By Shea Hennum
March is an interesting book. It is at once a deeply personal story, told from the perspective of its narrator and co-author, U.S. Representative John Lewis, and a rich, first-hand historical document about an important time in American history. It is co-written with Andrew Aydin, who handles telecomm/technology/new media policy in Lewis’s office, and features art by the inimitable Nate Powell. Lewis is the last living person to have spoken at the August 28th, 1963 March on Washington, formerly one of the “Big Six,” and chairman of SNCC. Lewis is also the first US Congressman to write a comic book. It is his firsthand experience with the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s and Lewis’s commitments as a Congressman that composes the substance of the narrative.
The book — the first in a planned trilogy — opens mid-march, our protagonist a young adult in a pack of peers. The man beside John asks a question:
“Can you swim?”
“Well, we might have to.”
The two men eye the river that runs below the bridge they’re marching across, turning from the bridge to the police officers that block their path and then back to the water.
Lewis narrates his life’s story, at first telling it to two young children whose grandmother brought them to see Lewis’s office, never expecting to meet the congressman himself. Eventually, though, the children and their grandmother are called away, but Lewis’s narrative carries on unabated. The story continuing after the conceit of its telling has been abandoned comes off as weird, and it occurs so late in the book that you’ll wonder why this narrative frame was employed in the first place.
But Lewis’s life story, his early desire to become a preacher evolving into a desire to help change the fabric of American society, is vividly told. The attention to detail is impressive, considering Lewis’s age as he narrates his tale, and he even calls attention to his remarkable recall, telling one of the children that he does in fact remember things from when he was four — properly accented to give the statement the same level of gravitas that nearly everything else in this book carries.
The pacing is impeccable, and draws out the pathos of each scene subtly and brilliantly in a way that craft-fiends will adore and casual readers won’t notice on a conscious level. But it works on a subconscious level, as well, one of those things that will make casual readers say, “Hmmm. I like it, but I can’t quite place my finger on why.” Similarly, the lettering is uncommonly good. Done right, lettering is like editing in film — “the invisible art” — but I couldn’t help but notice how changes in font and the shape of balloons were used to denote reverence — all the Bible verses recited by John as a child are in ornate script.
But, while the story of Lewis’s childhood is fascinating as a memoir and as an historical work, the bulk of the pacing and characterization falls on artist Nate Powell. The framing narrative of Lewis in his office is dialogue-heavy, but the real meat of the book is very light on dialogue. Much of the story is told through expositional captions and through silent panels of gray-washed emotive faces. Fortunately, Nate Powell renders emotions incredibly well. There’s no having to guess how characters are feeling, it’s all right there on their face. Powell’s cartoonish style may strike some as strange, given the subject matter, but he’s got the right amount of illustrative style in there, and you’ll have no trouble taking the work seriously. His work on March facilitates the book’s goal of being at once particular and universal.
And it’s that personal narrative, the familiar patina of memoir, that keeps March from becoming bogged down in the historical significance of what it’s depicting. That’s not to say it doesn’t fully understand the import of what it’s being represented; there’s a just very obvious favoring of pathos over ethos. March is allowed to actually be about something — and, more importantly, someone – without becoming a textbook or falling into a pontification pothole.
This accessibility and personality, though, is a double-edged sword. It’s what makes the work so enjoyable and worth reading, but it’s also the root of my biggest problem with the book: there’s just too damn little of it. There are two more volumes coming, and I cannot wait to get my hands on them. Book One was an entertaining, well-crafted comic, but I knocked it out in about an hour. It’s a physically light read, but it’s not light on quality. By the time I got to the end I just wanted to read the other two.
But, if you’ve got to have a problem, it’s not a bad one to have. And honestly, if this comic were three times as big and just as good, I’d still be complaining that there wasn’t enough.
Be sure to check out March as well as other books relating to the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Movement, and race in America: