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Decatur Book Festival: Keynote speaker, rights hero John Lewis tells his story in a graphic novel

March, John LewisIt has to be some kind of first when a U.S. congressman is the subject and co-author of a graphic novel.

The congressman is Georgia’s John Lewis, and the book a trilogy titled March. Produced in collaboration with Andrew Aydin, who handles Lewis’ telecommunications and new media, and star illustrator Nate Powell, it’s a powerful autobiographical chronicle of the civil rights movement told in graphic-novel form.

The first volume, which Booklist calls “dazzling,” will be available August 13, preceding Lewis’ August 30 appearance as keynote speaker of the Decatur Book Festival

Using President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration as a narrative link between past and present, March revisits key events described in Lewis’ 1999 autobiography, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. It also dramatizes incidents not previously covered in any of his writings.

All the details and characters are drawn from his life, with the partial exception of a single mother and her two young sons, Jacob and Esau, who visit Lewis’ office on Inauguration Day. They are composites of real people, and they serve as a link between present and past in the narrative structure.

Aydin, who was Lewis’ press secretary during his 2008 primary campaign, had long thought that the civil rights leader’s story would make a compelling subject for a comic book. Aydin is a lifelong fan of the genre and used Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a now historic comic book published in the 1950s, as the subject of his graduate thesis in public and social policy. The comic book, which told the story of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks’ crucial role, is in the collection acquired for Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights. Now used as a teaching tool by the Fellowship of Reconciliation as part of its curriculum on nonviolence, it convinced Aydin of the genre’s potential to tell the larger story of the civil rights movement and its ideals.

He had suggested the idea to Lewis many times, and one day in July 2008 the congressman consented, on the condition that Aydin co-write it.

I guess that was a put-up-or-shut-up moment,” Aydin said in a telephone interview from Washington. “I’d never written a comic book before, but … you know, you shouldn’t be afraid to do something just because you’ve never done it before.”

Over the next few years, Aydin and Lewis would collaborate often after office hours, working late into the evening, with Lewis recounting events from his life and the movement while Aydin recorded them. His next step was more daunting: shaping and editing the material into a comprehensive but compact narrative that would not exceed the standard length of a comic book.

Aydin, Lewis and Powell at the "Bloody Sunday" site in Selma.
Aydin, Lewis and Powell at the infamous “Bloody Sunday” site in Selma, Alabama.

He wondered whether any comic publisher would agree to produce and distribute the unconventional book. Then a chance encounter with comic book artist and writer Jimmy Palmiotti at the 2009 DragonCon convention in Atlanta proved fateful. Palmiotti encouraged Aydin to pitch March as a graphic novel, not a comic book, to Chris Staros, the publisher of Top Shelf Productions.

Staros was sufficiently curious to arrange a meeting and, Aydin recalls, told him, “Look, I know you’ve never written anything like this before, but you have some experience writing and you clearly really want to do this, so why don’t you write as much of the script as you can and send it to me?”

Aydin created the striking opening sequence of March as his audition demo. Staros greenlighted the project and suggested Powell as an illustrator who could effectively evoke the time and spirit of the story.

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions
Illustration courtesy of Top Shelf Productions

Powell’s critically acclaimed Swallow Me Whole had won the 2009 Eisner Award, the industry’s equivalent of the Oscar, for Best Original Graphic Novel. He had, in fact, already heard about the March project and was intrigued. At the time he was finishing the illustrations for The Silence of Our Friends, a graphic novel by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos that, coincidentally, takes place in Houston during the civil rights era.

Powell, reached by telephone in Indiana, said he was first concerned “that you’re going to wind up with something that is so focused on accurately depicting everything and everyone that you wind up with a very dry delivery.” His answer was the approach he had used on the recently completed Silence of Our Friends: simplified lines overlaid with gray watercolor washes. “That was the magic addition where I got really psyched from a creative standpoint and what I could bring to the book,” Powell said.

Lewis and Aydin were ecstatic. “Nate Powell is a talented and gifted artist who had the ability and capacity to just paint the picture,” Lewis wrote in an email. “You can almost feel it. You cannot just see it.

As someone who lived through it, the way I did … when I saw the drawings, it was very powerful. Even sometimes I say to myself, How did we do it? How did we survive? People need to know.”

Powell found that visualizing Lewis’ story could be extremely disturbing. “There are moments in book one and especially in book two where I would have to walk away from the story for the rest of the day…. People are just getting the crap beaten out of them, and I catch myself saying, ‘C’mon, is this really necessary? It’s a little much. It’s a little gratuitous.’

And I have to think, ‘This isn’t a Frank Miller [Daredevil] or Mark Millar [Swamp Thing] comic book. . . . This is a depiction of action that actually occurred to real people’ . . . and there’s a special kind of responsibility . . . [to depict] it in a way that avoids some of the cliches of visual gratuity that people have gotten real used to, not just in comics.” 

Serious, even controversial, subject matter is nothing unusual in the world of graphic novels. Maus, Art Spiegelman’s 1991 allegory about the Holocaust, is one of the high-water marks, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. But earlier comic books explored dark and previously taboo topics in the context of fantasy and superhero story lines as well. Aydin recalls a Green Arrow-Green Lantern comic in which Speedy gets caught doing heroin. Powell remembers The ‘Nam. 

Courtesy Top shelf Productions
Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions

Basically each issue was one month in the tour of duty of a teenage soldier who had been shipped off to Vietnam. It revealed the boredom and the confusion and the darkness of all these young people being stuck in a very confusing time and place punctuated by this absolute terror.…

It was The ‘Nam that really allowed me to start asking my dad questions and start having real conversations about nationalism, force, about the military itself, about violence.”

Lewis hopes March will do the same. “I want young readers to understand that another generation of young people … who tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and social discrimination came to that point where they said, ‘We won’t take it anymore.’

When I was growing up, I asked my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, ‘why?’ They said, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.’

But I was inspired to get in the way. I hope March will inspire young people and people not so young to stand up, speak out and not be afraid.”

Teachers and librarians can download an 11-page teacher’s guide on the Top Shelf website.

View more photos of Congressman John Lewis and the civil rights events in which he was involved here

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