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Killing Elijah Lovejoy

[Originally Published @ 13 Minutes]

The Death of Elijah Lovejoy (2D Cloud): Would it be exaggerated hyperbole if I said I only wanted to read Noah Van Sciver mini-comics from this day forward? I dunno. I think I could support that statement with just a little bit of anecdotal evidence. I consume literally hundreds of mini-comics each year. Here’s a little secret – most of them aren’t that good. While I admire the guts it takes to create something and put it out into the harsh light of the world, in order to earn critical praise beyond that conception, it also has to function as either a work of art, or at least have some sheer entertainment value, ideally both. There are a precious handful of creators whose work I genuinely look forward to, that seem to engage both paradigms, and Noah’s work is firmly among that select cadre.

The Death of Elijah Lovejoy chronicles an outspoken abolitionist who was persecuted for speaking out against a vigilante justice lynching that occurred in St. Louis in the early 1800’s. The pre-Civil War setting sees Van Sciver focus thematically on both Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech as American hallmarks of civil liberty. I can’t help but think that this is a turning point in Van Sciver’s career. After some toe-dipping jaunts in his earlier work, he seems to be moving away from exclusive autobiography and entering a phase of feature length historical biography. I think it signifies willingness to experiment and a natural evolution for the artist. I couldn’t be happier with the results. It’s easy to see Van Sciver identify with Lovejoy in some ways, and he even supports his evolving publishing venture with an introductory quote by Lovejoy that explains the shared creative ethos of writing about whatever subject he pleases. The Death of Elijah Lovejoy plays like a tasty appetizer for whatever main course awaits us in the form of the pre-Civil War toiling-away-in-obscurity Abe Lincoln book called The Hypo that Van Sciver has been crafting and promising us for months.

Shame on you if you think this is some dry historical account concerning the modalities of anti-slavery reform in the border states of the early 19th Century. It’s got some pretty gritty-ass action too. The story itself plays more like a rousing short action film, full of bluster and fury. Van Sciver is wise to front-load the tale with some text that speeds through the prologue, without eschewing any of the salacious details. The lynching has already occurred. Lovejoy has already spoken out against it. He’s already endured being attacked and some of his printing presses being destroyed. We join the action in media res as he’s moved locations and pro-slavery factions are hot on his heels trying to shut him down at any cost. This move allows Van Sciver to jump straight into the heart of the action without the preamble of “the boring stuff” visually bogging down an intense scene that sees Lovejoy and crew cornered in a warehouse. Van Sciver immerses us in claustrophobic detail that bathes the panels with a sense of impending danger. One of the smaller panels contains something like 35 people in it, just to give you a sense of the figure scale and level of detail we’re talking about. The mob is looming. Danger is imminent. It’s the quiet before the storm. As George Lucas conditioned us to think, “I have a bad feeling about this.” I mean, the title of the book is The Death of Elijah Lovejoy after all.

Technically, an otherwise perfect contribution to Van Sciver’s expanding portfolio is slightly marred by a handful of typos. There are missing commas in some of the longer sentences, some trouble with denoting possession with words ending in “s,” a stray “ablotionist” instead of “abolitionist,” and “gaurded” stands-in for “guarded” several cringe-worthy times. Beyond the concerns of Polly Proofreading, there’s a vast array of craftsmanship on display. I enjoyed a cut-away drawing that reveals the positions of the opposing forces during the shootout. Van Sciver dissects the entire warehouse in a big half page panel to orient us to the dynamics taking place. I also found his panel design very clever. During the most intense scenes, the panels are split triangles, oblong parallelograms, and odd shards which emphasize the chaos ensuing. They’re like little distorted tile mosaics or stained glass windows that congregate roughly to form a larger image. The beauty is in the imperfection. When Lovejoy is finally cornered and attempts to make a break for it, Van Sciver zooms in four times from panel to panel, in rapid succession to Lovejoy’s sweaty face, building the anticipation and controlling the pace magnificently. It’s clear that he’s moved beyond simple storytelling mechanics, and is now beginning to load his pages with stylistic flourishes. Like the best action, it comes suddenly and without warning. Lovejoy is shot, almost at point blank range with a shotgun. The blast that takes Elijah Lovejoy out is inked with a heavy and dire aesthetic, with blurred blood spatter that reminds me of some of the horror elements you might find in Tom Neely’s projects.

Like much of Van Sciver’s work, The Death of Elijah Lovejoy deals with emotional excess. It’s not enough that the pro-slavery mob has hunted down Elijah Lovejoy, cornered him, and killed him, simply because he suggested that a man accused of a crime ought to be tried in a court of law rather than strung up from a tree. No, they must also set the publishing warehouse ablaze and physically destroy his printing press. With Elijah down, acting on the type of principle that the judging eyes of history reward, the small crew loyal to him attempts to defend the press as the building burns down around them. Ultimately they fail, and flee in a somber moment with Elijah Lovejoy’s lifeless body. It’s brave, compassionate, and wise, mirroring the bold ambition with which Noah Van Sciver continues to apply his craft. Grade A.

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One Response to Killing Elijah Lovejoy

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