November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Civil Rights Legend Congressman John Lewis Tells His Story in ‘March’ Graphic Novel

Congressman John Lewis, his comics-obsessed staffer Andrew Aydin, and veteran graphic novelist Nate Powell have collaborated on a powerful new graphic novel memoir, March (Top Shelf Productions), that may well take its place among the greatest examples of that genre.

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1977 serving Georgia’s fifth district, Lewis is an icon of the American civil rights movement. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he had a direct hand in the March on Washington in 1963; the voter registration drives of Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, and the integrated interstate bus rides through the South known as the Freedom Rides starting in 1961. Lewis was there on Bloody Sunday in 1965, the violent confrontation between marchers and Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma—and has the scars to prove it. His is a remarkable story, ripe for retelling to inspire a new generation.

With the March trilogy, Lewis is doing exactly that. But it might not have happened without Aydin, who met Lewis while working on his 2008 re-election campaign. Growing up the son of a single mother in Atlanta (incidentally, Lewis’s district), Aydin had a natural affinity for underdogs, hence his love of comics—and politics. On the campaign trail, the team would share their personal stories, and Lewis, a gifted storyteller, contributed his own. When talk turned to what the staff members would do after the campaign, Aydin said that he planned to attend Comic Con, the annual comics conference. Teasing ensued. But Lewis came to Aydin’s defense, recalling that he and his friends drew inspiration from a 1956 comic, Martin Luther and the Montgomery Story.

Writing Lewis’s story

Aydin then approached Lewis and proposed that he adapt his life story as a graphic novel. Lewis agreed, on the condition that they work on the project together. Aydin joined Lewis’s staff and began developing the manuscript. He studied Lewis’s memoir Walking with the Wind (S & S, 1998) and interviewed the congressman whenever they could grab an opportunity. Lewis and Aydin submitted the finished manuscript to Top Shelf Productions. Now they had to find the right artist to bring it to life.

Enter Nate Powell, a recipient of the Eisner Award—the Oscars of the comics industry—who had just completed work on another graphic novel with a civil rights theme, The Silence of Our Friends (First Second, 2012). With a visual style that complemented Lewis’s story, Powell also demonstrated a capacity for period research. And he was eager to illustrate Lewis’s memoir.

It didn’t take long for Powell to win over Lewis and Aydin and gain their confidence. “Congressman Lewis and I spent a lot of time talking about what to include,” says Aydin. “But ultimately we had to trust Nate to do what he does best. He is so talented, with such a deep understanding of the comics medium, that at a certain point we had to just step back and let his work bring this story to life.”

Once Powell began breaking down the script, the trio realized that March would be much longer than they’d envisioned—about 500 pages. Aydin suggested a trilogy—a perfect fix, since the story was already neatly divided into three chapters.

Aydin’s narrative also had to be refined for it to shine in graphic novel form. “The most fundamental challenge is finding the line between an accurate representation of real people and their lives and a personal, emotionally expressive way of approaching the narrative visually,” says Powell. That “often requires ‘moving past’ the script entirely, seeing what else might be in the scene that’s not necessarily included in the script.”

This sensibility is evident throughout the book—perhaps nowhere more than in the prologue. In a preview of the Bloody Sunday conflict, the marchers, led by Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams, apprehensively head over the bridge toward an ominous mob of policemen. A trooper with a bullhorn yells at the crowd to turn back—and moments later, orders an attack. All hell breaks loose. Multiple graphic strategies heighten the tension in the scene: the shifting perspectives; the size, shape, and placement of the panels; the lettering and speech balloons; and the stark black-and-white illustrations.

The chronology

March opens on the morning of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. As Lewis prepares to attend the historic occasion, he has the opportunity to reminisce about the road that has led to this moment. Flashbacks take readers back to the congressman’s childhood, providing formative glimpses into the life of this Alabama sharecropper’s son. Memories of raising chickens quickly give way to images of racial injustice, early landmarks in the movement—Brown v. Board of Education, the murder of Emmett Till, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Lewis entered discussion with Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. about integrating Troy State College in Alabama as an incoming freshman. But his parents objected and Lewis eventually entered a Baptist theological seminary in Nashville, TN, where the movement came to another critical juncture. “I have thought about that often. Not being admitted to Troy State, my parents not supporting the decision to try and enroll there, that was a blessing,” says Lewis. “If I had gone to Troy State, I would not have met individuals who injected into my heart, into my blood, into my DNA, the very spirit of nonviolence.”

Having embraced the ideals of nonviolence, a group of college students, including Lewis, instigate a 1960 sit-in. It leads to a confrontation on the steps of Nashville City Hall where the story closes. The second volume of March, anticipated for 2014, will carry the story to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Early response

Meanwhile, the first volume—which bears an unprecedented jacket quote from former President Bill Clinton—had earned several starred reviews leading up to its publication on August 13. When Lewis, Aydin, and Powell made appearances at conferences including Book Expo America, the American Library Association Annual Conference, and Comic Con, it was abundantly clear that March’s message was resonating in the way that Lewis had hoped.

“I want young readers to understand that another generation of young people, who tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and discrimination, came to that point where they said, ‘We won’t take it anymore,’” Lewis says. “I would love readers to recognize that it was just ordinary people who believed so deeply that they were moved to act. And I hope they see what it took to be willing to speak up and speak out. They had raw courage, enough courage—literally—to put their bodies on the line. People were prepared to die for what they believed in.”

“I think, today, it is more important than ever for young people—and those not so young—to take a long hard look at some of the things going on around them and ask themselves, ‘What can I do?’” he continues. “Sometimes I feel like many of the things we fought for in the ’50s and the ’60s are being attacked again, and it is up to all of us to work together and keep fighting. We can’t go back. The only place for us to go is forward and each and every one of us has a contribution to make.”


Jonathan Hunt (hunt_yellow@yahoo.com) is a school librarian in Modesto (CA) City Schools. He reviews for Horn Book Magazine and blogs for SLJ at Heavy Medal.

This article was published in School Library Journal's September 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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