Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Review: March, Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Cover of March, Book One, featuring two black me, one black woman, and one white man seated at a counter. Above them appear a number of marching legs encased in suit pants or 1960s skirts.
Until two hours before I began the first volume, I thought MARCH [Amazon | The Book Depository], was a LITTLE WOMEN spin-off about the girls’ father’s time as a soldier.

In my weak defense, I’d only ever seen the cover in thumnbail form, rendering the people vaguely Civil War-ish. Also, the friends who raved about the book on Twitter are mostly the sort who do like LITTLE WOMEN and/or contemporary works that explore side storylines from classic lit. No one said much as to what the book was actually about; and, as a non-American, I wasn’t familiar with the author's reputation.

As you may have gathered, MARCH is not about Mr March from LITTLE WOMEN. It’s US Congressman John Lewis’s graphic memoir of his work during the Civil Rights Movement.

I might have remained ignorant until the very moment I opened the book (which I read through Scribd; hence the whole no-cover-larger-than-a-thumbnail thing), were I not in the habit of googling each writer and artist whose work I read. I manage my reading to ensure I don’t OD on white creators and/or books that ignore non-white experiences, so googling is an essential step.

Imagine my surprise when a quick search for "John Lewis comics" turned up not a veteran comics writer with a string of original graphic novels (and perhaps the odd superhero title) beneath his Wikipedia widget but a politician.

There had to be a problem with my google-fu. Surely politicians didn’t write comics. Surely all politicians were Very Serious People who dismissed comics as a medium for kids and individuals who refuse to grow up.

Nope. No mistake. John Lewis is a US Congressman, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, and the writer of a comic that chronicles his experiences in the 1960s.

What's more, Lewis doesn't just write comics himself. He also gives direct credit to a comic about Dr Martin Luther King Jr that helped him embrace nonviolent activism during his student days. Comics played a key role in his journey, and they're the perfect medium for him to tell his story now.

MARCH, BOOK ONE (there will be two more volumes, the second of which is now available) chronicles Lewis’s early life: his childhood in charge of his family’s chickens, his ambition to become a preacher, and his time in the nonviolence workshop that led him to activism. It’s his origin story, if you will, framed first as a tale he’s telling to two young boys who’ve stopped by his office and later as a recollection inspired by their visit and by the work he’s still doing as a member of congress.

The story begins with outwardly idyllic trappings. We see a farm; some chickens; a young boy who wants to give sermons and practices on his birds. The idyl soon fades away. Farming is hard work. Sometimes it’s necessary to kill and eat one’s beloved chickens, or sell them to someone who plans to do so. And it’s difficult to get a good education when you’re a young black boy in Alabama, forever constrained by white ideas of where you belong.

Time and again, Lewis faces the problem of what he’s allowed to do, and whether or not he’ll accept the limitations placed on him. In some areas, he chooses to push through and fight for concessions. In others, he backs down because the cost isn’t worth the return. This is mostly the case on issues where his family could come to harm because of his actions. When only his personal welfare is at stake, he faces beatings, abuse, and jail time alongside his fellow activists as they struggle to change the United States.

And their work, performed on a large scale and deeply rooted in nonviolence, slowly begins to show results.

It’s a painful, affecting story, and comics is the perfect medium for it. Lewis doesn’t simply tell us about the nonviolence training he received, wherein he and his fellow activists practiced spitting on one another and hurling insults and punches alike; he shows us in no uncertain terms via Nate Powell’s evocative grayscale art. We see the reality of the abuse he endured during lunch counter sit-ins and the time he served in the workhouse following his conviction. We watch his activism unfold.

Prose makes it possible to gloss over certain details of a story like this one; to let the reader imagine events for herself, and thus perhaps temper them for easier consumption. Comics makes it much more difficult to do so with its stark, often disturbing visuals. Your eyes might flit over the images, but you can't shut them out entirely without walking away from the book.

Please don’t walk away from the book. Lewis and his co-creators are doing important, accessible work surrounding this period in history, and it’s very much worth your time to read it.

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