March: Book One
One of the more unique tactics of the incipient Civil Rights Movement was the publication of the 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Narrating the now historic actions of Rosa Parks and the subsequent boycott of the Montgomery bus service under the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr, its stated purpose was to spread the message of passive resistance and nonviolent action. The comic book would inspire a young John Lewis to become an activist himself. So it’s not surprising that he would call on the medium with the publication of his recent three-part autobiography March. The congressman has written before about his time as one of the Movement’s most important figures, but this is a story worth retelling. John Lewis is a true-life hero and an adherent of nonviolence. As in 1958, the choice of employing the graphic novel format to spread the same message seems calculated to reach a younger generation, especially those who may not be all too familiar with these events. If nothing else, it serves as a timely reminder that the battles of the Movement are only over half a century old.
March begins dramatically with the brutal 1965 showdown known as “Bloody Sunday” at Edmund Pettus Bridge. Just as the police are about to overpower John and his companions, the scene suddenly shifts to Washington DC on the morning of the 2009 Presidential inauguration. Much of Book One is about the Congressman recalling his life story from early childhood in rural Alabama to his successful efforts combating racial segregation at the lunch counters of Nashville. Most of the text is John’s first-hand account (assisted by co-author Andrew Aydin) of those events. Reading this book, I’m struck at how harrowing it must have been to be raised as a second-class citizen. But at no point is John beaten down by his circumstances. Nor does he ever express any self-doubt or self-pity. Rather, he questions the status quo at every turn: Whether protesting the inhumane treatment of the chickens at his parents’ farm, choosing to sneak out to school over his father’s demands that he work the fields during harvest season, or noticing the material disparity between institutions catering to “White” and “Colored". During a formative summer trip to Buffalo, New York, he’s exposed for the first time to black and white people living and working side-by-side. By the time John becomes aware of the work of King, he’s already primed to take on segregation as a personal cause. The overall impression taken from John's own testimony is that of a quiet young idealist possessing enormous reservoirs of determination.
The book initially tries to frame the autobiographical elements using an impromptu conversation between the congressman and an unexpected woman visitor accompanied by her two children. But this generates some clunky expository dialogue and the transitions between the different settings feel forced. This device is dropped at the hallway point, though John continues to tell his story to no one in particular. While he is credited as the primary author of March, much of the book’s effectiveness as an actual comic has to go to artist Nate Powell. Nate has to take John’s words, organise them, and translate them into visuals. This often results in text-heavy panels with long horizontal captions. The text itself becomes occasionally redundant when combined with the imagery. Thankfully, Nate has a solid grasp of page composition. The images never feel crowded, and judicious use of negative space and wordless panels helps improve the pace and balance the art.
Much of the visceral impact of March comes from the visuals themselves. Some, like Edmund Pettus Bridge or the Nashville sit-ins are already iconic. Nate doesn’t forget to do the same with some of John’s more personal moments: His panic at having possibly killed a baby chick, seeing the bright lights of Buffalo for the first time, or on first reading King’s philosophy of nonviolence. But for the most part, his meticulous black and white washes and slightly cartoonish figures give the whole book the feel of looking at musty archival photographs or viewing stills from old news footage. This use of BW imagery to capture the past feels appropriately nostalgic, that is until someone starts yelling out the word “nigger” and the ugliness of the era comes out.
Perhaps that’s because the past that March recalls isn’t actually so remote.