Joseph Smith and the Mormons, by Noah Van Sciver, is a fantastic addition to Mormon literature. And while not written as devotional literature, this graphic novelization of Joseph Smith’s life is very well-researched and makes a lot of effort to portray things in a fair and open manner. And the book itself is beautiful in its presentation.
Going in, I had a few questions that I wanted to assess. First, how accurate to the historical research is the portrayal of Joseph Smith? Second, is this a graphic novel that I would want to use to introduce more details about Joseph Smith’s life to my own children? (I say this not because I see graphic novels as childish (I don’t), but because it can be easier to read a graphic novel than a completely text-based biography.) Third, how much did I enjoy and appreciate the graphic novel?
In response to my first question (how accurate to the historical research is the portrayal of Joseph Smith?), it was very well researched. Were there some things I have different thoughts on than how Noah Van Sciver interprets the historical record? Of course. But as someone who has spent a lot of time reading about Joseph Smith over the years, I can see how he came to the conclusions that he did and that they are not outside the realm of possibilities from what we know. You can tell that he did his homework by the level of detail included in telling the story, relying on a wealth of sources and including many direct quotes. He includes notes in the back that give some background about what he was portraying, and also offers a solid selected bibliography for further reading. The supernatural events that Joseph Smith reported experiencing are shared as recollections after the fact in a slightly different style to leave it open to interpretation as to whether they happened or not. He also focuses a lot on Emma Hale Smith and what she experienced as Joseph Smith’s wife, which I appreciated (even if she was one of the very few female characters portrayed with any depth). So, I would say that I was very impressed with the level of research and accuracy included in the book.
As far as the second question (is this a graphic novel that I would want to use to introduce more details about Joseph Smith’s life to my own children?), I would say no, at least not until they are late teenagers.
For context, the author of the graphic novel grew up as a Latter-day Saint until about the age of twelve, at which time his parents divorced and his mother worked to separate the children from the Church as best she could. The research and writing of the graphic novel was an effort to connect to the faith of his childhood and evaluate it for himself. And while he handles Joseph Smith with a fair amount of respect and is more sympathetic than other authors might have been, he did make choices that were not entirely comfortable to me as a Latter-day Saint who would like the next generation of his family to stay in the Church. A few of those key choices:
- Polygamy is a disturbing topic in Church history and is on full display throughout the graphic novel. He even includes Emma catching Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger having sex in a barn (nothing pornographic is shown, they are mostly hidden behind a blanket). Joseph is also portrayed as always approaching the women he marries alone and proclaiming the marriage alone, rather than approaching male relatives as well for permission and having them perform the marriages (which was most often the case in the historical record). The tarring and feathering incident in Kirtland is portrayed as a direct result of Joseph Smith wooing a local woman. The result of all this is that Joseph Smith feels like a womanizer who is constantly going after other women. Emma’s reactions are shown throughout, which is heart wrenching, particularly when Hyrum reads the revelation that says if she won’t accept polygamy, she will be destroyed (at which point she fractures)
- The beginning focuses a lot on treasure hunting in Joseph Smith’s youth, with it being implied in conversations that he would make up the Book of Mormon to answer curiosity about Native American burial mounds.
- The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor is portrayed as a solo command given by Joseph Smith in anger rather than an extensive deliberation by a council that was terrified of mob violence.
A mix of historical inaccuracies, approaching things from a fairly naturalistic point of view, and inclusion of a mature topic give me pause about using this as an introduction to Joseph Smith for younger children.
Finally, to the third question (how much did I enjoy and appreciate the graphic novel?), I would say that I enjoyed it a lot. Aside from the points of discomfort that I mentioned above, the vast majority of the book was very engaging and I had a hard time putting it down. The story is well-told in a fun artistic style (and, as I’ve mentioned before, the book itself is beautiful). And it is mostly accurate to the historical record (with only a couple intentioned changes for the sake of storytelling). So, in sum, I had a lot of fun reading Joseph Smith and the Mormons, by Noah Van Sciver.