Earlier today, a federal judge struck down New York City’s “stop and frisk” law on the grounds that the law was basically just a form of racial profiling. Whether you believe that the judge’s ruling was accurate or not, it is a striking commentary on the fact that racial politics and issues of civil rights are still a pressing matter in 2013. Not to the extent that they were in 1963 during the famed March on Washington (the 50th anniversary of which happens in two weeks), but the same basic ideas are as applicable today as they were back then. So Top Shelf’s March, Book 1 by Congressman John Lewis, co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell arrives just as timely now as it would have been at any other point in recent U.S. history. This first details Lewis’ childhood and his earliest involvement in the civil rights movement, most notably his participation in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins in 1959 and 1960. It is a powerful work well served by Powell’s well-formed and dynamic layouts (click on the cover image to the right for an enlarged hi-resolution version).
The framing sequence of the book is that it is set on the Inauguration of President Barack Obama back in January 2009, as that is naturally a perfect point in time for someone like Lewis to look back upon his life’s work. That was a very smart decision. The inspiration for Lewis’ reflections in the first half of the book (closer to 60% really) is a woman who was in Washington D.C. with her two sons for the inauguration and who stopped by Lewis’ office not knowing that he would actually be there. Lewis then tells her and her boys about his own childhood. It is a clever idea, although it rings a bit clunky at time (as the story often gives the mother and son some leading questions that don’t exactly seem like they were flowing naturally: “What were you going to ask?” “I guess, well, school. What did you do after high school? How did you go to college?” Then a section on that topic). The last half (or 40%) flowed better when Lewis receives a letter from his old friend and mentor Jim Lawson. This then just cuts to Lewis recollecting how he met Lawson back in 1959 and learned the principles of non-violent activism which led to the aforementioned Nashville lunch counter sit-ins.
Outside of the fascinating life story of Lewis himself, the greatest strength of the book is the work of Nate Powell, who uses the black and white nature of the book beautifully as he embraces the power of negative space to make some striking visuals. Take, for instance, this sequence where Lewis talks about Lawson’s earlier speeches…
That is some amazing work by Powell right there. It really grabs you in the gut.
Such is the case for much of the story, as Lewis, Aydin and Powell really know how to make the story seem so visceral that you cannot help but become affected by the story, to feel the anguish and the dread that comes from, say, a drive through the south in the early 1950s (when Lewis goes on a trip with his Uncle to Buffalo) or the hopes of Lewis when Brown versus the Board of Education came down or the disappointment when Lewis realizes that he cannot put his family through the trauma of an attempt by him to integrate Troy State University (something Martin Luther King was willing to back, but only if Lewis and his family understood the sacrifice they and their neighbors would have to make – a sacrifice Lewis’ family was not yet prepared to make) or the severe determination it must have taken to not react when the Nasvhille police allowed angry white students come into the Woolworths to attack and degrade the protesters.
Even before this point, though, Lewis’ tales of just growing up on a farm are gripping in their own terms, from Lewis’ tale of sneaking out to go to school when his father would otherwise insist that the kids work their farm or Lewis’ empathy for the chickens on the farm or even something as fanciful as flipping through a catalog as a child to see all the items that he would like to buy that he knows he could never actually afford. These are universal themes and feelings that successfully grounds Lewis’ life before we get to the more impressive (and therefore less universal) parts of his life.
Is this book a valuable teaching tool? Certainly, but beyond that, it is just a flat out well done comic book.