We’re still in awe of his trust in us to tell his life story, including his willingness to risk being brushed off and laughed at for this choice of medium and format.
He was also conscious of the role the Internet played in creating a new literacy among young people. Words and pictures worked together in tweeted memes in much the same way as a comic panel. Sequential narrative was becoming the language of young adults. At the same time as we made our comics, Andrew and the Congressman worked together in the Congressional office (their day jobs, as Lewis would describe it) to dramatize the stories of the movement through social media, creating the now ubiquitous “#goodtrouble.” These efforts worked hand in hand to sensitize, educate and inspire young people, bringing them a history and view of the world around them that was at once both iconic and immediate.
It took five years for that idea to reach the world, as mainstream publishers rejected the concept as outlandish. Andrew eventually found a sympathetic ear at a 2010 comic convention, and by 2011 artist Nate Powell had joined the team. Then, along with Lewis, we began our improbable work.
No historical figure of such magnitude had ever tried to tell their story directly through comics, and in order to produce work that felt truly alive we had to invent our own form of scholarship. We weighed multiple narratives and memories of the principal participants of the movement against the long history of scholarship and retellings, while staying true to the fact that we were first and foremost telling John Lewis’ story. Sometimes people disagreed. Sometimes books disagreed. And we had to sort all of that out with Congressman Lewis often serving as a sympathetic referee, since we were evaluating the work and history of his friends, colleagues and admirers.
Our collaboration required a delicate balance between an accurate, responsible historical account and the intimate, subjective experience of that history. Growing to truly know and love John Lewis throughout the creative process also required growing in trust — the trust necessary to place ourselves in his shoes at the drawing table and keyboard. We worked each day to prove ourselves worthy of it, breathing life into frame after frame.
When John Lewis spoke about forces “trying to take us back,” he was trying to get us to see that the forces he faced never went away. They were always there, hiding in plain sight, waiting for us to let our guard down, waiting for us to forget how to fight back. As a cloud descended over our society throughout the 2010s, he pushed us both to continue to believe in the human capacity for change; to remain open even as possibilities threatened to disappear.
As we turned in the first 10 completed pages of “March: Book One” back in summer 2012, we only hoped our collaborative vision could stand up to his subjective experiences. Reading those pages brought tears to his eyes, distilling something true on the page from within his own private memories. The Congressman would often say that reading “March” was “like being there,” and that the illustrations had the ability to make the words “sing.” There was no model for what we were trying to do. We had to build the language and the standards as we went.
He was actually gracious, actually kind, actually patient. There’s so much bandwidth wrapped up in “John Lewis The Icon” that it’s easy to discount the years we spent eating meals together; shopping for socks; discussing the O’Jays “Backstabbers” LP; waiting in line together as Nate bought a Batgirl action figure for his daughter after a signing. The nights spent indulging in candy and ice cream after an important evening event, or the relief of anonymity in faraway towns. The sheer adventure of criss-crossing America together for five years straight is something we’ll miss most.
Congressman Lewis always made a point to identify “March” as “a roadmap to change,” one that allowed future generations to recognize both the successes and obstacles within the movement as it grew and evolved. And by “change,” we always meant “revolution.” This goal was sometimes chuckled at early on — really, a new wave of nonviolent revolution from a comic?! — but Lewis was always guided by a clear moral framework in every action, every organization and every page of every book.
He was inspired by the notion that the graphic novel format could represent civil rights history in a more immediate, impactful way — and his enthusiasm reflected a lifelong willingness to let younger people take the lead with new approaches to progress. Lewis’ example has helped Nate, at 42, recognize that he’s already approaching dinosaur-status in the eyes of his 8-year-old, and that when she inevitably calls him out of touch with a changing world, it’ll be time to listen and grow with the next generation. This is the broadest sense of continual revolution, embodied by our openness, our vulnerability and our capacity for reflection and change.
It is no vindication that today his mandate is increasingly seen as a necessity for the very survival of our democracy. We’ve all lived the consequences of nationalist myth clouding our shared history, as well as the struggles endured to maintain a precarious democracy. But we’re only at the beginning of those potentially catastrophic consequences. Truth matters. History — told by the people who lived it — can and will determine our ability to sustain and fight for a society holding actual equality, actual justice, actual freedom, and actual peace as ideals.
John Lewis spent his massive lifetime marching toward that promise, and we must fulfill it. We can. But we must do it together, now, even with the possibility that nothing already lost will return.