March: Book One
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
(Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2013. 121 pp.)
If you were never a comic-book fan, you might be suspicious of the graphic genre’s ability to tell a serious story. March puts those doubts to rest. In the vein of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a story of the Holocaust told in comic-book format), March: Book One chronicles the early life of civil rights leader and twelfth-term U.S. Representative John Lewis, from his boyhood in rural Alabama to his involvement in the Nashvile student sit-in movement. Published in summer 2013, this is the first volume in Lewis’s March trilogy of graphic memoirs.
March is the result of a somewhat unlikely collaboration between Lewis, his congressional aide Andrew Aydin, and artist Nate Powell. In 2008, Aydin, a comic-book fan, caught flack from his fellow Lewis staffers for his hobby. Lewis defended his young employee, recalling a comic book about Martin Luther King, Jr. that circulated among college students in the early days of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was published by The Fellowship of Reconciliation, commonly known as F.O.R. It employed the format of a comic book to introduce student activists to the principles and strategies of nonviolence and passive resistance that would become the trademark tactics of the movement.
Inspired by the F.O.R. comic book, Aydin convinced his boss that they could share Lewis’s story with a new audience by presenting it in graphic-memoir form. They enlisted the services of Nate Powell, a young artist from Little Rock who had already earned acclaim for his comics and graphic novels.
Narrated from Lewis’s perspective, March opens on the morning of January 20, 2009, as the congressman prepares to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama. It quickly flashes back to his childhood in rural Pike County, Alabama, and follows Lewis to college in Nashville, where he establishes himself as a leader in the stuent sit-ins. The volume ends in May 1960, when, worn down by the persistence of Lewis, Diane Nash, and others, a handful of downtown Nashville lunch counters agreed to serve African-American customers.
In its first year of publication, March has topped the New York Times bestseller list in the graphic category—an impressive feat for a volume on a historical subject. Much of the praise it has received has centered on the book’s potential to tell Lewis’s story to a “new audience.” This does not mean a children’s or young-adult audience so much as one of Gen Y-ers and Millenials who might otherwise avoid historical memoir in their reading material. Powell’s work has a strong following among fans of the graphic genre, as does the catalog of Atlanta-based comics publisher Top Shelf Productions. March is accessible without feeling oversimplified, and indeed it might become a succesful teaching tool in middle- and high-school classrooms.
Students of civil rights and Southern history, including those who have read Lewis’s 1999 memoir Walking with the Wind, might be inclined to dismiss March for their own reading. And to be fair, it’s unlikely that serious history buffs will learn any new details of Lewis’s story in the first volume. But I encourage them to pick up a copy of March nonetheless. Powell’s graphics, rendered in shades of black and white, are bold and affecting, pairing powerfully with the simple, engaging prose co-written by Lewis and Aydin. Read March by yourself, read it with your class, read it with your older children. By the time Lewis, Aydin, and Powell announce the release date for volume two, you’ll be eager for more.
This review first appeared in the Southern Register, the quarterly newsletter of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Missisissippi.