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The Stinkin' Thinkin' of Young Abe Lincoln

Porch Ponderin'. From <em>The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln</em> © 2012 Noah Van Sciver
Fantagraphics Books
Porch Ponderin'. From The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln © 2012 Noah Van Sciver

The most beloved, most studied, most-likely-to-get-played-by-Daniel-Day-Lewis man to ever hold the office of President of the United States was himself a house divided.

Scholars have chronicled Abraham Lincoln's lifelong struggle with depression for decades. Historian Joshua Wolf Shenk's 2005 book, Lincoln's Melancholy, delved deeply and with great empathy into Lincoln's condition, revealing how he struggled to manage his bouts of despair — which he referred to in private correspondence as "The Hypo" — even as he was gaining national renown for his wit.

That haunted quality is one of the things that draws us to Lincoln. We see it in photos and busts of the man, as if his chemical imbalance somehow etched those soulful furrows into his brow like wind carves a rockface.

Now, cartoonist Noah Van Sciver, whose 4 Questions strip runs weekly in the Denver alt-weekly Westword (and whose comic book series Blammo is, as mentioned here before, pretty great) has produced his first book-length comic, a historical graphic novel called The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln which focuses on a particularly dark period in Lincoln's life, long before his Presidential term.

Although The Hypo is painstakingly researched, the book is no dry accretion of biographical detail. That's because Van Sciver approach's is so deeply, palpably personal, even idiosyncratic.

His loose, freehand style creates a world where every straight line wobbles a bit, where right angles invariably come out wrong, and everything feels slightly off-plumb. The deliberate and expressive roughness of his linework — which evokes a time before mass-production, when imperfections in furniture and architecture still testified to the human hands that wrought them — gently insinuates itself as we read.

The Hypo begins with young Abraham Lincoln arriving in Springfield, Illinois to start up a law practice. As he rides into town on the back of a donkey, Van Sciver depicts the sky above him as a featureless white expanse. But as the book progresses, and Lincoln's life grows darker — he sinks deeper into debt, his law practice dissolves, his relationship with Mary Todd founders — that sky lowers and grows increasingly oppressive.

Van Sciver darkens his backgrounds with hatching and cross-hatching and intricate detail — in his hands, the sinuous patterns of ivy on a room's wallpapers take on the menacing appearance of choking tentacles — and often frames Lincoln such that, even in the grandest ballroom, the ceiling seems to press down on him.

Fancy types, cuttin' loose. From <em>The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln</em> © 2012 Noah Van Sciver
/ Fantagraphics Books
Fantagraphics Books
Fancy types, cuttin' loose. From The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln © 2012 Noah Van Sciver

Van Sciver accomplishes what even the most rigorous and thorough historical accounting cannot. We gain a singular purchase on Lincoln's pysche, we feel what he feels. The Hypo offers us a singular chance to see the world through the eyes of a brilliant, deeply troubled man who does not realize he is destined for greatness — who cannot even imagine getting out of bed the next morning.

Those looking for an inspiring account of an American legend "overcoming" depression through ennobling adversity won't find such a tidy, wouldn't-it-be-pretty-to-think-so narrative here. Even as the book closes on what would seem a happy moment — Lincoln's wedding to Mary Todd — Van Sciver lets us see the doubt and melancholy returning to his features.

Inspiring? No. But achingly familiar, relatably human and — most of all — profoundly real.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.

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