Latter-day Saints might be surprised at how “Joseph Smith and the Mormons” starts.
Not with the “First Vision,” in which a 14-year-old Smith reported that God and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a New York woods during the spring of 1820. Not with an account of various preachers in and around Palmyra, trying to convert the teenage truth seeker. Not even with a look at his family and childhood, such as the pre-anesthesia surgery he endured at age 7 that removed part of his leg bone.
Instead, Noah Van Sciver’s soon-to-be released graphic novel opens with a young Joseph and his father leading a group of men on a treasure hunt, with Joseph peering into a hat for instructions on where to go.
Ultimately, the search proves fruitless as the men dig deeper and deeper but find nothing. When Joseph looks into the hat again, he says the riches have shifted away from them. He and his father still accept compensation for their services, however.
This episode, which Latter-day Saints may not have heard in Sunday school before, gives context to Joseph’s neighbors’ accusations that he’s a con man when he states that an angel showed him the burial site of gold plates from which the Book of Mormon would emerge.
It also begins an unflinching look at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ origins, its founder and its early history.
Latter-day Saints will recognize the names and major events in “Joseph Smith and the Mormons,” available on July 26 via Abrams Books.
Since the graphic novel isn’t produced by the Utah-based faith, it doesn’t assume that all of Smith’s accounts are true. Rather, Van Sciver wanted readers to learn the same way the religious leader’s contemporaries did: in conversations at dinner tables, at dances, on journeys.
Readers learn of the First Vision as Smith dictates his personal history, available on the church’s website. They come across stories of angels and gold plates and divine communications — told by Smith himself or by his followers.
Whenever Van Sciver illustrates Smith’s mystical experiences, they’re drawn in dotted blue lines, to differentiate from the full-color, nonspiritual events.
The acclaimed cartoonist said his goal was to lay out church history accurately and let people decide for themselves what they think. “I felt like I needed to just tell a more complete story about Joseph Smith.”
Rediscovering his roots
Van Sciver was born in New Jersey to a family of nine and raised as a Latter-day Saint until about age 12, when his parents divorced.
His mother spent the next years separating her children from the church, and he lost affiliation with it.
He never forgot, however, the religious roots that shaped his early years. It was his heritage, as well; Van Sciver said his family is descended from early Latter-day Saints, and his brother jokes that they’re “ethnically Mormon.”
As Van Sciver grew and began a comics career — working on projects like the graphic novel “One Dirty Tree” and the Eisner-nominated (think Oscars for comic books) series “Blammo” — he wondered if he had missed out on something by being removed from the church as a child.
He wanted to decide for himself. So he researched and studied, and he processed it all the best way he knew how — by drawing.
The project proved challenging, however. Van Sciver went through multiple failed starts, including some that even made it into Sunstone, a magazine about Mormonism.
Part of the difficulty rested in the mountains of information available. Van Sciver said he read biographies and traveled to several church history sites while he was a fellow at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.
He also met with librarians at church-owned Brigham Young University who have been collecting his work for several years. The original artwork for “Joseph Smith and the Mormons” is now available for study on campus.
The project was slated for 250 pages, then needed 200 more. He missed multiple deadlines.
But he wrote in the book’s acknowledgments that his editor “encouraged me not to fret over the page count and to allow the story to breathe as it needed to, with as many pages as it took.”
Now, his study is finished, and he has his answers, though Van Sciver says he “tried really hard not to tell anybody what to think.”
Tackling thorny topics
Another challenge, Van Sciver said, was “the extremely difficult tightrope” of navigating topics like polygamy and racism.
On one page, Emma Smith discovers her husband in bed with another woman. The scene isn’t explicit, but the message is clear. (That particular story was taken from a letter written to Joseph Smith III by excommunicated Latter-day Saint apostle William E. McLellin in 1872.)
One another page, Joseph reads Emma a revelation in which God says she’ll be “destroyed” if she doesn’t accept polygamy. For one panel, she only sits and stares. In the next, cracks appear all over her body.
Racial controversies in the faith’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon, are touched on as well, when missionaries preach to Native Americans about “white and delightsome” people in the text. The Native Americans, too, can only stare blankly.
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said it’s better for Latter-day Saints to grapple with difficult history than be kept in the dark.
He also said the church has recognized in recent years the importance of transparency. For instance, Smith’s treasure hunts using a “seer stone” are addressed on the church’s website. The church also has published essays on a range of thorny historical and doctrinal issues from polygamy and race to its belief in Heavenly Mother and humanity’s godlike potential.
Mason noted the faith’s newest official narrative history, a multivolume series titled “Saints,” also deals with many events that most members didn’t grow up hearing about.
“A lot of people are going to say, ‘Well, [the church] still didn’t tell everything. … Sure. That’s certainly the case,” he said. “But … I give the church pretty high marks, especially compared to other religious institutions or other private corporations, in terms of their turn toward historical transparency over the past decade and a half.”
And for anyone wanting to do their own research on church history, Mason recommended sticking to primary sources and to the work of professional historians.
“Go look at the original stuff and make your own judgments,” he advised. “Don’t just rely on what somebody on the internet happened to say about it.”
Van Sciver added that while he hopes Latter-day Saints and others can connect with “Joseph Smith and the Mormons,” he’s not worried about potentially offending current members.
“There are things,” he said, “that are uncomfortable about the story that I don’t really know how to make comfortable.”