While the cynics among us might argue that America's high ideals and lofty rhetoric rarely transcend their inscriptions on stone, few would disagree that the 1963 March on Washington was one of the nation's finest hours. It was a transformational moment, and a portent for future blows to segregation and injustice.
Congressman John Lewis helped plan the march, and on the eve of its 50th anniversary, he's collaborating with his staffer (and comics aficionado) Andrew Aydin to write March: Book One, an astonishingly accomplished graphic memoir that brings to life a vivid portrait of the civil rights era, Lewis' extraordinary history and accomplishments, and the movement he helped lead.
March opens with a prologue set on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Montgomery, Ala., during the violent events that became known as "Bloody Sunday" as police attacked peaceful, prayerful civil rights protesters. The book then jumps forward to the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, as Lewis is sharing stories with young visitors to his congressional office.
Lewis' life as a civil rights pioneer is well-known, from sharecropper's kid in Pike County, Ala., to leader of the Nashville sit-ins and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to congressional leader and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And yet March is a fresh and sometimes shocking work, even for those familiar with Lewis' life. Not just for its violence and its graphic re-creation of a dark time, but for its inside look at the leaders of the civil rights movement. In one disturbing scene, they shout insults at each other and enact other indignities as a way to prepare for the resistance and abuse they'll face in public.
For younger generations, March will be revelatory. So far, it's had enviable pre-publication buzz, and Lewis got a rock star's reception at the recent San Diego comic convention, Comic-Con. He's not just the first congressional member to pen a graphic novel, but perhaps even a real life superhero and role model for the young — and maybe the jaded.
New York Times best-selling comic-book artist and writer Nate Powell deploys his expressive and dramatic black-and-gray wash, praised in previous works like 2012's civil rights-themed The Silence of Our Friends. Powell's faithful representation of known historical characters and immersive creation of the time period stands out. His sense of pace and his affecting ability to tease out silent, intimate moments also set the book apart from traditional, text-heavy historical graphic storytelling. One senses, when reading this first volume, that its power, accessibility and artistry destine it for awards, and a well-deserved place at the pinnacle of the comics canon.
Graphic novel enthusiasts will note that March has its antecedents in another influential comic book: 1958's Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which explained the basics of nonviolent and passive resistance, and influenced a young Lewis, along with many others involved in the civil rights movement. Lewis and Aydin — both of them believers in the power of the graphic novel — envisioned a work with similar impact when they set out to write March. And they've succeeded. March's message of reconciliation and hope in the face of violence, setbacks and disappointments still resonates — not just in the past, but today.
Jody Arlington is a communications and policy strategist for the independent film and documentary community, and the owner of a truly astounding number of graphic novels.