MLK Day Book Review: March by John Lewis
March: Book One released in the summer of 2013 and just a few years later the full award-winning trilogy is now available and more relevant than ever. The ambitious comic project is a collaboration between iconic Civil Rights hero John Lewis, writer Andrew Aydin, and Eisner and Ignatz winning artist and letterer Nate Powell. The powerhouse trio come together to tell the story of America’s Civil Rights Movement as witnessed through the eyes of one of its key figures, Congressman Lewis. The result is a stunning biography that transcends tear-jerking period piece and enters the realm of political action blueright for future generations.
The first volume opens on a defining moment of Lewis’ life and American history, as he and other peaceful protesters kneel to pray on Edmund Pettus Bridge while armed police approach with billy clubs. From there, the story elegantly dances back and forth between Washington, D.C. on President Obama’s inauguration day in 2009 and Lewis’ formative years in rural Alabama circa the mid 1950s.
March: Book One follows Lewis as he comes to the realization that he has the spirit of an activist and follows his journey from aspiring preacher to central figure in the lunch counter sit-in protest. Unlike some history texts and other less ambitious books about the Civil Rights Movement, March doesn’t present the proud protesters as men and women who stood in line respectfully and quietly until things went their way. Although Lewis always stands by his call for non-violent protest; he uses March as a venue to clearly recount the pain, suffering, and abuse that the movement had to withstand while causing their ‘good trouble’ as he likes to call it.
March’s greatest strength is that it reads like a political education manifesto, without sacrificing any artistry for its goal. Lewis lays out what it takes to stand up and make a difference and, hopefully, spurs a new generation of Americans to always fight for equality and push forward. Always forward. These lessons are all the more effective and emotional thanks to the superior craft that Nate Powell brings to every panel.
In case there was any doubt after 2008’s Swallow Me Whole (a must-read examination of young people and mental illness), letterer Powell continues to prove that he is the contemporary master of greyscales and negative space. His style floats in a magical place between expressionism and realism that make every panel uniquely his own. His splash pages with black ink poured over the majority of the page draw the reader’s eyes exactly where he and the writers want it to be. Powell’s powerful style is so closely associated with his own voice that it was hard to imagine him inking someone else’s words, but after three volumes of March, it’s clear that he has the talent and power to bring any story to life on the page.
March is that special kind of YA novel that can truly connect with readers of any age from as young as 10 or so all the way up to senior citizens. Whether you’re an expert in the Civil Rights Movement or totally uninformed about Lewis’ battles, the page turner will keep you hooked through three emotional volumes of essential American history. The series provides a snapshot of the country’s past that was an essential stepping stone in the social justice movement, while helping readers of all ages realize that there is always more work to be done and always a need for strong, smart citizens to step up to the challenge.
Denny Connolly is a writer and content strategist living in State College, PA. Find more of his work on Twitter @DennyConnolly.