Opinion: With his ‘March’ trilogy, John Lewis called for a revolution. It’s time we answer


Creating a graphic-novel memoir with the explicit goal of making nonviolent revolution attainable and urgent was audacious, but the late Rep. John Lewis took that risk with us, alongside us and precisely because he knew the stakes.

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.

Interviewers often asked us, “Why a graphic novel?” The truth is that “March” was always a comic, starting with Andrew’s initial vision after Congressman Lewis described 1957’s buried but influential “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” Across 14 pages, the comic book explains the philosophy and discipline of nonviolent social resistance through an illustrated recounting of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott. Comic books at the time were widely demonized, considered by some to be a corrupting influence — but having witnessed the inspiration “Montgomery Story” gave young activists, including himself, Lewis knew comics’ potential. He saw the format as the most democratic and accessible mass medium, one that enabled anyone to express an idea with basic, inexpensive tools and reach a broad readership across educational, class and language barriers.

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.

The idea for “March” first took root in 2008 on the Congressman’s re-election campaign, as longtime staffers struggled to find new ways to tell his story against the growing question of “What have you done for me lately?”, and the sharp backlash to Lewis’ initial endorsement of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton for president. Andrew, who had been on the Congressman’s personal staff and was serving as the campaign’s press secretary, suggested a simple idea: Congressman Lewis should write a comic book. Though it took some convincing, the Congressman agreed on one condition: He would do it, but only if Andrew wrote it with him.

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.

Artist Nate Powell works on the second installment of the "March" trilogy. (Courtesy Nate Powell)
A lifelong lover of visual art, Lewis’ openness guided him to embrace comics with the same adoration he brought to his favorites like Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence. He plainly saw the potential of the comic book to nurture a social conscience within every young person in America, and had faith in our medium to equip people with the tools to organize and protect themselves.

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.

The "March" team visits Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama in 2013. (Photo courtesy Sandi Villareal)
His commitment to the project was powerful. As he did so many times before, he gave his whole self. A typical book tour might be a few weeks’ worth of signings, a speech here and there, and perhaps a triumphant cocktail reception before receiving a piece of dishware repurposed with your name and book title etched onto it. But the history of “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” taught us that the 1957 comic worked in conjunction with a “reconciliation tour.” Leaders like John Lewis’ mentor, the Rev. James Lawson, and others led workshops explaining the philosophy and discipline of nonviolent resistance as they distributed the comic so that participants had something tangible to study and apply.
For John Lewis, that process was as important as the comic itself. As he would say, “We have to get out there and spread the gospel.” So we did. If these books were a roadmap first drawn by Dr. King, then we needed to be Paul and the Apostles preaching to our flock (of chickens, of course).
As biblical as it may sound, this work also enlivened the political part of the Congressman’s soul, the part that truly loved getting out to meet “We The People.” It was a whole new campaign. From Comic Con International, to the American Library Association, to universities like Michigan State and Georgia State, to whole-community reading programs in San Diego and Vermont (yes, the whole state) — we went everywhere. We gave hundreds of talks. One day we’d speak at a tiny elementary school in Brooklyn, and the next we’d speak our minds to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Congressman kept it up until the end; last December, just before his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer became public, he spoke with teachers and students in New York City, where the Department of Education has included all three volumes of “March” in its system-wide curriculum.
"March" artist Nate Powell with Rep. John Lewis at an industry lunch in 2013. (Courtesy Nate Powell)
It took a special kind of person to invite us along with him into this national spotlight. On TV, on stage at events, in interviews and classroom visits, the Congressman always made sure we were included, and regularly fought for it. When an interviewer would only want to speak to him, he would insist they speak to all of us, refusing to do the interview unless we were all a part of it. He would often say, “We’re a band of brothers,” and that it reminded him of his days traveling with Julian Bond working for the Voter Education Project.
In some ways, it was in keeping with the philosophy of SNCC, the student organization he once led, that though there may be a leader, every voice deserves to be heard. We often joked, after years of touring together, that if we were a band we’d be called “Good Trouble.” That sense that we were in this together, with no person more or less important than the other, was at the core of the Congressman’s philosophy. To him, not telling the whole story—whether of the civil rights movement or of how we made our comics—was a sin.

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.

"March" co-authors Andrew Aydin and Rep. John Lewis sample ice cream at Michigan State University in 2014. (Courtesy Nate Powell)

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.



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