March (Book One): The Revolution Will Be Illustrated

by David Anderson

History classes in public school never have the luxury of going in-depth into a subject. I don’t think any class I ever went to in high school ever made it past the Civil War or World War II. Everything has to be ankle-deep synopses so that you can get as big and broad an overview as possible, that you might not be totally lost in college. Who knows what you might be expected to do with that knowledge if you didn’t go to college, of course. But as far as the Civil Rights movement went, nobody gets a good picture of how important, how interesting, and how violent it was until they do history classes and self-education outside of 12th grade. I can’t speak for anyone outside the US, of course. I know the Civil Rights movement had an impact on the rest of the world, but as far as my expertise on that subject goes, I at least know the shape of the issue’s shadow.

March (Book One) is a great place to begin your own education on the Civil Rights movement, as it’s a first-hand account by Congressman John Lewis of his life growing up in the transitional period of the mid-twentieth century and becoming a member of the Big Six, the men considered to be the most important and influential figures in the movement for the right of black Americans to vote. Anybody who graduated high school might know that the CR movement was directed at least by Martin King and Malcolm X, but they might not know the others involved- I certainly didn’t growing up. Lewis knew King personally and helped organize sit-ins at white-only diners in Georgia. That’s pretty hardcore. Lewis is one of the kinds of historical figures that might not be celebrity material the way King and Malcolm were, but they were still obscenely important to their respective causes. Kind of like Von Steuben, or Tesla before internet nerds found him. I imagine it must have been unreal for Nate Powell and Andrew Aydin when they worked with him on this.

March (Book One) covers Lewis’s early life all the way up to the beginning of the civil rights movement, showing Lewis’ role in the first activist pushes in Georgia. Throughout the novel, Lewis narrates his life and shows us the major influences that drove his later career in activism and politics. As a kid he baptised his chickens and snuck off to school to learn instead of tending his farm duties. It seems fitting that he should become a kind of rebel preacher in the years leading up to the first protests for equal voting rights. Yet despite a rural upbringing, city life fascinated him.

The book starts off with a tense energy as we witness a peaceful demonstration assaulted by racist cops, but then relaxes that tension by allowing Lewis to talk about his youth while in his senate office in the present. It’s got a nice calm feel to it, but there’s still moments of darkness to be had. According to the authors, Book Two promises to be much darker. But for now you can bask in the first book’s rustic tone and feel good to watch Lewis wonder at how easy it is to buy candy in the city. When the protests and the nonviolent tactics classes begin, there’s still a sense of optimism, that in spite of the long odds, a victory was in the making. Who knows what Book Two holds, but I expect it to show us what endangered the cause from within and out.

Between his episodes of development as an activist we are reminded of the watershed moments that defined Lewis’ time. Brown v. The Board of Education, the murder of Emmett Till, and the first speeches by Martin Luther King set the tone for the experience of the Civil Rights activist.

There is nothing bad to say at all about the art. Powell’s style is amazing for this memoir. What I am most delighted by is his style’s emotional range. He can draw friendly characters facing off against the angriest people you ever saw, and the juxtaposition feels natural. Powell is illustrating a story based on some very serious and often dark subject matter, but he wouldn’t need to change his style at all if he wanted to make a kids’ book. The key ingredient in his work is his shading. He knows how to make a scene tense or relaxing using shadows alone. Even with soft, iconic faces, his characters are capable of every level of drama.

This, like other historical graphic novels I’ve reviewed, is a rare thing—even rarer than graphic novels of this kind at all. This is an illustrated autobiography. Words might never have been able to capture what we can see summed up in this book. And the fact that Lewis dictated this puts it head and shoulders above other comic biographies like the one about Richard Feynman or Logicomix, written long after their subject matter’s deaths. It’s historical gold, as far as I’m concerned.

The best moment, for me, was when Lewis recounts his first night in jail. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by dozens of comrades crammed into a tiny room. Were it not for their determination, a scene like that might have been a hopeless torture scene, but instead it’s inspiring to watch as they rally together and sing. I remember thinking it was cool when internet activists decided to troll the Church of Scientology years ago, but I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to know you were in the middle of a veritable war for basic human rights.

I don’t think I need to elaborate much more on how good March (Book One)  is. It’s a rare thing to see a primary source of history presented like this. You lose nothing by buying this book, and only knowledge to gain. Yes, I’m paraphrasing Marx, wanna fight about it? Yeah, keep walkin’, chump. I always win thumb wrestles.

 March (Book One) is an autobiographical story by Congressman John Lewis’ with script by Lewis and Andrew Aydin. Art by Nate Powell (natepowell). Published by Top Shelf (top-shelf-comix), ask for it at your local comic book shop or buy it direct from Top Shelf as a book or ebook.

Also, congratulations to the creators and the whole Top Shelf team on March's selection by Michigan State University and Marquette University to be a part of their curricula for 2014! Read more buzz about Marchhere.

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