By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 08/19/2013 10:00 am EST
Publish date: August 14, 2013 Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Top Shelf’s new release March: Book One has been getting a lot of attention—coverage from USA Today, NPR, and The Colbert Report—and with good reason. Yes, this book has the distinction of being the first graphic novel written (at least in part) by a U.S. congressman, which is no doubt part of the reason for its exposure. But it’s the book’s content, and the closeness of that content to its author, that makes this book deserving of all the press.
Rep. John Lewis’ roots as a social reformer and politician are firmly planted in the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. March, which will continue across two more volumes, charts his growth both as an individual and as part of the groundbreaking group of African Americans that staged sit-ins, boycotts, and nonviolent protests as they fought for desegregation and equality on local and national stages. It’s powerful material for any writer, but as an autobiographical work it is downright stunning. What Lewis and his co-author, Andrew Aydin (also one of Lewis’ staff members), have managed to create is a resonant personal narrative that draws you in with its humanity and forces you to not merely witness, but experience, the trials of a young black man coming of age in a racially-charged south.
The book begins innocently enough, as a pre-teen Lewis learns the value, and fragility, of life. Living on a farm with his family, Lewis raises chickens and even practices preaching in front of them. The chickens become Lewis’ gateway to empathy. He considers them friends and becomes ethically opposed to their inevitable fate at the dinner table. What Lewis learns from the chickens is subjectivity—by placing a name and face on something, he becomes that much more tied to it. Achieving this through farm animals might sound silly, but the sincerity behind Lewis’ recollections makes it anything but.
This projection of humanity takes a much more meaningful form once Lewis joins a group of nonviolent protesters as a young college student. A visceral, gut-wrenching montage shows the group, consisting of blacks and a few whites, preparing for any eventuality, including verbal and physical abuse. In all things, they are trained to maintain eye contact, forcing their assailants to acknowledge, on some base level, that they are speaking to a person. It’s through details like this, small insights that only someone who was present for these meetings could even conceive of, that March proves its most emotionally compelling.
The book covers a wide expanse of time, roughly 15 years, but moves things along a brisk pace, thanks to its efficient storytelling and clever framing device (much of Lewis’ youth is recounted to two children visiting his office on January 20, 2009, while other various stimuli bring forth later recollections). There is no wasted space in this book—everything that happens is tied to its thematic core—and the narrative momentum is utterly compelling. One particularly effective scene involves Lewis’ first meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis takes a silent ride to Montgomery and enters a church, walking down dark, imposing hallways, before he (and we) finally step into an office and lay eyes on the most prolific figure of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a larger-than-life moment for Lewis, and we are right there with him.
A hefty part of the credit for all of this success is due to the book’s artist, Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole). His visuals, like the best comic art, drive this story and inform our emotional response. The words of Lewis and Aydin are powerful in their own right, but the moody shadows, the expressions of the characters, the sparse and shocking brutality—these are what draw us in to Lewis’ personal experience.
During an interview on his show, Stephen Colbert jokingly asked Lewis if comics were a dignified enough medium for a story like this. March, a brilliant marriage of word and image, where each does its half of the job with precision, is the perfect example of a story that was made for sequential art. As I read, I was constantly reminded of Marjane Satrapi’s terrific Persepolis, primarily for the hard-hitting, insightful first-hand narration of its author. Where March outpaces Persepolis, however, is in its art. Satrapi’s art in Persepolis is never much utilized as an equal part of the narrative, largely providing a basic visual representation of events and letting the words convey the bulk of the emotion. The artwork in March is distinct, impactful, and does just as much to inform our experience as any of the text does.
And just what “march” does the title suggest? There are early allusions to 1963’s March on Washington and 1965’s Selma-to-Montgomery March, but the specifics of these events are largely saved for later volumes. There is a smaller-scale march, on Nashville City Hall in 1960, depicted here, but the title ultimately means something else. This March is not exclusively one of people striding down a sidewalk, but also of history, and culture, relentlessly moving towards a goal. The title is about the endurance and perseverance of our better natures in the face of aggressive opposition.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.