Noah Van Sciver’s newest entry in a series of graphic novels on the legendary great men of America may come as a surprise. He started his professional publishing career with a comic on Abraham Lincoln’s emo days and continued with Johnny Appleseed’s cultural influence. Now, he dives deep into the life of Joseph Smith, called a charlatan by some and a prophet by others. The book announces itself from the outset by its size. While the more well-known figures garnered slimmer volumes (Johnny Appleseed is barely over 100 pages), his newest venture is more than double what he allotted towards our nation’s 16th president (The Hypo, 192 pages). At a whopping 464 pages, Joseph Smith and the Mormons may not be all you wanted to know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it's more than you wished you knew.
Van Sciver has been adamant that this is a personal project, as detailed in interviews and the extensive notes filling the back of the book. His ancestors were early followers of the Mormon church and maintains a blood relation back to Brigham Young. However, he writes this story without narration boxes, attempting to separate his opinions from historical facts. While this may be a bid for greater objectivity, how he portrays the characters, especially expressions of skepticism and anger, and how he writes the dialogue creates a thoroughly idiosyncratic take.
The story opens in 1823 in upstate New York, which some might not realize was the birthplace of a belief system that was chased west until concentrating in Utah. Joseph Smith is introduced as a poor and illiterate young man. He makes money by treasure hunting—i.e. rooking people with a seer stone—something that was a typical practice during the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840). Van Sciver leaves out how common this was in the story, saving clarification for the notes in the back. Nonetheless, detaching the man from his context further props up what Joseph Smith built rather than what he was influenced by - namely, a period in time when such magical worldviews ran rampant and led many to become itinerant quasi-Protestant preachers.
Loosely defined apparitions appear early in the text, both from Joseph and his father. The convention Van Sciver uses is to render these visions in monochrome cyan outlines, as if the rumored dreams and imaginings are to become the blueprints of the future. It’s a stylistic move that provides gorgeous relief in a marathon of a book, but the framework is expressed inconsistently. Angelic figures and omens sometimes slip in, drawn in full color. It appears that visions are only tentative if one person has experienced them. Shared delusions, on the other hand, are rendered in a range of hues.
Joseph sees a way out of his drudgery by posing as a spiritual authority; his sex, race, and posturing are used to override class divisions. He woos a literate woman, Emma Hale, who can write for him. He recounts to her his divine discovery of unseen golden plates. They marry, and he leverages taking his new wife away from her family to force his father-in-law into helping him get into business. Things seem to be looking up for Joseph as he claims newfound attention with his mystical artifact that no one else is allowed to see, not even Emma.
As long as Joseph has stories to tell and manuscripts to publish, he will be funded - an unfortunate reality not exclusive to the past. Joseph Smith was early to discover that there is no easier move than to reboot a preexisting franchise, especially one held in the public domain, so he continues with his Old Testament-meets-War of 1812 fanfic from behind a sheet, so Emma can’t see what he’s “reading” as he recites his version of scripture for a newly-founded American audience. Translating the golden book from “Reformed Egyptian,” he turns Native Americans into a fantastical race of Hebrew descendants called the “Lamanites,” who are wicked and cursed with black skin. In his effort to ground Christianity on a continent foreign to those of English descent, white supremacy can’t be separated from the speculative and apocalyptic.
Van Sciver makes a point of showing that not everyone’s having it, though, by including his detractors throughout the book. A financer’s wife, Lucy Harris, almost prevents his testimony from being printed by destroying the only copy. Instead of thwarting Joseph’s plans, it gives him an excuse to do another rewrite. A panel shows pages raining down from heaven into the household, or perhaps are delivered up; later, we see a newspaper headline about Joseph’s tarnished reputation as a blasphemer. The burgeoning sect has got to move to find more supporters and better establish their new Zion. It’s hard to think of people calling Ohio the promised land, but these were different times.
In Ohio, we get the first glimpses into Joseph Smith’s infamous exploits in polygamy. What starts as somewhat discreet flirtations boils up into full-on threats and dictums demanding subservience. A young woman joins the Smith household to help with chores, but after Joseph starts sleeping with her, he comes up with a new commandment that men should take multiple wives. From this point on, Van Sciver dots the story with occasional vignettes of Smith’s escapades with the opposite sex, making it impossible for readers to ignore what was then occurring clandestinely.
Joseph confides this to Brigham Young, who would eventually succeed him as church president; Young tells Smith it’s a false revelation. It doesn’t deter him. Joseph explicitly authorizes his behavior by a backroom decree with the other men. To be clear, Joseph Smith was not advocating for free love, but the accumulation of women as his property. He menaces those who turn him down by saying that the gate to Heaven will be closed to them for good. This includes his own wife, even after Emma inquires about the rumors of these secret violations. Van Sciver includes that Joseph Smith may have taken 20 consorts; another man, John C. Bennett, is reported to have coerced at least seven. But Joseph lies to Emma, denying it all.
It seems cosplaying as saints has really gone too far. Joseph gets tarred and feathered as threats of violence build. Under his leadership, the church defrauds investors in a similar trick from his grifting days. When the coffers are found to be filled with sand, not gold, Joseph runs from the law. Power struggles among the men ensue in the wreckage of soiled reputations. Van Sciver shows Joseph dressed in epaulettes as he takes the title not only of religious leader but of mayor and general of his own army as well. It seems that a man who pushed for the women-as-chattel, natives-as-heathens mindset did not include violence-as-doctrine accidentally, but that it was the bedrock of the entire theology. It proves fatal, as an angry mob of detractors kills him at the age of 38.
By the end, Van Sciver’s longstanding preoccupation seems to be less with great men and more with how often they claim to be. Who would have thought this would unite both Joseph Smith and Fante Bukowski? In the case of the amalgamated character of Bukowski, however, we get much more intimacy and depth compared to Smith. It turns out that not all desires for greatness are equally relatable or quite so humorous. Thankfully, Noah Van Sciver was willing to face this history’s complex and uncomfortable truths.