Congressman John Lewis was joined by his "March" co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell on Saturday morning at Comic-Con International in San Diego to speak about the award-winning series. Published in 2013, "March: Book One" was the first graphic novel to win the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; it is also a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a bestseller, and an Eisner Award nominee. The second book of the trilogy was released in January of this year, with a third to be released later in 2015.
Leigh Walton, head of marketing at Top Shelf Productions and editor of the series, introduced Congressman Lewis to the audience as "a living legend and an icon." Upon taking a seat, Lewis said, "It has been a tremendous honor for everyone involved in this project to be involved in this project, every step of the way." Walton pointed out that Lewis, true to the spirit of Comic-Con, had dressed up for the occasion by wearing a replica of the trench coat and backpack that he had worn during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.
"I don't even know where to start," began Lewis, "but I want to tell you that I'm more than lucky: I'm very blessed to be working with Andrew Aydin." He went on to compliment Powell as well: "He can make the words jump off the pages and sing a song." Lewis described his childhood in rural Alabama and how his family told him to accept things the way that they were. "I heard of Rosa Parks," he said. "I heard the worlds of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. The action of Rosa Parks, the words and leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get into trouble. It was good trouble, necessary trouble. We are hoping that 'March' will inspire another generation of young people -- and people not so young -- to stand up, to speak up, and speak out, and get into trouble."
Throughout his speech, Lewis compared the social and political climate depicted in "March" to contemporary issues and politics. He described raising chickens as a child and assembling his siblings and cousins with the chickens to listen to him as he practiced preaching the gospel. Though the chickens "never quite said amen," he believed that they listened better than his colleagues in congress. "Some of those chickens were just a little more productive," he added. "At least they produced eggs."
Lewis described his experiences in the nonviolent movement, from his first time eating Chinese food while challenging segregation at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., to being beaten by Klan members and "left in a pool of blood." One of his attackers from that night came to his office in 2009 to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Lewis described the conversation:
"I said, 'I accept your apology. I forgive you.' His son started crying, he started crying. They hugged me, I hugged them back, and I started crying. It says something about the power of the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. The power of peace and of love."
The congressman encouraged the current generation to remember the events of the past and use those lessons today. Through nonviolence, he said "We lay down the burden of hate, the burden of division, the burden of separation." He encouraged young people especially to get involved, saying, "Find a way to get in good trouble, necessary trouble. When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just: do something about it."
Aydin took to the podium next, joking, "Who wants to follow that?" He went on to talk about his involvement in the book and the origins of the project. "Some of you may have asked yourself: Why would John Lewis write a graphic novel?" he asked. "Well, it was my fault."
He went on to describe his surprise and awe at the success that the book has achieved, especially in classrooms around the country. "Not only are we breaking down barriers for the civil rights movement," he said, "but we're breaking down barriers for comic books, too." He described revisiting the same school where, as a student, he was told that comics weren't "real books" with Congressman Lewis to speak about "March."
Aydin also applied the ideology in "March" to contemporary issues: "We need an activist generation. We need it more than we even know. But we've got to start with student loans. It's time for public education in this country to be free. You want to know why we don't have an activist generation? Because they're at work, paying off their student loans."
Aydin ended his speech by invoking a comparison between the openness and acceptance of the comics community to that of the Civil Rights Movement. "We're at Comic-Con. This is a sacred space," said Aydin. "When we come here, we don't just remember who we are. We remember that this is a safe space. This is a place we can all come from different walks of life. This is the beloved community. And that's why I love it."
"March" artist Powell spoke about the process of creating the book and gave credit to editor Walton, calling him "indispensable" and saying, "He's allowed 'March' to grow and thrive as a living thing." Powell talked about the unique challenges of working on a book that has such historical significance: "As the demands of this account of history and the demands of this account of Congressman Lewis's personal perspective on history involved more people, involved the escalation of events and consequences, it also demanded a lot more accountability."
Powell also spoke to the effort that was put into making "March" suitable for classroom use, ensuring that it was "virtually incontestable" as a historical document, in addition to maintaining integrity as both a personal memoir and a comic. "In the same way that a story is a living thing, history itself is a living thing," he said.
A native of Arkansas, Powell shared the perspective that growing up in the South has given him on history: "I never thought I would see the Confederate flag actually taken down from public institutions in my lifetime. It's been so inspiring and unreal in the best possible way, and the worst possible way." As a Southerner, he said, "It's been an exciting and difficult challenge to own up to the role we play in that expanding and necessary conversation."
The most powerful moment that he has experienced while working on "March," Powell said, happened while he was watching Lewis's appearance on "The Daily Show" with his toddler daughter. Before his interview with Jon Stewart, they showed a montage of videos and images from the Civil Rights Movement. "All of the sudden this air came over her, and with so much conviction, in a very raw way, she said, 'The policemen are being mean to John Lewis and his friends for walking down the street!' And she was really disturbed by this. It hit me hard: everything is so complicated, but to be able to cut through all of the residual layers and all of the complications, she was able to see straight to the heart of everything. Her sense of injustice was so crystal clear."