Funny how our fascinations with historical periods and figures tend to happen in cycles. We grasp at times in history most apparently relevant to our own. Now, as our country recovers from a strongly bipartisan election we look back to the most divisive (literally) moment in our history and reflect upon the leaders of the time. We get Spielberg’s Lincoln, David Goldfield’s America Aflame, and this very well done graphic novel The Hypo by Noah Van Sciver. Lincoln was a good film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ humanizing performance left me wanting to dig deeper into the background of this extraordinary president. Call it good timing, but this little recently released comic gave me exactly what I needed.
In A First-Rate Madness S. Nassir Ghaemi argues that in times of crisis persons with mild mental illness can actually make better leaders than those that are considered well adjusted. Ghaemi uses Lincoln’s early life as an example of how depression can create deep empathy. Now cartoonist Noah Van Sciver has given us a beautiful portrait of one of Lincoln’s darkest periods and it is hard not to see the validity in Ghaemi’s argument.
A young Abraham Lincoln suffers from “The Hypo” or what we would now call severe depression. After an unsuccessful law practice and his state government initiatives hurting the Illinois economy, Lincoln feels like he is doomed to fail at everything he attempts. It is during this dark time in his life that he also meets his future wife Mary Todd and a far from picture perfect romance grows between the two. She suffers from migraines and mental fits, making the two a fitting pair that “find a connection based on mutual loneliness.”
The Hypo truthfully brings out the complexities of the man who would eventually lead this country out of its most trying times. What I like about Sciver’s style is that by lingering on Lincoln’s weaknesses we come to appreciate his imperfections as the very qualities that made him the leader he was. Sciver allows the reader to do all the projecting. We never do see Lincoln become the figure in our history books. Instead we encounter a protagonist of strong character, but visualize him constantly doubting his self worth and struggling to gain acceptance. Sciver’s contribution to the Lincoln mythology is perfect for those who like their heroes a little troubled and messy, but good at their core- not a bad way to interpret the American ideal.