March: Book One

graphic memoir an inspiration to new generations

READ IT by Bruce Mason

March: Book One
• He is a a civil rights icon and the sole surviving speaker of the 1963 Freedom March on Washington as well as a 12-term US Representative (Democrat) of the Congressional 5th District of Georgia.

John Lewis
John Lewis

Now, add comic book superhero to the list of John Lewis’ legendary achievements.

Last August, when Common Ground was celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Lewis was launching the first instalment of his autobiographical trilogy in the graphic novel format. His historic memoir is titled March: Book One.

“I’m deeply concerned that the present generation has failed to grasp what happened,” he explained. “And I think this would be a way for them to understand, to learn, be inspired to speak out and act.”

A right-on message: March: Book One – now in its third printing – spent many months at the top of the New York Times and Washington Post bestseller lists, racking up almost unprecedented attention and prestigious awards. It was also frequently cited as one of the best books in 2013 – including Amazon, and Apple iBooks – and recommended by Reader’s Digest as a “Graphic Novel Every Grown-Up Should Read!”
illustration of restaurant patrons

The ongoing project is a collaboration with his congressional aide Andrew Aydin and award-winning artist Nate Powell (Any Empire, Swallow Me Whole). Publisher Top Shelf Productions has just unveiled the cover art for March: Book Two, the most eagerly anticipated graphic novel, ever, due out in January.

There’s a compelling back-story. After the 2008 US election, Aydin confessed that attending a comic book convention was among his post-campaign plans. As laughter died down, Lewis recalled a 1957 comic book – Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Published by The Fellowship of Reconciliation to introduce principles and strategies of nonviolence and passive resistance, it was widely circulated.

“It cost 10 cents and I doubt I would have become involved without it,” Lewis explained. “It sold me on the power of comic books to bring stories alive, became our bible, our gospel and helped prompt the first sit-in in 1960 at a Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, N.C. (The 16-page comic sold 250,000 copies, made its way to South Africa, recently re-appeared during the Arab Spring and has been re-released, including in digital format).

In 1998, Lewis wrote a memoir, Walking With the Wind, widely recognized as a definitive study of the movement, followed up in 2012 with Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change. But Aydin pressed the graphic genre’s ability to tell a very serious story in the vein of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a story of the Holocaust). Also, for generations, comic books have excelled in colourfully portraying heroics in standing up and fighting for justice.

In rare free moments, Lewis and Aydin rolled up their sleeves to reach out to new audiences, including Gen Y-ers, Millenials and others who avoid historical memoirs. No need to over-dramatize, or add new details – among other things, Lewis has been arrested 24 times, was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders and among the “Big Six” (with King, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins). In somber realism, crisply narrated from Lewis’ perspective, March: Book One is set in the 2009 Obama inauguration, flashing back to childhood in rural Pike County, Alabama, college in Nashville and leading sit-ins, ending at a lunch counter that finally serves African-Americans.

Breaking free from static orderliness, intentionally jagged and spilling over page edges, it’s Powell’s graphics that mesmerize. Like acclaimed graphic novels Maus and Persepolis, it’s a coming-of-age tale set against violent confrontations, the sweep of history, witnessed with immediacy, individuality, heartbeat and breath.

Drawing the 121-page black-and-white comic close to the ground, from a child’s perspective, Powell says, “I could slip into his shoes, as he raised chickens on his sharecropper parents’ farm, practising preaching to them, preparing to become a pastor. Hiding under the porch to sneak away and hop on the school-bus each day to get an education, his mom chasing after him.”

There is a stark depiction of Lewis’ pivotal first trip to New York, a journey by car with his uncle. They brought their own food because no restaurants would serve them, meticulously planning gas-stops, the pre-teen Lewis, sweat dripping from his brow, his uncle grimacing, tightly gripping the steering wheel.

Finding an appropriate and powerful way to respectfully depict the 1955 murder of Emmett Till was a challenge, Powell admits. The 14-year-old was brutally beaten and murdered, one of his eyes gouged out, his body weighted with barbed wire in the Tallahatchie River, after reportedly flirting with a white woman.

The myriad triumphs and hooks include nightmarish opening drawings of the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” it was reported around the world. Before going to hospital, a bloodied, televised Lewis – his skull fractured and with scars he still bears – demanded intervention, pressuring Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Bill into law later that year.

Bill Clinton says, “John Lewis brings a whole new generation with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, from a past of clenched fists into a future of outstretched hands.”

It is rare for an engaging, timelessly resonant work of history to be told from the eyewitness perspective of a central figure, unprecedented for that figure to utilize the graphic format for a much needed tool to help disassemble violence and injustice.

“You can almost taste or feel or smell what is happening, like the comic book I read more than 50 years ago. It’s not just my story, it’s the story of a movement and I hope it inspires new generations,” says Lewis.

“I write about my parents telling me, ‘Don’t get in trouble, don’t get in the way,’ but people are too quiet,” he adds. “We all can make a contribution. We all can get in the way. We all can get into good trouble, necessary trouble, to change things.”

As governments become as zany as any comic book, Lewis and Top Shelf have presented digital copies of March: Book One and the 1950s comic to officials on Capitol Hill. It’s also on school reading lists in 30 states and at major universities, with a rapidly growing reach. Download a teacher’s guide at: http://cdn.topshelfcomix.com/guides/march-book-one-teachers-guide.pdf

The book is readily available. I picked up a copy at the Comic Shop at 3518 W. 4th in Vancouver. (www.thecomicshop.ca). For 40 years, it has specialized in the genre. A visit is an eye-opener on the contemporary comic book world. We’ll be back in a future Read It!

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