John Lewis, Andrew Aydin (writers), Nate Powell (artist)
Top Shelf Productions
January 15, 2015
Disclaimer: This book was reviewed using a free digital review copy provided by Top Shelf Productions.
If you have recently heard Congressman John Lewis speak, than his voice will probably play in your head while reading this: confident, with the pacing of someone trained in the clergy, weathered with experience. If you haven’t heard him speak, his intonation will still ring out as you read through his speech from the 1963 March on Washington, as his youthful reticence is left behind.
Nominated for an Ignatz Award this year, March: Book Two continues the story of the Civil Rights Movement, narrated by John Lewis and focusing on his work. The historical stories are interspersed with scenes from the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, the day continuing from Book One. The story flows just like a speech from an accomplished orator—Lewis and his co-writer and Congressional staffer, Andrew Aydinm, know when to be blunt, and when the story needs more narrative flourish. When Bayard Rustin’s homosexuality is mentioned, it’s not meant to shock; it’s another facet of the story. I don’t want to say that this book is unsentimental, but the frankness is refreshing in a book that will most likely be used in classrooms in the US.
In Book One, we learned about John Lewis’ childhood, his family, and his first big forays into activism. The focus was on lunch counter sit-ins, work done by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced Snick). Book Two zooms out a bit—as time goes on and the movement grows, Lewis gets more involved and moves further away from his roots. There are more people, each carefully named even if they only show up once. The movement, of course, was going on all over America, so some stories not involving John Lewis’ personal experiences are told to the reader to provide history and context. These never seem extraneous and definitely add context, but it means that Book Two loses a bit of the personal closeness from the first book. It also feels a little bit like Lewis is hardening, and growing up.
Lewis is not a detached narrator, but he doesn’t over-embellish—the violence expressed in the book never feels gratuitous, subdued somewhat by Nate Powell’s stark black inks. But it does feel real, triggering empathy without feeling manipulative.
While the first book began as a more personal tale, together they work excellently as a historical primer. Like I said, Lewis and Aydin make sure that each activist is identified, providing a good jump-off point for readers to dig deeper if they wish. And while it treads familiar ground to people with a basic understanding of the events of the Civil Rights Movement, there are still surprising insights to be had. I’d never considered there being that much friction between Lewis and Stokely Carmichael, for example.
The medium of comics tells things to the reader simultaneously—the explicit narrative sometimes gives us insight into the emotional state of our activists, but sometimes it’s the facial expressions, coloring, and visual breaks that round out the story in a way that’s more digestible than straight prose.
The most impressive thing is that these books do not take a hagiographic approach to their subject matter and that Lewis can reflect with a more objective eye on his peers and leaders. Much like Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, Lewis presents friction in the Civil Rights Movement, the kind of intra-community tension that gets glossed over by history book summaries and books made for children. Learning about these ideological conflicts, or even simply admitting they occurred, feels especially relevant as new leaders emerge in the Civil Rights movements happening today and how conflicts between people all advocating for Black Lives Matter and an end to inequality end up on Twitter. Here I mean that less for people who are doing the work, as I have no place to critique that. But the inevitable, unfavorable comparisons between Black Lives Matter and MLK’s work in the 1960s often rely on the idea of a totally unified front led by Dr. King. These insights behind the curtain not only give a fuller portrait of the time, but also allow for advocates to be humans as well, for Lewis to have felt uncharitable about Stokely Carmichael but acknowledge his place anyway.
Powell’s deftness with faces adds to this—we see the look of trepidation and reticence on Martin Luther King’s face when he hesitates in joining the Freedom Riders and it tells us more than an outright caption would. Rather than use flowery descriptions, we see how Lewis grows with passion delivering a speech, how he feels about being elected as president of SNCC, the isolation of becoming a leader. Lewis is never solitary, but few names are repeated, either.
I would have liked more depth into the growth and shifts in Lewis’ beliefs. His stance on protest through non-violence, for example, is made very clear, and so is his distaste for activists who wish to escalate protests to violent retaliation. But he was seen as a reactionary by some in the movement, a younger generation then the rest of the Big Six, and I wanted more exploration of that. I found myself hoping for some more personal insight from him. He loses touch with his immediate family as he becomes more and more enmeshed in the movement, and I wish there was more self-reflection in the book. He shows us fear from his own leaders, and it makes the risks feel real. But his own fear is only glanced upon. March is appropriately named: the narrative is less interested in indulging the reader and more determined to continue, to walk through the weeks and months spent doing the work on the ground. The comic has really whet my appetite to check out his autobiography, as the scope of this project necessitates some distance.
Powell deftly handles the passage of time, and though the story compresses a lot while lingering on smaller vignettes, nothing feels misplaced. There’s intentional juxtaposition, visually, of the musical artists at the March on Washington and Aretha Franklin singing at Obama’s inauguration, keeping the setting grounded. The present-past, as it is, pops up to remind us where the violence and work being done in the book led, but it never feels like Obama’s presidency is meant to be looked upon as a conclusion.
The pace of it is well-crafted, and much like a speech, the book leads to a crescendo. But it’s a hard one, and the last pages hit like a punch. Despite knowing the history, the events that will appear soon, (and having been at that inauguration, freezing just like the Congressman), I can’t wait to read the last installment.