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Monday, September 19, 2022

A Comic (But Not Comical) Take on Mormon History

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

As an intellectually-inclined, book-obsessed, life-long member of the Mormon Church, I have read many histories of my religion. I’ve read so many, in fact, that unfortunately I sometimes forget that such histories aren’t necessarily being written for knowledgeable believers like myself, and I end up criticizing them for getting some small detail wrong or for skipping over some academic controversy, forgetting that the purpose of good histories is to tell a story, one that draws you in. And when it comes to telling a story about a religious movement, presenting something compelling is essential, because if the story-teller can’t convey the circumstances or the feeling that drew people into the faith in the first place, the history can’t succeed at all.

All of that is to say that I wish I had been able to get over my intellectual pre-occupations and more fully enjoy the amazing accomplishment of Noah Van Sciver’s JosephSmith and the Mormons–a wonderfully researched and captivatingly (and sometimes quite beautifully) drawn graphic novel when I first read it. Across more than 400 pages, Sciver presents an unconventional telling of the 19th-century, frontier American beginnings of the faith he was raised in, departed long ago, but has maintained a curiosity about and a confused sympathy for ever since. The tale it tells is mostly straightforward; it emphasizes some characters who rarely get much attention in typical Mormon histories, mostly bypasses some of the most intriguing beats in the story of Mormonism, and some might even argue that it is overly apologetic in its treatment of Joseph Smith. But as a literary whole, it needs to be acknowledged as a history as solid as many more scholarly ones, something I didn’t appreciate at first.

But given that most readers won’t be engaging this book in scholarly terms, let’s focus on its artwork and its comic method. As a work of visual story-telling, the novel–which Sciver worked on for years–is stunning in its craft, even if you’re not a fan of the purposefully rough, earthy, stylized naturalism of his drawings. Most impressively, Sciver chose to never insert himself in the panels as an omniscient narrator. Instead, whether he was introducing the historical actors of his story (beginning with Smith himself, whom he depicts as a hard-working, religiously sensitive young man with a weirdly magnetic personality, busy contributing to his family through difficult labor and occasional treasure hunting) or providing transitions as the locations change (the books follows the community formed around Smith’s revelations, particularly the Book of Mormon, as it moved–sometimes due to persecution, sometimes due to self-induced financial calamities–from New York to Ohio to Missouri to, ultimately, Nauvoo), every panel is either a stand-alone visual or includes dialogue between characters, most of which are well attested within existing historical records. (In a concluding section, Sciver lists the works of history and biography that most guided his research into the conversations and conflicts that he builds his story around.) Thus, as an artistic and historical story-telling project alone, especially in capturing the crude sectarian violence and near-Pentecostal religious passion which characterized the early years of Smith’s religion-building, as well as the sense of holiness and deliverance it promised, Sciver’s work deserves great praise.

Consider these examples, taken from Sciver’s own website. First, a depiction of the moment, soon after the founding of the church, when Smith was tarred and feathered, in the attempt to get him to abandon his visions and get out of town:


Next, a series of panels dramatizing Smith’s preaching, as he uses the story later related in the Book of Moses to provide an inspiring history of, and prophesied future for, the world:


Finally, Sciver’s haunting artistic recreation of the notorious reading of Smith’s revelation on plural marriage to Emma Smith (whom Sciver depicts as a long-suffering, tragic believer in her husband’s promises and revelations):

Those looking for panels exposing Joseph Smith as con-artist will be disappointed, as will those looking to see him discoursing faithfully with angels. Sciver’s style is to bring to life that which his contemporaries, both believers and enemies, said about Smith and his words, and his choices are intriguing. The inner life he is able to visually grant to Emma is touching, and his treatment of Bennett led me to feel like I could partly understand his motivations, and that's no small accomplishment.

In sum, there are many fine scholarly histories of Mormonism out there, but not nearly as many books which effectively tell the story of the beginning of Mormonism in a way which respects the appeal which enabled it to emerge from those early years and become the major religious institution it is today, an institution that, for all its many flaws, is still adhered to by people like me. Sciver’s comic shows a compassionate curiosity about those people, and for that he has my thanks.

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