The Death of Elijah Lovejoy by Noah Van Sciver

As long as I am an American citizen and American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write and to publish whatever I please on any subject.

– Elijay Lovejoy

Elijay Lovejoy was a real life abolistionist and newspaper editor who died in Alton, Illinois at the hands of a mob intent on squelching his right to a free press. Lovejoy was in Illinois because a mob had attacked and destroyed three press during his tenure as an editor in St Louis, Missouri.  The Death of Elijay Lovejoy by Noah Van Sciver seemed a good book to tackle for a review on the day we celebrate the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights that ultimately flows from the establishment of the United States of America.

Noah Van Sciver tackles the martyrdom of Elijah Lovejoy head-on in this 23 page mini-comic.  There is a two page text introduction to life of Lovejay setting up the climatic scene in Alton, opening with a scene of the mob at the door.  The entire book is really one long scene — the battle between the mob and Lovejoy and his compatriots.  Since we know how it ends, the test is in the telling and it is a compelling bit of comicking, with the visuals compelling a sense of danger, urgency and drama.  Van Sciver has a pretty heavy use of cross-hatching in his style here and it gives the book a bit of a woodcut feeling, maybe adding a bit of historical authenticity to the presentation.

It's a really well-done book and while I'm not familar with Van Sciver's other work this book shows a high level of craft.  First the choice to focus on the very tense, dramatic action of the final scene of Lovejoy's life is compelling.  I think Van Sciver use of a drawing style tilted towards realism but still retaining some kinectic cartoon qualities worked very well here (if not a conscious choice than a fortuitous overlap between style and subject matter).  The dialogue — the words — all work well in sevice to the pace of the scene.  It certainly brings this moment alive in a way that a history book or Wikipedia really doesn't.  This is a blood-thirty mob willing to die to inflict violence on Lovejoy.  Van Sciver gets all that across and more.

Besides the opening panel of the mob at the door I also wanted to flag some other really well done images.  There's a sequence in the middle of the fifth page where one of Lovejoy's allies blows away a member of the mob trying to pry his way in through a boarded up window.  Van Sciver also uses a lot of interesting panel shapes which often help convey the chaotics circumstances of this story.  I also liked the long, tilted panel on the seventh page where a member of the mob yells out "Burn them out!" and you can see up the ladder to the top of the roof.

The one downside to focusing the entire comic on one action-heavy scene is that it didn't lend Van Sciver enough space to delve enough into characters here.  We just have to read the facts about Lovejoy, his brother and his comrades in the text opening — there's not enough time here to really show why they are willing to die to face down the mob.  On the other hand, there's not really enough space in a mini-comic to serve too many masters and I'm not sure Van Sciver could have squeezed in too much more than he did. As the comic ends with scenes of the mob destroying the printing press cross-cut with Elijay's brother Owen Lovejoy and comrades carrying away the dead body of his brother, we do get a bit of a feeling of how this event may have steeled and inspired Owen to go on to become an abolitionist politician.

Since reading this comic, I've learned that Van Sciver is working on a graphic novel about Abraham Lincoln titled The Hypo which looks extremely promising.  He's posted work-in-progress on his blog and I'm definitely going to look for it when it's published.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.