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August 17, 2013

In graphic novel ‘March,’ John Lewis renders a powerful civil rights memoir

WASHINGTON — Rep. John Lewis brought his young collaborator to the Alabama bridge, to where he long ago spilled his blood, because it wasn't enough to simply see it in photos. The artist, hired to render the congressman's memoir, needed to listen to the history right where freedom was forged through the fear and tear gas — and to stand where John Lewis stood on that day he thought he was going to die.

That infamous incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on that Bloody Sunday in March 1965, opens Lewis's graphic-novel debut, "March: Book One," a riveting and beautiful civil-rights story that hit stores Tuesday.

Created with award-winning cartoonist Nate Powell and Lewis staffer Andrew Aydin, "March" fittingly lands two weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 28 March on Washington. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech as the final featured speaker to step to the Lincoln Memorial lectern; Lewis, then a 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the day's youngest speaker.

Now, poignantly, Lewis is our last.

The congressman is scheduled to attend the anniversary ceremonies as the march's sole surviving featured speaker. Which is why this graphic novel should be embraced as a gift to history; "March" digs in with the compelling perspective of someone who lived it — who could see eventual victory even through the beatings and the jailhouse bars.

The sickening krak of the police batons. The rolling klink of the tear-gas canisters. And the bone-crushing thud of bodies hitting the ground beneath men on horseback. From Page 1, Lewis and Aydin's words, and Powell's deft pen, put you squarely in the bruising maw of a movement.

At 73, the Georgia Democrat is living history, and he knows that a graphic novel holds unique storytelling powers. "It's another way for somebody to understand what it was like and what we tried to do," Lewis told me. "And I want young children to feel it. Almost taste it. To make it real. . . . It's not just the words but the action and the drama and the movement that bring it alive."

Lewis consented to "bring it alive" through a comic because five years ago, when Aydin told fellow staffers in Lewis's office that he was headed to San Diego Comic-Con, he was met with some "geek" teasing. Not from the congressman, though. Lewis, many decades their senior, proved to be the hippest voice in the room in the ways of comics. The staffers stopped joking when he told them it was a comic book that had helped persuade him to join the fight for civil rights.

As a young man, Lewis got his hands on the 1958 comic book "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," which, he said, with its poster-colored lesson of nonviolent protest, inspired many student activists. "It was about the way of love," Lewis says. "We were beaten and arrested . . . and that comic book inspired me to make trouble. But it was the good kind of trouble."

Lewis, in turn, has written a graphic novel laced with life lessons. And to his credit, in penning "March," he has hewed to King's advice on preaching from the pulpit. "Make it plain, son," Lewis remembers King saying. "Make it plain. And make it real."

And man, does Lewis make it real. This is no sanitized picture book. One of the single most striking panels depicts the recovered body of Emmett Till; the pen-and-ink image possesses a power somewhat different from the horrific archival photos. Lewis included this panel with an express purpose.

"I often think about [how] Emmett Till was lynched in August of 1955," he said. "I remember it so well. I was 15 years old — I was in the 10th grade. I was working out in the field. And I thought: It could be me."

"March" also doesn't shy away from using the N-word, to powerful effect. The congressman said the collaborators discussed the import of this choice. "I wanted to make it real," he said, "and not try to sugarcoat it."

From school integration to the lunch counter sit-ins to the church bombings, Lewis succeeds in capturing the smoldering tension of the times. He describes how even at the height of the movement, in states like Alabama and Mississippi, everyone "lived in fear."

Lewis, however, decides to have an "executive session" with himself and learns how to tackle that fear head-on. "March" also movingly depicts his emotions upon the first of his 40 or so arrests. "The first time I was arrested was in 1960 — I felt free," he says. "It made me stronger."

Because Lewis is a man of warmth and wit, "March" doesn't stick only to the grim. Early on, for instance, we see Lewis growing up on a farm and tending to poultry parishioners, becoming an expert in the ways of barnyard preaching. "As a little boy, I would talk to the chickens. They would sit and listen," Lewis told me, before waiting a beat. "They tended to listen better than some of my colleagues in Congress."

With the release of "March" coinciding with the March on Washington anniversary, Lewis said: "I'm lucky and very blessed to still be here, and to see the changes and progress made as a nation. I tell young people: The 'black' and 'white' signs that I saw, they're gone."

Yet sometimes the congressman grows concerned that the progress he helped fight for could still erode. After the Supreme Court ruled in June to invalidate a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he said: "I felt like crying. I thought: It seems like we have to fight the same fight over — the struggle for the right to vote."

Judging by "March: Book One" (the kickoff of a planned trilogy), it pays to heed Lewis's powers of premonition. His graphic novel is rich in gifted foreshadowing. And he was perceptive, too, in choosing the Eisner Award-winning Powell; the artist is a master of shadows and space and sense of frame — from long, flat Alabama vistas to bustling, bright cityscapes, his exquisite camera movement is never less than interesting and always in sync with the story.

"March" is so good, in fact, that not only is it guaranteed to reap its share of awards, Lewis's gripping memoir should also be stocked in every school and shelved at every library. Like the upcoming film "Lee Daniels' the Butler," the arts are finding new ways to tell the fuller story of civil rights through the prism of deeply personal stories.

As for Lewis's own story, he feels as though he's already summitted life's mountaintop. "All these years later, I have no ill feeling or malice," he said. "I feel so whole and so complete."

Just as he found inspiration a half-century ago in King's comic, he is optimistic that "March" will stir those who follow him to make, as he did, "the good kind of trouble."

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