Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln by Noah van Sciver Review

“The Hypo” was a nineteenth century term for clinical depression and top hat enthusiast Abraham Lincoln was a lifelong sufferer of the illness. Noah van Sciver takes a look at a (relatively) little-known part of Lincoln’s life: his late 20s/early 30s, long before he became president. Lincoln was struggling with his burgeoning political career and law practice amidst mental problems and heartache from the troubled courtship of his future wife, Mary Todd. 

I’ll get my complaints about the book out at the top of the review, and they’re not many as this was a great comic. Van Sciver’s character designs were a bit lacking. Too many of his male characters looked alike, particularly Lincoln and his best friend, Joshua Speed, while the women had this warped, cartoonish look to them, not dissimilar from Peter Bagge’s style but less so. Also, I’m not sure why the book had to end in a duel besides traditional narrative convention demands an action finale. 

Otherwise: what a brilliant book The Hypo was! 

It’s part psychological examination/historical retelling, part romance, and, though I’m not much interested in romantic themes, Lincoln and Mary Todd’s scenes were especially cute. They were intellectual equals and Mary took a keen interest in politics, advising Lincoln and no doubt helping him on his path to presidency (behind every great man, etc.). She also suffered from mental illness herself though this is only briefly touched upon. It was a difficult courtship though as Mary’s guardians believed Lincoln wasn’t good enough for her, his family being poor frontier farmers. 

Lincoln was overly conscientious and he obligingly broke off the engagement leading to more heartache and stress, and, on top of his failing law firm and debt, caused him a breakdown. Throughout the book are black pages with white dashes to symbolise Lincoln’s low moods. As Lincoln’s problems mount up, bright white blotches, or “tears”, appear amidst the black and when he completely falls apart the page is totally white. It’s a clever and effective way to portray the illness. 

I also liked how some scenes have word balloons just out of panel so you can’t read them but you know dialogue is being spoken. It shows Lincoln’s disconnection from the scenes and the reader is silent too, the voice in our heads switched off but we’re aware of characters talking. We also see how doctors treated “the hypo” way back then: bleeding the patient, alternately giving hot and cold baths, and giving mercury to make the patient puke! 

Van Sciver keeps the attention on this period of Lincoln’s life though subtly alludes to things he’s more known for. The chapters are framed in a theatrical style, hinting at Ford’s Theatre, the site of Lincoln’s fatal shooting, and a couple of scenes feature slaves. Regarding the slaves though, Lincoln’s more interested in their upbeat moods in comparison to his own miserable one, rather than their barbaric treatment. 

It’s a very human portrayal of a man who has since attained an almost mythical status. Here, Lincoln is a nervous young man, unsure and vulnerable. I laughed at the scene where he reluctantly heads out to a whorehouse muttering "I'm up to no good..." (he doesn’t go through with it as he doesn’t have the cash and the thought of debt makes his depression worse), and I like how he calls Mary “little lady” – these Lincoln-isms are endearing. 

The book also goes some way to alleviating some of the stigma associated with mental illness by showing one of America's greatest icons as having had it. In focusing on this part of Lincoln’s life, Van Sciver is subtly showing the reader what made Lincoln such a great man. That he had to overcome enormous personal problems made him a stronger person and gave him the resolve that eventually led to the White House and the continued Union of the States. You could take it as an inspirational message too, that even the greatest among us had to deal with regular concerns of the head and the heart and that in doing so makes it possible for anyone to accomplish things beyond their perceived potential. 

The Hypo is a very good comic about one of America’s greatest presidents and his struggle with depression. Noah van Sciver does it again! 

The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln

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