March by John Robert Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was stopped in my tracks at the Nerd-vana known as the San Diego Comic Convention when I noticed a man handing out short, yellowed copies of a fifty-plus-year-old comic book emblazoned with the face of Martin Luther King Jr. I had to stop. I struck up a conversation with Nate Powell, the graphic artist behind March: Book One, a graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis. Lewis was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and speaker six at the March on Washington, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year (King was speaker ten). This black-and-white graphic novel tells the story of his early life, culminating in the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville. Two future volumes will round out Lewis's story with the march on Washington and other seminal events in the history of civil rights in America.
I hadn't known that a comic book had featured prominently (and been used strategically) in the mobilization of youth for the civil rights movement. That comic, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, shows up midway through March and introduces the concepts of passive resistance and nonviolent action. Being a comic book geek of sorts, and a student of the movement after a fashion, I found this quite heartening; it makes much more sense of the decision to retell Rep. Lewis's story in a graphic novel, which struck me as odd at first blush.
You forget, every once in a while as you read March, that you're sitting in on the story of a legend. That's partly because of the congressman's approachability even in print, and the structure of the storytelling, which floats between Lewis's interior memories and his telling stories to student visitors to his congressional office. But it's also partly because of the lead-up to other legends whose stories intersect Lewis's.
We meet Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall--from a distance, since they weren't known personally by the congressman--and we see their faces: Parks as she defies the order to give up her seat, Marshall (in a moment of disillusionment) as he appeals to protestors to give up their protest. The most disarming moments come when we meet Jim Lawson (always in shadow, but orchestrating the congressman's epiphany about nonviolence) and Martin Luther King Jr.
King's sequence is particularly effective: we follow Lewis (with few words, mostly pictures) from his parents' home in Pike County, Alabama, to the bus station, to the home of civil rights attorney Fred Gray, to the doors of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and down a hall and down a flight of stairs and down another hall and around a corner into the office of one of the great moral leaders of all time. There he is, Dr. King, rising from his desk to greet "the boy from Troy," to incite him toward a vocation of justice even as he warned him to count the cost of engagement.
Ultimately Rep. Lewis is unable to follow through on this initial exchange with Dr. King; because (at this point) he is still a minor, he needs the approval of his parents, and they are unwilling to take the risks along with him. But the epiphany of recruitment is effectively conveyed in the art and the sparse dialogue, and it is no surprise to the reader how quickly the story moves from that encounter to the scenes with Lawson and ultimately to the successful confrontation of segregation in downtown Nashville.
March is designed as a trilogy; the remaining two volumes will be released over the next couple of years. I'm eager to read them.
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