Mormons have been the focus of numerous entertainment media, not least including the TV series “Big Love” (HBO, 2006–2011), about the daily travails of a suburban Salt Lake City polygamist and his sister-wives, and the Broadway musical satire The Book of Mormon (2011–present). Publishing this week, Noah Van Sciver’s graphic bio Joseph Smith and the Mormons (Abrams ComicArts) may be the first graphic “novel” of its kind. It takes an unflinching look at all the monumental moments of Smith’s extraordinary and controversial life, including the death threats and violence that caused his fervent followers to move from New York to Ohio, Smith receiving the divine commandment of plural marriage, his imprisonment, his run for president of the United States, and his ultimate murder by an angry mob in 1844 at the age of 38.
Joseph Smith and the Mormons is a serious exploration of the facts and myths of the pilgrim who brought the Mormons to Utah, but not without a waves of madness and mayhem in their wake.
I asked Van Sciver about the journey he took to create this warts-and-all exploration of the founder of the Mormons and the Latter-day Saints.
What is your relationship to Mormonism, and what is the basis of your research and knowledge?
I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was removed from the organization by my mother after my parents divorced. I never gave it much thought until I turned 30 years old, and then the question of spirituality and personal faith bubbled back up within me. The only faith I had known in my life had been in the LDS church, and so I wanted to investigate it to see if it would resonate with me as an adult. Then maybe I could find my way back to the “path of righteousness.”
There are a few Mormons I have known who left the church. Is this in a sense a farewell for you?
I’ll always be interested in the church. It’s endlessly fascinating to me, but I don’t expect to find myself on a mission or getting a temple recommendation any time in my life.
Could a non-Mormon tell this story?
Yes, of course, and probably draw it better than me. But it would probably lack the sweaty white-knuckle “what does this all mean?” quality that my book gives you.
What was the most difficult aspect of doing this comic?
The story is so huge that deciding what needed to be drawn and what wasn’t so important to the narrative was excruciating, and kept me up at night problem-solving in my head. It was a storytelling bootcamp.
When a subject is as charged and revealing as the stories of sacred institutions, I always wonder what the artist wants the audience to take away. What is your answer?
I didn’t want to give the reader any notion about the truth of Joseph’s story but their own. That was important to me because that’s what I was trying to discover for myself as I was drawing this book. It’s not for me to tell you that any faith or religion is a sham or scam. I walked the tightrope of portraying the events as they were said to have happened. Some that seem magical and some that can be cynically explained away. If you read this graphic novel then you’ll make up your own mind. I really believe that.
Was it difficult to find the right voice?
It was difficult at first. I wasn’t sure how to tell the story and used some narration and thought balloons, which I had to get rid of later. But there’s always that moment, about 100 pages in, when you suddenly realize what you have been working on actually is. That’s the magic moment of truth.
Mormons are very protective of their doctrine and rituals. What do you expect the reaction will be to your book?
The younger generation of church members will be interested in this graphic novel and appreciate what I’ve done. In fact, I’ve already been hearing from many of them about it. The older ones will not touch it with a 10-foot pole.