Comics (and literature for that matter) are full of stories about heroic figures, but there are none as heroic as those in real life, especially those whose sacrifices a half-century ago continue to positively impact the world of today. “March: Book One” is an excellent and fascinating historical account of the childhood and early career of United States Congressman John Lewis, as chronicled by Congressman Lewis himself along with staff member Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell.
Long before Congressman Lewis was elected, he was largely known as a high-profile and dedicated supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the American south. He’s probably best remembered as the co-organizer of a planned peaceful march in Alabama that was met with force by state police in the oft-called “Bloody Sunday” incident in 1965. The first of a planned three volumes, “March: Book One” starts off at the onset of this march, establishing Lewis’ most prominent place in history for readers unfamiliar with the events. Eventually, the story flashes back to Lewis’ past, starting in his youth as he was growing up on his family’s farm in 1940s Alabama.
The narrative is told as it should be, in the congressman’s own words both as co-writer of the story and from his own character recollecting his youth. Powell’s washed-out greytones combine with Congressman Lewis and Aydin’s captivating words and story to give the entire account the feel of a compelling, period documentary. Anyone who’s heard Lewis speak on the evening news or cable news networks will immediately hear his voice as he relays his tale of discontent and determination. Powell’s style captures the dusty, poor, and downtrodden look of the south and its smudgy, grimy look is also symbolic of an ugly time in American history. It’s not always pretty, but then, neither is the backdrop of Lewis’ story.
Although his art is a little muddy-looking in some places, Powell adds some nice little touches, like the irony evoked by the state slogans proclaimed on the road signs at various state lines as Congressman Lewis recounts the story of a trip he had taken to New York with his uncle. The usage of small, scribbled and near-unreadable words balloons in certain instances effectively represent the meaninglessness, irrelevance or lack of attention paid to these words. There are plenty of racial slurs; they would be impossible to avoid in such a story and maintain any sense of believability; but are used with surprising restraint.
Best of all, the story is one with refrains of hope and inspiration throughout. Congressman Lewis’ parents are portrayed as good and hard-working farmers who are grudgingly content with their lives, although they are well aware of their place in the social structure. Lewis himself as a child identifies with animals on the farm; the allegory might be surprising but it highlights a generational difference between him and his parents. Young John Lewis can identify each one of the chickens in his care, for example, whereas to his parents they are all the same; a symbol of the very same kind of thinking that’s purely racist in human terms.
Lewis never mopes around or complains about his situation or that endured by people of color; he uses it as motivation. He doesn’t focus or dwell on the uglier side of racism in the south, like burnings and lynchings, although they are referenced; this kind of violence is already known by all so instead he accepts these things as a horrible constant. Instead of belaboring them, he concentrates on ways to change things, peacefully. As a result, the entire story is uplifting, especially when looked at in context with the present-day framing sequence, which serves as a reminder that his non-violent ways did indeed work and play an important part in changing the country’s social structure and its very way of thinking.
It’s rare that an account about such a dark and troubling aspect of American history can be told with such a positive outlook, especially by one who has been victimized by it firsthand. This is an absolutely wonderful story about one man who played a very important role in one of this country’s most important social revolutions, and continues to play an important part to this very day.