March: Book One
Graphic Novel by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin (writers), Nate Powell (illustrator)
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Release Date: 2013
Comics Alliance ran an interview three years ago with Georgia Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, the authors of the graphic novel March. For years, Andrew Aydin had been trying to convince his boss to write a comic book about his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. After recording the Atlanta-based congressman's stories, anecdotes, and conversations, Aydin and Lewis teamed up with Nate Powell and Top Shelf Productions (also located in Atlanta) and released Book One of the trilogy.
With the recent release of Book Three this summer, I decided it was time to read and review the first in this graphic-novel memoir about the famed congressman and his extraordinary efforts. In an NPR Interview with Lewis and Aydin, they discussed the book's genesis and inspiration, and the importance of comics during the Civil Rights Movement (I highly recommend giving it a listen). It's only fitting that a story like John Lewis's should make its way to the world of comics. One of the major inspirations during that time period, and the one that brought together Lewis with Aydin, was the comic book Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story, published in 1957. You can easily pick up a copy of it on Amazon for a couple of bucks.
The book begins with the Bloody Sunday event on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where Lewis and his fellow activists were confronted and beaten by Alabama state troopers during a peaceful march. It transitions to Washington, D.C. on the morning of January 20, 2009: President Barack Obama's first inauguration. This day acts as the frame for the entire story, and we learn about Lewis's childhood, religious upbringing, and introduction to the Civil Rights Movement as Lewis himself narrates it to a visiting mother and her two children (named Jacob and Esau) who are visiting him from Atlanta.
It would be an understatement to downplay how exemplary this graphic novel is. Lewis's narrative, supported by Aydin, moves forward at an even pace, bringing us through well-remembered moments in the future congressman's early life and showcasing the events that inspired him. Nate Powell's art is fantastic: I'm not sure which of the creator's developed the spacing and pacing between the panels, but the comic moves without feeling disjointed. No space is wasted, no panel ignored, and every choice, whether the background is detailed, blank, or black, works to expand the narrative. The dialogue is especially masterful, and not just in moments where actual dialogue was taken from recorded events, but in the small "asides" that characters often speak in hushed tones. One panel shows Lewis's parents sitting on rocking chairs outside their home, stating in a quiet lower-case font to "stay out of trouble." and "don't get in white people's way." These aren't commands they're giving, they're laws and rules to live by, spoken so often and so inherent in their being that the mere repetition of them seems redundant. Powell's expressions are particularly masterful. March is a world of faces, glaring and pleading and hoping and sweating. There is no stiffness here: the art is lively, and the use of black and white over color only enhances this.
The use of comic format is a refreshing angle on a story we've heard many times in different media. March made me stop every couple of pages and think about what it must have been like, how far we've come as a society, and yet how far we still have to go. At times it's scary to think about how circumstance and upbringing can shape a person's moral compass. What if I was a student at the time of the sit-ins, raised in a world where blacks were considered second-class citizens and worse? Would I be joining Lewis and his brave colleagues at the deli counter, or would I have been one of the aggressors, insulting them to maintain some demented form of status quo? March doesn't ask these questions of me as a reader, and it doesn't need to. It doesn't care about the "what ifs" of the world, only about its progression. In March, justice and equality are universal values that should never be compromised.
It feels like we need these books more than ever, especially near the end of President Obama's tenure as the country faces increased racial tension. It would seem that the angry white generation that fought against Lewis in his youth has not died out, nor have they stayed silent. March is there to remind us younger folks, who often take the work of the Civil Rights Movement for granted, that the fight is far from over.
I will be gladly picking up Book 2 and Book 3 at some point soon, and may showcase them here as well. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. March continues to show us that comics are a world of heroes, and not all heroes wear capes.