The bearing of respected men--their jaws resolute, their brows pointing forward, ready for action--has been characterized again and again in comics. Generals, star captains, superhuman beings, gumshoes, and countless versions of the everyman forced to determine his own fate have populated comic pages for over a century, and while biographies of real life heroes count as a fraction of books compared to their fictional counterparts, having one’s life story told in drawings and word balloons is not a new concept.
Rarely, though, does a graphic novel based on true events glide through such a complicated dance as March, an autobiography of sorts of Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights organizer and longtime representative of Georgia in the Capitol. His narration and experiences support the entire structure of the book, but his personal appearances within it don’t occupy nearly as much space as those who inspire him, teach him, participate and suffer with him. It is the story of a dedicated sect of nonviolent protesters told with the tone of a participant. Lewis is not illustrated as a singular leader set with a square stance against all comers. He is more often humbled, celebratory, or shown with eyes tumultuously accepting inspiration.
March: Book One, is the first volume in set of three. It covers Lewis’ young interest in preaching (albeit to a congregation of chickens), his exposure to the desegregated North, his aspiration to higher education, and the earliest organized student movements in Nashville: lunch counter sit-ins. Apart from his personal story, the book depicts a few of the innumerable conflicts between whites and African Americans that took place in the sixties, from tense personal situations to all out mob violence.
John Lewis still preaches the main tenets that made the movement successful. They seem so obvious and uncontroversial now that the violence and abuse heaped on African Americans in that time is viewed as despicable. But falling into the pages and witnessing the early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee brings a new dimension to their course of action. We watch them prepare for conflict by role-playing likely scenarios on their own. The students jeer, threaten, and attempt to break each other’s will. They practice going limp, protecting vital areas of their body, how best to survive the unknown outcome of social combat. Their dedication and preparation stands in stark contrast to the reactionary world we live in today.
Artist Nate Powell captures all of it--the Alabama farmland, the vintage downtowns of Southern cities, the expressions of worry, proud resistance, or cautious celebration--with his expressive style. His text folds into the story in dramatic ways like the jagged threats of police through a megaphone or the lyrics of protest hymns that unwind like banners incapable of being confined by jail bars.
The story is framed as a recounting of Lewis’ life to two young boys who visit him in his office on the morning Barack Obama was to be inaugurated in 2009, and the book is free of any high concept gymnastics. It is written to be understood by young people without being simplistic. The book has already enjoyed a clamor of pre-publication attention, not just from comic enthusiasts who are thrilled to see a high profile figure validate the medium they hold dear, but also by educators and librarians who think the book will be invaluable in telling the story to a new generation who might not even know how to decipher the familiar sound bytes of a history that has been too often compacted instead of explicated.
We live in a South now where we hope our most shameful days are behind us, even as new instruments of division and segregation are enacted seemingly without notice. The engine of non-violent protest sits rusting in the garage now, praised for how well it ran in its glory days but never correctly maintained. We need more books like March not just because they engage us and artistically capture history for us, but because we need the reminder of what real struggle was like. We need to be reminded of how necessary it is to push our hometowns, states, and the country itself to align our actions with our stated principles. March is not the story of one fight, but one chapter in an ongoing tale.
Images courtesy of Top Shelf Productions
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