This is the story of a key figure in the civil rights movement – told by the man himself. Written in collaboration with congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and drawn by Nate Powell, this first volume of Congressman John Lewis’ autobiography is a moving look at a deeply influential man’s inspirations.
Focusing, in the beginning, on Lewis’ childhood in Pike County, Alabama, the comic quickly establishes the prevailing atmosphere of the Lewis family farm. Painfully aware of the injustice of segregation, John is a cautiously ambitious kid who fights to go to school when he’s told he’s needed at home. Inspired by a trip to New York, even though – and because – his journey there is fraught with danger, John has big plans; and when he applies to college, he even gets the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Meanwhile, small details about Lewis’ personality and habits as a child are given room to breathe, and become poetic, almost meditative moments. One sequence centering on his reverent treatment of the family chickens is unexpectedly moving, providing a fruitful metaphor for the events to come.
The seriousness of Lewis’ commitment to the series of protests that was to become the civil rights movement quickly becomes apparent, and as it comes to this point, the most remarkable thing about reading “March” is the effortlessness with which it depicts situations that required the utmost of effort. In intense workshop sessions, Lewis and other protestors rehearsed all the possible things that could happen to them during sit-ins, actively trying to break each other down so that they would be able to withstand the real thing, and maintain their non-violent stance. It’s a harrowing idea, but even when they are depicted withstanding all of horrible treatment during the sit-ins, it’s the determination and the almost zen-like level of concentration that the protestors achieved that shines through.
Nate Powell’s art tells this story with grace and zeal, excelling particularly at those meditative moments thanks to a delicate and subtle feel for facial expression. Every panel is rich with texture and interest, and set off by a careful use of light and shadow; looming boundaries and borders are constantly being suggested, and contrasted with broad, unimpeded vistas. Even the layouts have a poetry to them, with lots of framing blank space lending a spacious, universal quality to the smallest of incidents. The hand lettering is another humanizing touch, with Powell employing all-minuscules at apt moments. There couldn’t have been a better fit for this story than Powell’s art, and the perfection of the match-up is apparent at every turn of the page.
A really readable, moving and inspiring biography is a feat and half; but that is what March already feels like, and we’re only one volume in. Tempering political content with introspection and deeply felt emotion, this is an educational read with heart and soul; a history that inspires, and makes the most of both the personal and political aspects of its subject.
“March” is published by Top Shelf Productions.