It's not every day you read a graphic novel penned by a US Congressman. Sure, Senator Patrick Leahy has parlayed his famous love of Batman into a handful of cameo appearances in the movies, but Congressman John Lewis has turned to the comic book medium to tell the story of his own life and his struggles as a civil rights pioneer. March: Book One is the first in a trilogy of OGNs that explore the build-up to 1963's March on Washington, one of the pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement.But while Lewis is an accomplished writer, he's turned to his staffer (and comic book fan) Andrew Aydin to co-write the story, essentially molding Lewis' personal accounts into something more suited to a visual medium. Artist Nate Powell completes the equation, bringing Lewis and Aydin's words to life with his pencils and inks. The result is far more than the typical quick-and-dirty comic book biographies one will usually find on the stands. It's a powerful look at a very chaotic time in American history.
The writers open this story with a flash-forward to the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, where scenes of peaceful protesters being greeted with savage beatings and tear gas from angry police officers set the tone for the rest of the book. But this isn't 12 Years a Slave, and Lewis and his collaborators take care to keep the story from veering too far into darkness. The story briefly shifts farther forward to 2009 and Barack Obama's inauguration as a form of contrast. From there, an older Lewis begins narrating the story of his life to a small but eager audience.
The book becomes a fairly traditional autobiography at that point, aside from a few Forrest Gump-style interludes in the story. Readers see Lewis' childhood in Tennessee and the formative events that shaped his desire to join the Civil Rights Movement. In many ways, these early childhood scenes are the most effective in the book. The creators get up close and personal with a young Lewis here. The pace is slower, and the focus is more introspective. As Lewis gets older, the script both speeds up and begins to distance itself from its subject somewhat. The book has surprisingly little actual dialogue, instead relying on Lewis' narration to set the scene and explain the significance of events as they unfold. And that's really my one big complaint with March. Often it still feels like it was written for a prose format rather than comics, and this "narration over dialogue" approach can be too clinical.
But perhaps Lewis merely wanted to avoid embellishing his story too much or making it overly about his own struggle. This book remains a fascinating read, regardless. As Lewis ages, he encounters figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., learns the art of nonviolent resistance, and begins participating in marches and diner sit-ins. March inspires equal parts pride at witnessing a noble struggle and disdain at the terrible treatment Lewis and his many allies suffered. The book isn't especially graphic in nature, but nor does it ever pull its punches.The Best Comics of the Decade (2010 – 2019)And even when the writing seems more detached and clinical than necessary, Powell is able to bring a warmth and energy to the page with his art. His art toes the line between capturing the look and feel of a distinctive period and its famous faces and presenting it through a more lyrical, stylized lens. Even without the benefit of color, Powell's gray tones and brush strokes give the book vitality and intensity. So for the most part, any flaws in the framing of the story are deftly counteracted by the visuals.
It’s easy to be wary of comic book-based autobiographies. But March proves that the format can do a lot to bring history to life. Lewis is a compelling figure with a rich life’s story, and together with his collaborators he’s able to draw readers into that story. Though this book too often opts fora clinical narration when a more “in the moment approach might have worked better,” the art alone is enough to highlight the emotion and tension of Lewis’ struggles. And the best part is that this story is only a third of the way finished.