When we first meet the eponymous prophet at the beginning of Joseph Smith and the Mormons (Abrams ComicsArts) by Noah Van Sciver, the young Joseph is not yet the figure revered (or scorned) by millions of people around the world. His revelations are not yet canonized, his history not yet sordid, his legacy not yet enshrined. Rather, what we see are the beginnings of vibrant, passionate faith from a time where the reverberations of the Revolution are not yet a half century old. In this critical epoch of history, religious flames burned brightly, new technologies brought Americans into a more modern era, and armed national discontent over race was only mere decades into the future.
How does one tell the tale of a prophet whose visage is the stuff of reverence for so many, whose deeds are analyzed and endlessly scrutinized, and whose words continue to dictate the spiritual and moral well-being of entire religious bodies? And on top of that, how can one render this life in a manner that provides room for subjectivity for Divine events that may not–and who’s to say, may have–have occurred. It is thus that Joseph Smith and the Mormons is, on its face, a biography of a man who is, in many ways, inscrutable.
And it’s in displaying this liminal space–where divine truth and earthly doubt intermingle–where Van Sciver’s storytelling truly shines.
Those with even a passing knowledge of this history will recognize the beats: Joseph, from a family of treasure hunters, claims that he received a vision to start his own church. Through his cunning and charisma, and a holy text called the Book of Mormon, he attracted followers and enemies alike. He got married, received revelations, moved westward, secretly married multiple times over, founded cities, sent forth missionaries, and was finally murdered by a vengeful, hateful mob. Yet, though this tale has been told, there’s a stark intimacy that Van Sciver conveys in these pages. This Joseph, and these pioneers, are not caricatures or simpletons, but complex people struggling to find meaning in a land filled with new possibilities.
Of course, just because we are dealing with religious lore doesn’t mean that it must be sacrosanct. Van Sciver, steeped in this history, chooses to break from approved narrative and show how things may have been. And by charting this path, the narrative contains within it a delightfully ambiguous edge that is much more interesting to read. Indeed, “Brother Joseph,” as is the parlance, is many things, but boring is not one of them.
As outsiders looking in, there’s a certain distance between subject and reader as well as author and subject. Van Sciver does his best, and succeeds, at showing the qualities that made Joseph Smith a totem for America’s religious vibrancy. At the same time, Joseph’s carnal foibles and overzealousness is not ignored.As someone who is not Mormon myself, but who studied Latter-Day Saints in an academic setting (with someone who literally wrote the book on Joseph Smith), reading Van Sciver’s book was both a welcome refresher to this history as well as a gateway towards asking deeper questions about this religious movement. A decade ago, America had a “Mormon Moment,” a confluence of pop culture interest in Latter-Day Saints and their place within society. In that time, Mitt Romney’s run for president, the “Book of Mormon” Broadway musical swept the Tony’s, and reality shows about “sister wives” provided lurid explorations of Joseph Smith’s most infamous revelation. This year too, there is yet another renaissance of interest in Mormon content, from prestige miniseries to Netflix documentaries and network TV human interest stories.
The context of Van Sciver’s book, which just so happens to have fortuitously been published during this mini-reawakening, shies away from the sensational and reaches for the humane. The figures he depicts are imperfect, barbarous, perhaps deluded, but, perhaps also, sincere. The spiritual questions of the author are matched by the yearning of the same people he depicts. And by the novel’s close, after the hauntingly depicted American crucifixion of Joseph and some of his close associates, readers too will feel that palpable urge to look inside themselves and wonder if Joseph believed what he said, or if it was all for naught.
Either way, this moving piece of graphic literature won’t be long forgotten.
Certainly, this is the book that Van Sciver has spent his entire career building towards. Throughout his work, the dual themes of identity as a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka the “Mormon” Church, or just LDS) and unresolved personal history weave around each other like forlorn lovers. Without one, readers cannot understand the other. Van Sciver has made no secret of his LDS past and his longing to figure out his place within the history of the church. These musings and themes, found in previous works such as One Dirty Tree, My Hot Date, and various stories found within the one-man Blammo anthologies, display the tug that Van Sciver feels about the church.
Indeed, in the author’s note, Van Sciver recalls his family’s deep ties to the LDS church, the extensive research he conducted while writing the book, and the deep questions he had answered for himself along the way. Those questions not only propel the story, they influence the composition in meaningful, subtle ways,
To that point, Van Sciver’s cartooning in this book is superb. His aesthetic has always veered towards a reverence to the underground comix masters, and here he has an opportunity to flex his chops. The style is inviting and lush, while eschewing vanity, and his attention to period details, dress, and diction truly imbues each page with a certain authority. Though non-fiction, this is not a documentary, so there is more room to play and present ersatz authenticity and still walk away feeling as if one was dropped into Jacksonian America. Still, everything works remarkably well; there is never a dull panel or page. And ever the auteur, every page is colored by Van Sciver, giving readers a rare opportunity to see the full scope of author’s attention to every detail, no matter how minute.
In brief, Noah Van Sciver’s Joseph Smith and the Mormons is a masterpiece of graphic nonfiction and could well be his magnum opus. It’s a singular work that weaves a remarkable tapestry of one man’s yearning for religious meaning, a country that fosters such spiritual innovation, and the darkness that these inclinations engender. Joseph Smith and the Mormons is a must-read book for these troubling times.
Joseph Smith and the Mormons by Noah Van Sciver will be released July 26, 2022 by Abrams ComicsARTS.