Interview: Noah Van Sciver Reveals A Depressed Abraham Lincoln in ‘The Hypo’

Noah Van Sciver’s The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln is exactly the kind of graphic novel that only Fantagraphics would publish. It’s the fact-based story of Mr. Lincoln at the most “indie comic hero” point in his life. Lincoln was struggling both professionally and personally in all matters of life and love, eventually plummeting into a pit of borderline-suicidal depression. Van Sciver’s story concentrates on the moments that made the great man human. In simple-yet-detailed and heavily crosshatched illustrations we experience Lincoln’s awkwardness, his loneliness, his disappointments, his self-doubt, and most importantly, his love of Mary Todd in a way that makes him completely accessible and relatable to readers of Daniel Clowes, Jeffrey Brown, Harvey Pekar and other books in the Fantagraphics library. With this book Van Sciver proves himself to be not only a talented writer and cartoonist, but a storyteller who can infuse truth and humanity into a subject that in another’s hands, runs the risk of being stuffy, dry, or worst of all, boring.

I sat down with Van Sciver at this year’s BEA in New York to talk about why he chose to tell this story, the research that went into it and what he hopes readers will take from Mr. Lincoln’s uncomfortable exploits.

After the interview, be sure to check out an exclusive preview of The Hypo!

MTV Geek: Who is Abe Lincoln in your book?

NVS: He’s just a young man from nothing, basically…you know, struggling to make something of himself; that was the most intriguing part of doing a book about this Lincoln in particular is I wanted to deal with who he was before he was a president and not deal with the politics at all, just as a person…I wanted to try and portray, who he was as a person in that era.

Geek: Why do you think that’s important to do?

NVS: Because it hasn’t been focused on really, you know? I mean, if you go to a Barnes and Noble or something, there’s like eight hundred Lincoln books, but they’re all basically the same thing, you know? And so, I wanted to do something completely different with that in it, just shed light on who he was. Because it’s important to see who he became, or I should say how he became is more spectacular when you think about who he was, and where he came from, because I don’t even know if that’s possible anymore, to come from nothing and then become a president, you know? It’s changed a lot.

Geek: And what brought you to this?

NVS: Well, it’s just being interested in history. Then also just being interested in that kind of, depression, I guess, right?

Geek: Yeah.

NVS: I mean, that’s interesting too. (laughs)

Geek: You know, when I read it, Lincoln in this, it’s clearly an alternative, indie comic, and…

NVS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Geek: …Lincoln almost feels like the perfect—-this Lincoln, young Lincoln—-feels like the perfect indie comic character…

NVS: (laughs) Uh-huh, I guess that’s true.

Geek: …you know? He could be a Daniel Clowes character and he–

NVS: Right.

Geek: Do you think that’s a fair assessment of it and do you think that’s maybe why–

NVS: It is, it’s definitely an indie book (laughs). I mean, I knew that… Um, wait, what was the question? I’m sorry…

Geek: Well, it wasn’t really a question, it was more of an observation. Do you feel that being an indie artist that this Lincoln was easier to approach for you–

NVS: Right.

Geek: …because you have those sensibilities already?

NVS: Yeah. That’s true! Definitely.

Geek: Yeah.

NVS: You know, becuase when you read a lot of the indie books nowadays are all basically about that kind of, they’re all sad…you know, you read Jimmy Corrigan then, and then you’re like “Well, I’m gonna write a book about Lincoln,” that’s kinda how…(laughs)

Geek: (laughs)

NVS: …it winds up being this Lincoln. I don’t know, I mean, I don’t think there is another Lincoln though. I couldn’t imagine writing a happy Lincoln book cuz I just, I can’t, I guess, “The Humor of Lincoln”, or whatever…

Geek: (laughs)

NSV: I could do a book like that, and then just do all of his quotes and illustrate them, or something, but who wants to read that?

Geek: How much research went into this?

NSV: It was a couple years, I mean, it was somewhere between, somewhere between too much and not enough…

Geek: (laughs)

NSV: …I guess. Just enough, I don’t know.

Geek: How much was embellished, how much was fabricated, how much was you putting your own stuff in there?

NSV: I think it’s all based on, everything in there is based on a real thing, on a real story, but, I mean there’s things that I couldn’t know for sure, like I, would know that this event happened but I don’t know what people actually said to each other, and nobody does, so those are the kind of things you have to make up and try and just, like, guess at, and, to write the story.

Geek: And was that kind of writing challenging to capture the dialogue of the time?

NSV: Yeah, (laughs), I mean I’m not gonna say I did it completely accurately or anything, but, I did something that’s passable at least, I don’t know.

Geek: You talked about a couple years of research, what did you do to get this dialogue and to get these, these characters right?

NSV: I just read a lot of Lincoln books, honestly. I just read a lot of Lincoln books and then beyond that you gotta find out what specific things look like, like, some Lincoln books would focus on, or they’d mention that, that Springfield at that time he was living there, when he first arrived there was a pretty filthy place, you know? And that there were pigs walking around and you’d just, you’d just s#@! on the streets there and there’s, there’s just garbage everywhere and stuff, and another one just wouldn’t mention that at all, so, I don’t know, I had to do like a lot of research like “Well, what kind of stuff would people throw away back then?” And “What does a chamberpot look like?” You know what I mean?

Geek: Yeah.

NSV: That kind of stuff, that wouldn’t be on the Lincoln books, I’d have to go and actually seek that kind of information out, so…

Geek: I don’t want to give anything away, I mean it’s history, so it’s hard to spoil things, but…

NSV: Right, exactly.

Geek: …the book leads up to, to him finally…

NSV: Settling down?

Geek: …settling down with…

NSV: Yeah.

Geek: …with Mary Todd, why, why’d you take it up to that point?

NSV: Um, well, I, I like that their love story was…Hmm…

Geek: (laughs)

NSV: I don’t know, it just seemed like an appropriate place to end it because, after he gets married that’s the start of a whole new story, you know? So, I don’t know, it just seemed appropriate to leave off at the marriage.

Geek: He seems like a guy who doesn’t really…He’s not really experiencing real emotions, and…

NSV: Yeah.

Geek: …seems kind of closed off; is that the kind of guy he was? Was he really even in love with Mary by the end of the story?

NSV: I think so, yeah. They had something weird going on there, it’s hard to say for sure. I can’t tell whether Victorian love, you know, I can’t compare that to what we have today, really. They had a fondness for each other, right? I mean, I guess they understood each other in some way.

Geek: Can you talk about your art style a little bit?

NSV: I keep things pretty loose. I’m always attracted to the artists that have a, like a really loose, kind of, human style, you know, you can see, you can tell there’s, there’s a humanity in there. That’s just kinda how it comes out when I draw and, I, I don’t know, I like crosshatching a lot. (laughs)

Geek: Did you have to do anything different or were you tempted to do something different because you were doing this historical story?

NSV: No, I mean, I think I probably got more obsessed with crosshatching while working on this book than I was doing previously. And I think that was more just from looking at old, engravings and that kind of thing, you know, and trying to sort of mimic that in my style. So I don’t know, I guess it, it gives it more of a period piece with that kind of stuff, don’t you think?

Geek: Yeah I definitely do.

NSV: I don’t know.

Geek: I think so. Well, we never really touched on really what this book is aside from it’s about young Abe Lincoln; can you kind of just give us an overview of what we’ve been talking about?

NSV: It’s, the years 1837 to 1842, so it’s just a small sliver of Abraham Lincoln’s life when he moves to Springfield, Illinois, and it’s about his relationship with Joshua Speed, who is his best friend, and his tumultuous relationship with Mary Todd and, and then his battles with depression and the major breakdown he had is in there… (laughs)

Geek: And, you know, there are people who don’t really know, we might have touched on this just a little bit before but there are people who don’t really know that Abe Lincoln was depressed and was…

NSV: Yeah.

Geek: …you know, basically suicidal…

NSV: Uh-huh.

Geek: …do you think it’s important to tell that story because it humanizes politicians more?

NSV: No, I don’t care about politicians.

Geek: (laughs)

NSV: I mean that’s why I left all the politics out of the book really, you know? Well, like I said, it’s just, it’s a way to appreciate who he was later on, you know, by getting to the very beginning of it, or, you know, I guess the middle of it, depending on how his life went.

Geek: This pain and depression that he experienced, how do you think it informed who he was later?

NSV: It just made him more sensitive, I think. I mean it made him more caring as a human being. It made him more well-rounded and more humane.

Geek: Speaking of his humanity, there’s a part in the book where he sees slaves and he, he reacts; he tries to say hello to one of them and they…

NSV: Yeah, yeah.

Geek: Was there a temptation to delve more into that, because I think the slavery thing is kind of the biggest thing that…

NSV: Yeah, there was…

Geek: …aside from him being assassinated.

NSV: Yeah. There was, but… But at that time in history, in his life, I couldn’t have really pulled it off without being too false. It would, just would’ve been false because in that time period in his life I don’t think it was as big of an issue as it became later on, so I couldn’t have pulled it off without just being, like, hokey I guess. And I had that story from a letter, and I decided to illustrate that and put that in there just so we could at least touch on it for a second, and then…Just because otherwise it would’ve been “elephant in the room”, really, right?

Geek: Is this something you want to do again?

NSV: I’ll probably move on. I don’t think there’ll be, like, another Abe Lincoln book for me, I think that’s…

Geek: Or maybe another historical guy?

NSV: Yeah, I don’t know, I’ve illustrated pieces of the Book of Mormon before, and I always think about putting that together in a book. But if I was going to do another historical book it would be that stuff and not…I don’t want to take on another biography. It’s way too much work, and I definitely don’t want to be known as the historical biography guy, so I’ll probably move on. Do other things.

Geek: Do you know what you want to move on to?

NSV: Well I’m actually working on a second book now called Saint Cole, which is fiction. That’s gonna be my next book.

Geek: Can you tell us about that at all?

NSV: It’s about this guy whose life completely falls apart in four days, so I go day by day on how he’s screwed up even more…And it has a, like a twist ending.

Geek: Why are these characters interesting? These are characters that people come back to again and again, these guys who are falling apart.

NSV: Cuz it’s human drama, you know? I think that’s that’s it, it’s just drama. And I think a lot of people can relate to some of those things.

Geek: How’d you get involved with Fantagraphics?

NSV: I had been working for The Comics Journal a few years back; I was doing interviews with cartoonists and then drawing them in comic strips for The Comics Journal, so I had that relationship and then I started getting comics published in Mome, their anthology, and, I just like Fantagraphics. I think they’re the best publisher in comics. So when I had the book, when it was time to find a publisher, I just went with Fantagraphics, you know? It was too easy. I already knew them, you know?

Geek: What was your goal? Is the goal of this book to educate, is it just to entertain, is it…

NSV: Just to entertain, I guess, I mean If I can educate a little, that’s great; if I can cause somebody to go and seek out further information about Lincoln, that’s excellent, but, I’m an entertainer, you know? I’m not a historian, I’m a cartoonist.

Geek: You know, there are people that might even think that this story, because it’s a comic book, because it’s about something that not everybody knows about, they might think it’s fiction. They might think it’s…

NSV: Right.

Geek: …you know, with the vampire thing coming out…

NSV: I know, and that’s been so terrible for me, you have no idea. (laughs)

Geek: (laughs)

NSV: Every single person asks me what I think about that movie. Everybody.

Geek: Yeah.

NSV: Every time I go on Facebook, I get all these messages: “Hey, what do you think about this?” Like I, I have, I don’t want anything to do with that, like…Like, asking me if I like the Transformers movie or something, you know? It’s just a sh#@ty Hollywood thing. I don’t want anything to do with that movie.

Geek: Seriously.

NSV: Vampire hunters.

Geek: (laughs) Alright, I think we’re good.

Click the image below to read an EXCLUSIVE preview of The Hypo before it hits shelves in October 2012!