March: Book One
Created by: Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
Published by: Top Shelf
ISBN: 1603093001 (Amazon)
Just a couple reviews ago, I talked up the value of graphic novels in drawing out empathy in readers. For many of us, the best way to understand people who are different from us or other than us is not through dry academic description—much better to feel the life of another person as if you were intimately concerned with their fortunes. Representative John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell have succeeded tremendously in bringing a particular milieu of the middle of the twentieth century to a point of contact with the soul of the reader.
I did not grow up caring about the black civil rights movement. It was a distant thing. Like the Holocaust or Vietnam. Like trust-busting, flagpole-sitting, and chimney sweeps. I grew up on the beach in South Orange County across the ‘80s. I was so deep into white privilege that I wasn’t aware that racism was still a thing. Maybe in pockets in the South where all the backwards people lived. Again, a million miles away.
I had grown into a social ideology in which Colour Blindness was the ultimate expression of love one for another. It was what we were to evolve toward in our path to moral social perfection. I didn’t really think of people in terms of their ethnicities or ancestries. Unless they had an accent. But then, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to practice interaction. White was the ninety-plus percent majority of my highschool. A handful of Latinos, some Asians, and like four black kids. There was, I think, also a French girl. She was more alien than any non-whites in our midst. I treated the black kids I knew identically to how I treated the white kids I knew. They were just friends or acquaintances or enemies like any other kid. So far as I knew, racism was a virulence that was choked out fifty years earlier.
Kids are terrible at simple math when it comes to measuring time. They also aren’t great at putting themselves in other shoes.
I never once asked myself or my friends: Hey, what’s it like to be the only dark face in a sea of blotchy pinks? I knew what it was like to be an outsider. Coming from a lower middle class family that struggled to meet ends, I knew what it was like to be an alien in what was and still is a ridiculously wealthy community. Having pretty bad acne, I knew what it was like to be uncomfortable in my own skin. Being a deeply shy introvert, I knew what it was like to have a lot of trouble socializing. Pursuing an avid comics readership, I knew what it was like to be ostracized for awkward tastes. I knew deep enough within my soul that it informed my every public action—I knew what it was like to be different. And yet I never once considered the lives and circumstances and histories of these non-whites in our midst. I was naive and careless enough to think that just treating people as I (an individual with my own life and circumstance and history) would wish to be treated was enough.
And that’s why I never really bothered to care about the civil rights marches, the laws, the continued biases, the presence of deep-seated racial biases in our film and television entertainments. And even if I was old enough to understand what institutionalized racism meant, I wouldn’t have been able to see it or care. It wasn’t until years later, at the tutelage of a fifteen-minute clip from the beginning of Mississippi Burning that any of that began to creep in. If I had read a book like March in my comics-steeped junior high and highschool days, I would have gotten a headstart on a journey I’m still stumbling down—a journey to love each person in the best way possible according to the contexts that are unique to their individual lives.
I was looking forward to March wholly on the involvement of Nate Powell. I was aware that Congressman Lewis was involved and that at least in some respect this was his story. I hadn’t read any Lewis and was unfamiliar with his career (my disappointment with American politics is so total that I don’t even know11Perhaps shamefully, perhaps not. who my state’s representatives are) and I was unfamiliar with the co-writer, Andrew Aydin. But Nate Powell I will follow to world’s end.
And Powell, as usual, is on fire here. His art—both the staging and the linework itself—is perfect. A co-worker who doesn’t read comics walked by as I had the volume open and without knowing what I was looking at remarked: “That’s beautiful.” He was right. The book is printed in black and white, with grey washes for shading, and the work is great. The desaturation evokes old television or photography and moves the reader into the past. The washes give the illustrations an easy flow and blend, helping the reader wade into an atmosphere and time to which many would otherwise struggle to adjust. Powell draws us into John Lewis’ story—into his life—without effort.22Or so it seems. Powell is so on top of his game that we don’t see any nail-biting or hesitation in his work. It’s just there. As if Powell waved his hand absently in the direction of a blank page and Representative Lewis’ life simply emerged by fiat.
The reality, of course, is likely way more frustration, careful balancing of ideas, and long long hours of wrist-cramping labour. But it doesn’t look like that. And it’s a pretty tremendously interesting life.
Congressman Lewis participated in the 1963 civil rights march on Washington DC. He was the youngest speaker at an event that is mostly widely remembered for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream.” March is the story of the March On Washington, told as memoir from John Lewis himself. And Book One doesn’t ever arrive at even the beginning of the march, instead spending its time exploring the childhood and young adulthood of Representative Lewis. In approaching the story obliquely and wholly as prologue, March: Book One gives readers a sense of place—a foothold into what may otherwise be a largely alien landscape. We see young John and his family making a living in rural Alabama. We see the strict rules that governed the ways they could interact with the world around them. We see young John’s thirst for justice and righteousness. We see John take up the role of preacher, and we see his burgeoning interest in liberation theology and the social gospel. And we see the early sparks that lit the conflagration of the civil rights movement—that would burn away so much of the accumulated ethical detritus that dirtied America from sea to shining sea. It was to be a holy, sanctifying fire—a movement that could be a seraphamic coal to America’s tongue, if only the nation would stand up and say, “Here I am!”
March: Book One ends well short of the reader discovering how America would react. In its pages, we see some early-stage sit-ins and some of the struggles that the black (and some white) protestors would have to endure. The book concludes on a rhetorical high note, a small but potent political victory, but still feels as though it precedes the current day by about a million years. I will be grateful to the completed work for how well it will help today’s generation bridge the gulf between the civil rights struggles of yesterday and the very different (but still virulent) racial turmoil facing the nation today.
In fact, if I have one thing to hold against March: Book One, it’s that it is Book One—this is a story that thirsts for completion. The continued reccountment of these stories is, in its way, as important as the events themselves. Without being brought to life again and again, the power of this history will wane—will fade into bare academic fact, lifeless datapoints known only by rote, and therefore powerless and hollow. March is good and important and I’m proud of the medium for being its vessel. Would that all worthwhile history was recorded with the care and accessibility of John Lewis’ March.
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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