march cover

I consider myself to be an exceedingly lucky person. I have a loving family and good friends. I’ve never felt the threat of poverty. I was born in a time and place where even with tan skin and unusual features I have rarely felt endangered or even outcast. But, for the moment, I want to talk about one small good fortune from my childhood.

When I was young I took a trip to Washington DC. I was there to visit my uncle, who took us around and showed us some of the sights. My uncle had worked with a number of notable people in Washington and, on a trip to the capital building, we had the good fortune to have one of them come out and say hello.

That man was Congressman John Lewis.

He was obviously busy, but he took a little time to show us around and, finding ourselves before a large window, he lifted me up and showed me the national mall, where he had spoken some thirty years earlier, preceding Reverend Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

“That was an historic day,” he told me in his distinct way of talking.

I was a small child, without any full conception of the true significance of what was happening, but he lifted me up and showed me where it was that the history happened.

Over fifteen years later, Congressman Lewis is doing it again on a far grander scale, with the release of a graphic novel based on his life and experience.

Co-written with one of his staffers, Andrew Aydin, book one of March details Congressman Lewis’ early life, his first encounters with Social Gospel and nonviolent resistance, and his efforts as part of the Nashville Student Movement to desegregate the lunch counters at the local department stores.

Though it seems obvious that Aydin’s influence was a big part of this book coming to print, the words are solidly Lewis’. Anyone who’s ever heard Congressman Lewis speak will hear his diction, his compassion, and his talents as a storyteller in the text of this comic.

Aydin and Lewis seem acutely aware of the emotional power contained in a comic’s gutters. While some who follow the rules of writing strictly and literally might prefer a more dialogue centric approach, the ability to break up dialogue and narration into different panels ties the action, narration, and dialogue together into something more than the sum of its parts.

On one page Lewis describes his early reactions to the principles of non-violence; how he felt that it could be used to eliminate the evils that men face “The evil of racism – The evil of poverty – The evil of war.” And with each one is a small picture against a black backdrop: a hand holding a noose, a dirty hand reaching out for help, the stump where a hand used to be. It’s a simple device, perhaps too simple to some eyes, but, to me, it tells me how Lewis saw things then. The interconnectedness of evil and the reality of racism as only a portion of what he sought to rid the world off come through here. Indeed, throughout the graphic novel we find examples of pictures and memories being used to support and clarify Lewis’ recollections, just as we find the text of those recollections giving meaning and direction to the narrative of his early life. It’s very basic comic book theory but rarely does the connection come across so strongly as it does here.

It is hard to critique the writing of March, much as it must have been hard to write it, for it’s the account of a man’s life, one of the author’s lives no less. And especially in a comic that is so clearly and so deeply about those long cherished values of truth, justice, and the American way, it would feel strange to embellish or dramatize the action too much. However, that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of craft present; there is.march

One of the most interesting is the framing device used. While I cannot yet see the fruit it will bear, there is an undeniable sense of connection between past and present in setting the events of the present day on the morning of Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Though there’s a coincidence here and there, Aydin and Congressman Lewis have found strong ways to thread the narrative back and forth between the present and the past.

As you read the book, particularly as one approaches the end and sees the building momentum of the civil rights movement, it’s hard, for me at the very least, not to feel that this story is your story as well. I get the sense that that was a big part of why this book was written too. And it doesn’t matter whether you feel that as an American, or a person of color, or simply as a human being.

The balance between John Lewis’ personal story and the unfolding of the civil rights movement is excellently captured in, what seems to be, one of the congressman’s favorite metaphors: the spirit of history. Though the spirit is never explicitly stated to be religious in nature it does a fine job of capturing John Lewis as a man of faith and as a political activist, a preacher of the social gospel, and as the devout Christian believes that they are an instrument through which God’s will may be done, Congressman Lewis writes how he felt borne up by the tides of history, caught on and supported by the crest of change.

That said, you won’t find Lewis admitting to many flaws in this volume. The book resembles a one-to-one conversation with an elder relative rather than a modern biopic. Throughout, Lewis is presented as honest, hard-working, and kind, but he is also distinctly humble. Lewis is very clear that he was merely a part of the change. The story focuses less on John Lewis’ personal evolution and more on his search for a place to express the desire for justice he had felt from a young age. I think that’s probably for the best. There’s plenty of conflict already and, unfortunately, Lewis’ antagonists saw plenty wrong with him as it was.

Though the narration carries the story, the writers do a fine job to recreating the dialogue the occurred in Congressman Lewis’ life. There’s a real sense here that every line was considered carefully. Every page has its own flow and the dialogue pops with a sort of movie trailer energy. Whether due to knowledge or inexperience, Aydin makes sure that he follows comic book conventions and ensures that every page (and especially every other page) ends with the reader wanting more.

Aydin and Lewis use the medium to full effect, playing with the size and shape of word balloons. Winding connections between word balloons help give the book a sense of greater continuity and wispy tails give the reader a sense of the speaker’s emotional state. Even more important are the many balloons whose contents are small, almost beyond being legible.  The many tricks and conventions create a highlighting effect that allows certain thoughts to emerge and allows us a rare sense of knowing the thoughts behind the words.

Nate Powell brings this story to life with impressive clarity and a talent for visual metaphor. Faces are distinct and emotions recognizable and, even in the many smaller panels, it’s always apparent what the action is. Indeed, the comic has an interesting and highly effective look: unafraid to use large iconic panels, but often unwilling to sacrifice the ability to fit more pictures on a page.

Powell’s work is almost universally best when he’s playing with darkness and shadows. Though the book may be presented in black and white, the range of tones keeps it from feeling at all diminished. It’s not a high contrast comic, even if Powell has a clear appreciation for the power of jet black in a composition. Many of the best pages are those with black gutters.

The tricks in Powell’s arsenal are simple – images in two panels, contrasting backgrounds, cinematic framing, context specific exaggeration of facial features, non-rectangular panel designs – but he never lets that limit his creativity and the comic benefits greatly from the simplicity.

One essential fact about March is that it’s hopeful. I picked up a book about a people faced with incredible injustice and a cancer of the human spirit, but I put it down feeling strong, optimistic, connected. There’s something refreshing about reading a story about the struggles of race that can find space for jubilation at how far we’ve come and the necessity of continuing the fight for equality. In fact, the book almost wouldn’t work if not for this tone of optimism.

It’s hard to process that this man is still living and fighting and that, by extension, it wasn’t so long ago at all. But despite it all, Lewis never brags or calls out this generation, instead March feels like a reminder that a sharecropper’s son, or a young lawyer, or a couple of dedicated students can make all the difference. From lunch counters to voting booths, one stride for justice begets another. It’s a reminder that you’re not too small to make a difference.

Still, for all the positive energy radiating from the small volume, Lewis and Aydin don’t back away from the realities of segregation and racism. As much as hearing a man like Congressman Lewis speak can move you, I found that the graphic novel medium was justified time and again. You may know the facts of the civil rights movement but it can be surprising how seeing it in words and pictures can drive it home.

March is a little too intense and a bit too wordy to be a truly all-ages title, but I expect that it will be finding its way into classrooms before long. Parents wishing to teach their children about the triumphs and shame of America’s history will find March as valuable a resource as a socially minded college-student seeking inspiration or a reader who still remembers the days of separate drinking fountains. It’s an impressively honest piece of sequential art that demonstrates the power of comics to do something meaningful, much as Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story did for Congressman Lewis.

March presents a look into another time, one that can feel farther away than ever these days. Congressman Lewis’ voice is strong and his talents as a storyteller are crystal clear. The words and art are both beautiful and the authority of John Lewis’ experience gives the book a visceral power. While this sort of comic may not sound appealing to all readers, I encourage you to seek it out. You may well be surprised by how vital the material can be, especially under the pen of a congressman and his staffer.

Dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement,” March is a gift to each of its readers and a call for peace, tolerance, and engagement.