As a New York Times Bestseller, an Eisner nominee and the first graphic novel to win the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, “March” is a high water mark in comics. Co-written by U.S. Civil Rights leader Congressman John Lewis & Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, the “March” series of graphic novels published by Top Shelf are a first-hand account of Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights. “March: Book One” was released in August 2013 with the second volume published this past January, both to critical acclaim.
For his second trip to the world famous CBR Yacht, artist Nate Powell again joined CBR TV’s Jonah Weiland at Comic-Con International in San Diego to discuss “March” now that the second of three planned books are in readers’ hands. The artist explains his own ties to and knowledge of the Civil Rights movement growing up in the American South and how he has been changed as both a person and a creator as a result of working on the project. He also talks about the care he takes depict actual people and how there is a sense of urgency to get the book done while those who lived this story can still speak about it firsthand, as well as how his punk rock youth actually helped blaze a natural path to his current gig.
On whether working on the book has changed him:
Nate Powell: One of the major ways I think the book has changed me has to do, I think, with being a comic book artist and a consumer of media, in a surprising way it’s resensitized me to depictions of violence. I don’t know, it’s like I don’t read that many superhero comics — I read more now than before but I grew up reading, like all of us did, all kinds of like basic power narrative and action narratives and stuff. I think the process of like approaching depictions of violence and figuring out how to do it in a way that’s unflinching and uncompromising without being exploitative has sort of made me, with each sort of moment of brutality, having to get as close to the characters, whether it’s the perpetrator or the victim, as much as possible in a way that sort of makes each hit, each act of violence — even verbal violence as well — makes it seem fresh and news; makes you actually feel the ugliness of violence in a way that, you know, like turns our experience of reading comics and watching movies and stuff on its head. And that’s something that surprised me. I certainly felt it a lot with the first book; the second book is much more brutal and there are particular scenes in there where two panels into a page I would actually have to call it quits for a day. That’s been the major change is making me approach violence as a reader and a viewer, and as a creator, in a very different way.
On drawing real people in the book, including John Seigenthaler who died while Powell was drawing the book:
I was halfway through drawing “March: Book Two” — actually, I think it was a year ago — is today the tenth or the eleventh? It was a year ago today, July 11 last year, I was depicting the Montgomery Greyhound station massacre during the freedom rides and historically John Seigenthaler, who became a great journalist, philanthropist, activist, but at the time was an aide to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was sent down to check out things and sort of help ensure some safety measures for the Freedom Riders. He rolled up in his car and within five seconds of getting out he was hospitalized and knocked unconscious by a white supremacist with a lead pipe. I’m on a pretty tight schedule, so I knew the night before that I had to draw that page that day, and I got started, as I was double checking my reference and everything that’s when I actually saw on the news that Mr. Seigenthaler had passed away. It was a very uncomfortable and unusual feeling, but I was able to get through it. We wound up dedicating the book to him. He was a great man, I got to meet him once. But also, it sort of highlighted the fact that with history as a living thing we’re — it’s easy to take for granted that people who are my parents’ age and the generation older — or even ten years older than my parents, who are in their late sixties — we’re losing people left and right, people with the ability to speak first person about some of these events.
Andrew and Congressman Lewis have been working on “March” for like six years now, I’ve been on board for three and a half. With the number of years we have left to work on it it’s amazing and really bizarre just to know that people in five for more years are not going to be able to be around to speak of this narrative in the first person. It adds some extra urgency to it.
On how his punk rock past served as a perfect precursor to working on “March”:
Going into the project, from day one I had a number of questions. I mean, I wanted the job — I really wanted to do it — but there were questions that I needed answered and a lot of them had to with exactly what my relationship was, especially with him as a serving representative, etc. — and all of that was totally fine. But in terms of like growing up in and through punk, I was really, I feel like, a sense of a social consciousness came to me through Chris Claremont’s run on “X-Men” and thrash metal, but my exposure to punk and underground hardcore music and zines and everything like — the attendant politics and ethics and a lot of the discussions to be had at shows and magazines and back and forth. Some of that changed my life forever, and
I’d say more than anything else, the drawback to punk as a subculture is that despite the fact that’s it’s an inherently exclusive system that defines itself as what it is not, it’s still — it has no choice but to define itself by being a youth-centered movement. So there’s always a lot of baggage and anxiety that comes with the day that you realize you hold these things in your heart but you’re beyond the thing that you knew as punk even though it’s still a part of you. It’s been very refreshing and encouraging to know that like all of my convictions [Laughs] are still intact and are consistent, but my ability to actually bring it to a new stage and to a new context is the most exciting of all. Like truly, literally becoming post-punk. [Laughs] It’s one of the coolest things about my life as a 37 year-old.
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