On The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, by Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud’s The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln reads as if it had been pieced together by a team of expert comic-book historians from a great mass of often incomplete and even contradictory notes, sketches, finished storyboards, and false starts. At its best, and that’s particularly true for the final scene between the temporarily reincarnated Abraham Lincoln and the young African-American scholar Byron Johnson, the book carries sequences which read as if they’ve been lifted from a smartly satirical and yet entirely good-humoured masterpiece. At its worst, it’s a slackly-paced, imprecisely-constructed Saturday-morning cartoon allegory which can’t decide whether it wants to scream that the Republic is falling or suggest with a chuckle that this too will – most probably – pass.

Time has been kind to McCloud’s art for The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln. His first full-length project to feature work entirely executed on computer, its pages often seemed stiff, still and lifeless when the book first appeared. The ubiquity of the software which McCloud put to use combined with its over-familiar limitations originally left the tale feeling as if it were something of a vanity project, or an end-of-course exercise, an only-partially successful experiment whose strengths could have been at the very least equalled by more traditional pen’n’paper methods. But from the perspective of 2012, the juxtaposition of McCloud’s lively, expressive cartoon figures with the artifice suggested by the now-archaic computer techniques projects a sickly, claustrophobic sense of sympathetic characters trapped in a world of media-saturated meaninglessness, as was surely always McCloud’s intention. What once seemed like gimmicky, underachieving pages now carry the same suggestion of a nostalgically idealised, unhealthily sanitised world which a Rockwell parody might, with the air of an America so peculiarly mannered and predictable that it can only be hiding something distinctly unhealthy underneath its uncomfortably artificial surface. McCloud’s visual representation of an everyday USA dominated by a faithless faith-based community is still close enough to life as it’s lived to be convincing, and yet airlessly enough removed to quietly, surreptitiously disturb.

Sadly, the years have not added any greater bite, pace or depth to the majority of McCloud’s script. His decision to present the conflict between political reality and mendacious tub-thumping, between historical truth and self-interested credulity, in the terms of a broad and undemanding all-ages farce only succeeds in undermining the force of his satire. On the one hand, we’re presented with the corruption of America’s body politic by a love of sensation over substance, symbolism over meaning. The USA, we discover, has been taken over by a cabal headed by a patently unconvincing simulacra of Lincoln, who successfully plays up to the nation’s love of reassuring, undemanding, feel-good sound-bites. Yet it’s as if McCloud can’t bring himself to add any convincing touch of real menace to the conspiracy. The anti-Lincoln’s lies are so obvious, and his citizen shock-troops so incompetent, that it’s hard to feel any sense of jeopardy at all. Of all the dramatic forms, there are few if any which demand as much rigour as farce turned to a satirical purpose, and yet time and again, McCloud’s small gang of truth-dealing rebels ineptly challenge the status quo only to escape without suffering any seriously troublesome consequences. Yet a profoundly, wilfully stupid opponent is not by definition one that’s easily defied, let alone challenged and defeated. If anything, the very history which McCloud’s work here is designed to celebrate tells us the opposite is regrettably true.

Approached in the form of a page-a-day web-comic, McCloud’s work would undoubtedly read as an enjoyable if rambling distraction. He’s a master of the gentle sight-gag, the telling double-take, the beguiling page-turner. But from the other side of the wormhole that’s 2012, where the determination of the self-proclaimed faith-based community to actively scorn empiricism and reasoned debate has become even more terrifyingly evident, The New Adventures Of Abraham Lincoln reads as if it had been crafted by a satirist who just couldn’t take his target seriously enough. The most apparently frivolous surface can succeed in landing a forcefully satirical blow, and yet, by the time the Republic’s corruption is shown by McCloud to have been masterminded by a pair of alien Robber-Baron jelly-monsters, the forward momentum of the plot of The New Adventures Of Abraham Lincoln has been fatally holed. If the worst excesses of no-nothing ignorance and far-right conceits can ultimately be ascribed to the menace of extra-terrestrial mind-control messing with a generally disengaged and idle-minded populace, then what was the point of McCloud ringing the Liberty Bell for so long in the first place?

But there are other aspects of The New Adventures Of Abraham Lincoln beyond its oddly beguiling artwork which mean that the book’s anything but a throw-away indulgence. One of these is the characterisation of Byron Johnson, lauded by his paraplegic veteran father as “the smartest kid in town!”, a role which has regrettably rarely been given in comics to young African-American boys. Byron’s mastery of the facts of American history, which allows him to serves as the book’s voice of reason, is matched with a touching naivety, which leads to him being unable to grasp, for example, that Congress might not be too concerned that the Constitution’s being fundamentally undermined. The illusion and the reality of the American State are always at war inside his mind, though the unfortunate truth of how things are seems to understandably hold something of the upper hand. No matter how knowledgeable and apparently cynical Byron becomes, he never throws off his belief that there is such a thing as historical truth, or his longing to discover that the compromised great men of the USA’s past might be closer to the paragons of myth than his studies would allow. Continually tempted by the legend of Lincoln while being perpetually unable to suppress his considerable doubts, Byron’s aching for a world that makes moral sense, rather than one which disingenuously pretends to do so, helps to anchor all but the most frivolous sequences in the book.

When matched with the reincarnation of the historical Lincoln, who’s been mysteriously reborn to stand for the Republic in its hour of crisis against his apparent Presidential doppelganger, Byron’s inability to throw off either admiration or doubt defines him as one of the most endearing and inspiring characters in American graphic fiction. Too often the warring between the Lincolns takes on the form of Kirbyesque confrontations, which regrettably reduces the page-space which can be allocated to the conversations between the supposedly saintly 19th century President and the sharp and conflicted Black student from 1998. For in the three-page discussion between boy and man at the book’s end, McCloud succeeds in presenting a dialogue which is as moving as it’s academically pertinent. Lincoln, promising not to loose his temper as he so often does, encourages Byron to ask him any question he wants to, and yet still manages to dodge the issue of whether he believed Negroes were “the equal of whites”. In the end, Byron’s left with nothing but silence and a suddenly-lifeless statue of America’s 16th President, and we’re left with the reminder that some historical truths are unknowable, while some historical characters are at least as compromised as they’re commendable. It is, for my money, the finest single example of McCloud’s work that we’ve as yet been presented with, smart and moving, questioning and humane. Radicals and conservatives alike won’t struggle for reasons to challenge the meaning of McCloud’s farewell to his own take on Lincoln, which is, no doubt, the whole point of the exercise.

Strip away the wearisomely exuberant and often-story-slowing laxness and repetition, trim out the Scooby-Doo arc of them-damned-kids-who-stopped-us-getting-away-with-it, and there remains a solid core of excellent if unintegrated moments in The New Adventures Of Abraham Lincoln. The ersatz Lincoln’s burlesquing through a greatest hits set of contextless political sound-bites to the cheers of a brain-washed crowd; the genuine Abraham’s failure to deliver a crowd-rousing adaptation of the Gettysburg Address; the entirely convincing farce of the vicious TV debate between the one media-savvy 16th President and his disastrously unprepared double; McCloud’s work here is at its best when it’s at its most savage and smart.

No matter how the creator of The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln seems to have struggled to undermine the ultimate success of his own work, it remains in places a captivating and vital achievement. To read it is to be frustrated far more than delighted, but the best of it is more than worth the frustration. Now as then, America needs not another Lincoln, but a great critical mass of citizens who know as much about old honest, answer-dodging Abe as McCloud’s Byron Johnson does. For all its faults, it’s hard to think of too many other graphic novels which ultimately make that point as movingly and effectively as The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln does.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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