Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon and author of the graphic memoir trilogy March, has a preacher's voice and presence, and he started off the March panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego with a powerful sermon on the importance of challenging the status quo and getting into trouble -- "good trouble, necessary trouble" -- which received thunderous applause from the audience.
Yet it was a quieter voice that stole the show: That of his co-writer, Andrew Aydin. Aydin's mother passed away three weeks before Comic-Con, and his speech was a eulogy to her, a tribute to all parents, and a call to action.
But first, there were the awards.
On the Friday of Comic-Con, book three of March won the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work, and on Saturday, the day of the panel, Gary Sassman, director of print and digital media at Comic-Con, presented Lewis, Aydin and artist Nate Powell with Comic-Con's Inkpot Award for achievement in comic arts.
Lewis started the panel with a brief description of his life as the son of a sharecropper in rural Alabama, at a time when waiting rooms and restrooms were designated "white" and "colored." When he asked his mother about it, he related, "She'd say 'Boy, that's the way it is! Don't get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.' But Dr. [Martin Luther] King inspired me to get in trouble. What I call good trouble, necessary trouble. And now more than ever before, we need to get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble. When we see something that is not right, not fair, not just, we have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to stand up, to speak up, to speak out and get in trouble." His speech was punctuated with applause and cheers from the audience.
Then Aydin stepped to the podium. "My mother died three weeks ago," he said. "A lot of you all have heard me talk about her. You know what she meant to me. You know that March would not have existed without her, and it's given me a lot of opportunity to reflect on the people who don't stand up on the stage but who make it possible for us to be up here. Our mothers, our fathers, the people who take care of us, the people who nurture our unconventionality. The people who tell us it's OK to be different. The people who encourage us to follow what we love, not what we're supposed to do."
"My mother was too ill to come to the National Book Awards," Aydin continued. "My mother was too ill to come with me and see some of these things, but she deserves a place up here, just like us. And so do your parents. So do the people who encouraged you to make a contribution, who told you you didn't have to follow the leader. And that's what we need now. We need a generation of young people. We need a generation of people not so young. We can't follow this leader."
The audience was silent for a moment, then burst into applause.
Aydin praised all parents, saying, "You are not just our mothers, our fathers, you are the mothers and fathers of our society, of our culture, and of the better angels of our nature, and without you society would not move forward."
Powell continued that thread, saying that as a parent himself, he has watched his two daughters learn about the world around them. "It's been a weird year to be a parent," he said, "to see in real time that they are about to be meeting up with a profound shift in social structure, with a well-organized effort to undo decades of social and legal progress, that progress that we documented in the first person in the March series."
Indeed, he said, "In the process of making March, we became aware that the story we were telling was becoming less about 1964 and 1965 and more about 2016, 2017, 2018. What is disturbing, and what I have growing anxiety about is the fact that an accurate, factual, personal account of history shouldn't be controversial and that's something that I've obviously taken for granted… I didn't anticipate that we would need to rekindle and continuously rekindle a fight for the legitimacy of these historical accounts. We are prepared to do so. Please join us in that fight."
Again, the audience responded with applause, and Powell ended with a call to action, saying, "If you have been moved, if you have been transformed or inspired by this work that the story that we have been able to work together to bring to light in March, now is the time to take that forward. Now is the time to do something, to move and to remember that you are far from alone."
That became even more concrete during the question-and-answer session, when an audience member asked how "armchair activism" such as sharing on Facebook and Twitter could be turned into more concrete action.
"It takes about 300 votes to get elected to most municipal posts," Aydin said. "I’m pretty sure a lot of these people get that many likes on Facebook. Imagine if they took that energy, they took that time, and they put that into organizing their local races. I'm not talking about the state house. I'm talking about the stuff that regulates the minutia. The stuff that will regulate developers. That will regulate the excise tax, these small, small seats that have tremendous power over your day to day. Unfortunately, we have lost them systematically over the last decade. The Democratic Party failed. I'm sorry."
Once more, there was a long moment of silence before the audience applauded, this time more sparingly. Aydin concluded by urging the audience to organize at the local level and flip those seats.
Lewis and Powell expanded on this later in the Q&A, when a young woman asked about environmental activism. "When you get together and demonstrate in a peaceful fashion, you can get things done," Lewis said. "Andrew and Nate can tell you that when a sit-in started in Greensboro, North Carolina, with four freshmen college students, it spread across the south like wildfire. There were hundreds and thousands of people sitting in. We desegregated the American South. You can do it."
However, Powell warned, "This wasn't a fixed set of tactics and strategies. In fact, it was just the opposite. Activism works because the people involved are thinking creatively and nimbly and doing things that folks don’t anticipate… The specific methods are the ones that are not documented yet, things that come spontaneously, that are creative, that are nimble, and that's where the burden is on everyone to be creative, to think quickly, and to work with teach other. It’s not necessarily the tactics you have seen in books before."
As in the past two years, Lewis, Aydin, and Powell concluded the panel by leading a procession of schoolchildren and adults from the panel room to the convention floor, where they signed copies of the third volume of March.