By Matt D. Wilson
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s has become such a pivotal part of American history that sometimes we forget that some of the brave people who were around to participate in the sit-ins and boycotts that directly led to big changes in how Americans view race are still here to tell their stories. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia not only knew Martin Luther King Jr., but also marched, sat in, spread the word about non-violence and organized.
His new graphic novel from Top Shelf, “March: Book One” created with co-writer Andrew Aydin, a staffer in Rep. Lewis’ office, and artist Nate Powell, of “Any Empire” and “Swallow Me Whole” among other graphic novels, presents the civil rights leader’s story in a powerful, yet personal way. Those of us who weren’t alive to see the movement when it happened can read about it in history books, but it takes a voice like Lewis’ to really offer a glimpse into how things really were.
It’s a beautifully realized story, and we here at MTV Geek spoke with Aydin and Powell about how the whole thing came to fruition in advance of its release Aug. 13.
MTV Geek: I’d really love to hear about how this book was put together. Some of the side stories, particularly the one about how Congressman Lewis grew attached to his chickens, are very personal and have tons of details. How did the both of you work with the congressman to build the story and present it in graphic novel form?
Andrew Aydin: Congressman Lewis and I started putting this book together at first just talking about it when we had a few minutes of down time. It was something fun to think about and imagine. Later, we got more serious and we did a series of recorded interviews when we could find time at night or on weekends.
Geek: The words really feel like they’re Congressman Lewis’ words. Are they, largely?
Aydin: My challenge was to find a way to frame the story for comics and make that into a viable script. I really wanted the story to feel just like it would if you met John Lewis today and he told you these stories himself. I have been a comics reader for a long time, so I knew what I liked to read and I gave it a shot. Luckily, [Top Shelf Publisher] Chris Staros liked the approach. But Nate Powell has really been the one who has put in the time making sure that every panel is put together perfectly and I think he’s done a beautiful job. Working with him has been a crash course in how to create amazing visual storytelling.
Nate Powell: Andrew and Congressman Lewis worked up the story end of the book together, with Andrew shaping Lewis’ text and content into a script format from which I could work. The words, and virtually all of the voice-over, are Lewis’. The writing method seemed very interesting once I read his memoir, “Walking With The Wind,” and watched a good chunk of presentations and speeches he’s given. As a lifelong oral storyteller, some of these sections of narrative have been told by Congressman Lewis for 45 or 50 years, and so Andrew and I worked together to adapt his life narrative in a way that would allow the special strengths of the comics medium to come forth.
Geek: By the end of this book, the story is certainly about the civil rights movement, specifically the lunch-counter sit-ins Lewis and other students conducted in 1960. Are future books going to entirely focus on things like that, or will there be more personal side-stories like we got in this volume?
Powell: Things get pretty intense by book two, but what’s important is not only seeing how Lewis’ life was a part of a much more massive social upheaval and people’s movement, but seeing how the personal and political intertwine, how their relationship to each other are the very things that push us into action as human beings. Some of the most profound depictions of personal politics in the whole trilogy are, to me, John’s account of the emergence of his social conscience from his relationship to life, death, exploitation, power, and survival through his chickens as a child. I see these elements as inseparable from the political struggles of his adulthood.
Aydin: To me, part of what makes John Lewis such a special human being are those personal stories that shaped his character. It takes a special kind of courage to practice nonviolence in the face of arrests, beatings, and murder. As we get into the second and third books, I think it provides important context as to how he was able to persevere and remain optimistic towards the future. But also, as we get deeper into the movement, those personal moments are inextricably intertwined with some of the largest public moments.
Geek: Nate, one thing I noticed about your art in this is that you are certainly capturing the looks of historic figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., but you seem to be consciously avoiding caricature. Was that hard to do?
Powell: From a visual standpoint, the depictions of so many recognizable historical figures continues to be the greatest challenge in the book, and the greatest source of anxiety. Much of it is about finding the balance between faithful representations and the gesture and linework which might most simply visually define a person. King is one of the most difficult– not only is he incredibly recognizable and unique-looking, but his features are so simple, smooth, and iconographic already that there’s very little room for error, whether it’s a cheek, an eyelid, or the width of his mustache. In general, I do a little bit of sketching before I render a character for the first time, and once I establish my own visual shorthand, I try to reference my own drawings instead of photos whenever possible.
Geek: I can imagine that, with so many moments that feel like they’re worth putting into the book at your disposal, deciding which stories got precious page space in here was a big challenge. How’d you decide what to include and what to cut?
Aydin: We tried to include as much detail and as many people, places and facts as we possibly could without drowning the reader. But this is the story of John Lewis, so we tried very hard to work in as much as we could around him as the central strand. After Nate saw that first draft, he made it clear that we had written a much larger book than we originally envisioned. A lot of credit goes to Top Shelf and Nate for approaching this with the attitude that the whole story should be told rather than pared back. History matters, and I think this history is one made all the more interesting when it is more fully understood.
Powell: The book was originally formatted as a single 150- to-200 page graphic novel. Once I started breaking down the script into pages, I saw that we were looking at about 500 pages. Much of this was from my own storytelling style, my own visual control of pace and flow, but a lot of it had to do with identifying and adding what’s not immediately evident in the script, those things that can’t be readily communicated in text. The tension and anxiety of waiting in a jail cell, hiding under a house for the school bus to arrive, sizing up a suspiciously empty bus station seconds before being beaten by white supremacist thugs and their children. From my perspective, the most interesting storytelling elements revolved around this changing flow of time through these folks’ struggle.
Geek: The chapters to come have some pretty gruesome moments, with protesters being sprayed with high-powered hoses and attacked by dogs. This book tends to be more philosophical; only two scenes, one at the beginning and another near the end, depict people being harmed physically. How do you plan to deal with those moments?
Aydin: We deal these moments honestly, as they happened. Some of the things that are depicted truly shock the conscience, but nothing is gained by sweeping that history under the rug. The next two books will get successively darker and more violent, just as the movement did as it wore on. But with the darkness and violence, there is also hope and courage from which I think readers will be able to draw great personal inspiration.
Powell: Really, the only way to do it is to recognize that this is a true-to-life account. There are moments in books one and two when I’ll catch myself thinking, even for a second, that some of the depictions of violence are a bit sensationalistic. What’s of the utmost importance is that each of these acts of brutality actually happened as they’re depicted. The violence was committed by our neighbors, our parents, our grandparents, upon our other neighbors, our grandparents, our community. Scenes of parents encouraging their children to claw at the faces and eyes of restrained, unconscious people have been the most difficult to depict, but those scenes are the most important in the entire narrative. This wasn’t a “time of trouble” relegated to the past and washed-over; these acts of monstrosity were committed by regular people deeply entrenched in a climate of fear, privilege, and perceived tradition. Fascism perpetuates itself through violence committed by common folks, propped up by the state and allowances made by its power structures.