A nice historical treat for you today – I’m delighted to welcome the excellent Noah Van Sciver as our latest guest Commentary blogger. Noah has been working heavily on a new book due this autumn from the good folks at Fantagraphics, entitled The Hypo: the Melancholic Young Lincoln. I must admit Lincoln is a historical figure I’ve always found fascinating – away from the saintly mythos projected over a fallen wartime president there’s a much more compelling real history and character there, a man who shared flaws like any of us and had to deal with them and still achive what he achieved, which, to my mind, makes him a far more intersting and much more relatable character, more human, than the simplistic mythos that attaches to him would suggest. I will confess though that I knew only brief details of his early life though, and as Noah points out, it isn’t an area as well served by historians as his period of office and the Civil War era are. And this early, formative period for a young Lincoln, struggling his way out of small town poverty to establish himself while also dealing with depression, is fascinating and an important part of what made him the later man that history so reveres. This has drawn Noah to this period of young Lincoln’s life and I’m looking forward to reading the finished work; I’ll hand you over to Noah to tell us a bit about the work:
The idea to draw The Hypo came in early 2009. I had just drawn a story called “The True Tale Of The Denver Spider Man” and it had been accepted by Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics for his anthology MOME (it appeared in issue #15). It was about a man in Denver, Colorado who, in 1941, had broken into another man’s home, killed him, and then began secretly living in the home’s tiny attic without the notice of the dead man’s wife. The research for this comic was very satisfying, and led me to look for another obscure historic story to illustrate.
After digging around, I found a story of a near duel, in 1842, between Abraham Lincoln and an Illinois state auditor named James Shields. I had never heard of this before and was fascinated. I decide to draw the incident and publish it in my comic book series “Blammo.” I remember that I was going to call the story “Broadswords” after the weapon of choice for the duel. I went to a bookstore and bought a copy of Carl Sandburg’s “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years” to familiarize myself with Lincoln a bit more before attempting to draw him.
Chapter 4, of Sandburg’s book consists of Lincoln’s early days in Springfield, Illinois. A time when young Lincoln was practicing law and trying to establish himself in Springfield’s society. Though this book rushes through this period of Lincoln’s life, it mentions that Lincoln was a “Haunted man.” He was melancholy. At the end of this chapter, Lincoln is quoted from an 1841 letter to John T. Stuart, at a time when he seemed to be going through a manic episode. In the letter he wrote:
“Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forbade I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
This really struck me hard. It was so dramatic and I wrote it down in my notebook.
(young Lincoln, pic borrowed from the Abraham Lincolns site)
After finishing the book I realized that what I was really interested in wasn’t his rise to presidency, or the Civil War or even his assassination. I was interested in finding out more about his struggles with the restraints of poverty and how he dealt internally with his deep gloom. His apparent emotional troubles made him more three dimensional to me, and more relatable. I made a choice to expand “Broadswords” into a bigger story that would focus on, and make a story out of his time in the burgeoning new Illinois capitol, when not many knew the name Abraham Lincoln. And I would name the book after Abraham Lincoln’s term for his depression: “The Hypo” (short for hypochondriasis).
(all art here by and (c) Noah Van Sciver, click the pics for the larger images)
Now the hard part was to find out as much information about this particular period in his life as I could. Most books I would find on the bookstore shelves flew through Lincoln’s bachelor years on their way to the Civil War. I gathered as much as I could from the first few chapters of as many books as I could find, but most told the same anecdotes over and over again offering me only slightly different wording. The book that fixed that problem for me was “Lincoln’s Melancholy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. It’s a real treasure. An in-depth look at where Lincoln’s depression may have come from. It was an irreplaceable and inexhaustible information bank for me during my time working on “The Hypo.”
Drawing “The Hypo” was an all-consuming process that required me to become a shut-in and a loner. I was drawing pages all the time! I would ditch work and go to a coffee shop to draw until it was dark out. I would draw in bed while my girlfriend watched a movie. I would draw on the couch all alone. Most days I would only leave my apartment to get a coffee from the 7-11 across the street. But I am extremely proud of this book. I believe it is the most original book based on the true life of Abraham Lincoln that there has ever been. I created the exact book that I wanted to read. A story about the struggle to make something of yourself, to become something great, even when it seems the world and even your own mind is conspiring against you.