for that comic and I wanted to do something else like it.
Then a few months later, I read about a duel that Abraham Lincoln was challenged to in 1842 by the Illinois state auditor, James Shields. I thought that that could make a good comic as well and when I started reading up on Lincoln I became fascinated by his personal troubles around that part of his life. I’m just very interested in American history and I felt like this particular period in Lincoln’s life hadn’t been explored to my satisfaction by anybody. I wanted to make the kind of book that I would buy.
How much research did you do exactly before you felt comfortable to tell this story and did you ever feel bogged down by it?
Oh God, yes. The research was ridiculously stressful for me. I think I did enough to tell the story, but of course, you can never do enough research, can you? A lot of the originals have new panels pasted over old ones because I drew something that didn’t exist in the background by accident. It was awful.
One example was doorknobs. In the beginning I was drawing doorknobs on doors and then at a certain point in reading up about the 19th century, I learned that the doorknobs I had been drawing didn’t exist at that point. Little things like that killed me. You don’t realize that you don’t just have to soak up a bunch of facts about Lincoln but also about the minutia of everyday life in that time period. I had to keep reminding myself that I’m a cartoonist and not a historian, and that would make me relax enough to not give up on the whole book.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Lincoln?
Probably the horrible things he went through after he had his mental breakdown — the bloodletting and mercury treatments to take his mind off of his mental anguish by causing physical anguish. Doctors are scary now, but they were really something to be afraid of then.
“The Hypo” follows Lincoln during a rough personal period, including his depression, but there’s also some humor — like in the scene Lincoln goes to get “serviced” at a whorehouse — was it a conscious effort to try and get some humor into the book?
I did think about it. Those funny scenes have to be included, otherwise the book would just be mental pain and agony the whole way through. It’s best to have a balance if you can. To include anecdotes that are funny and will give the reader a sigh of relief. For a few pages anyway. Then it’s bleak again.
Why do you think there aren’t more great comic book historical biographies? Chester Brown’s “Louis Riel” is sort of the shining example, but did you think about the genre as a whole while you were working on “The Hypo”?
I’m not sure why there aren’t more. I didn’t really look at a lot of historic graphic novels while I was working on “The Hypo.” To be honest, I’m not interested in very many of them, besides “Louis Riel,” which is exceptional. I didn’t create the book to be a part of that genre. I think to work on a graphic novel is a huge task and you should have a strong reason to take that on. My reason for spending so much time working on “The Hypo” was an honest to god interest in the subject of depression and the struggles Lincoln was going through at that time. Probably nobody else would have done this book.
How long did the book take — from research, to writing, to drawing it?
I started research in early 2009 and as I was doing research I was making thumbnails of scenes in a notebook. Those thumbnails became the book’s script and after a few false starts I began drawing the actual pages in 2010 sometime. The book was a little different in the beginning though. I had originally wanted to feature different famous duels throughout the book, and I drew a whole chapter on the death of Elijah Lovejoy. I wound up cutting all of that stuff and just publishing them as mini-comics to give the book more of a singular focus.
A recurring image in the book is hand-drawn intense black scribbles with bursts of white shining through — the “anxiety induced sparks” Lincoln would see when closed his eyes. Those look like they took a lot of work. What took longer; a full page of that, or a detailed shot of Springfield?
Oh god, they were awful to do. I would just put a movie on and scribble away at those. The Springfield pages didn’t seem like a lot of work because they were fun to do. A couple of those all black pages I had my girlfriend do.
Among the “Thank Yous” at the end of the book, you mention your brother Ethan. There doesn’t seem to be much, if any, overlap between your comic pursuits. Do you mind talking about how you guys influenced each other, comics-wise, growing up?
We don’t have very much in common. I thank him because he didn’t beat me or scrutinize me as much as some of my other siblings when I was young. As far as influencing goes, I couldn’t tell you that we have had any influence at all on each other. We’re just two different people and two different artists. He’s 10 years older than me. Our father was a comic book reader and our mother is an artist, so all of my brothers were drawing comics growing up. We had comics all over the house. Ethan and I get along great when we see one another. He’s my brother and I love him.
“The Hypo” is out in September from Fantagraphics.