Sometimes, comics are important.
Sometimes comics are important because they feature the first appearance of an important character or a monumental event. The first appearance of Spider-man or Kraven’s Last Hunt hold special places in the hearts of many fans. Sometimes comics are important for the sake of other comics, like the stuff Frank Miller and Alan Moore put out in the mid 80’s. Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns changed the course of the industry for decades. All too often, comics are deemed important, but that’s only inside the bubble of other comics or comic characters. Rarely, however, are comics important enough to transcend the comic book form.
Maus by Art Spiegelman the first case I think of where the comic book form offered a way to tell an important story in a way that only comic books could.
Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s father’s experience surviving the holocaust. The Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Polish are pigs, and the French are frogs, but you don’t need to care about comics to care about Maus. You care about Maus because the imagery and sorrow and determination and heart that permeates those books. The comic form gives you enough of a visual metaphor to keep the darkest of stories accessible.
Today’s book, March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, is one of those books that carries similar importance.
March: Book One is the first of three parts to tell the biography of John Lewis, a U.S. Congressman, a Medal of Freedom-winning key player from America’s Civil Rights Movement.
The story is apparently rooted in the discussion of another comic book from 1958 called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. (Digital scans are available at http://www.ep.tc/mlk/) That 16 page comic book explained passive resistance and was a teaching tool for nonviolent interventions during the period of desegregation.
While discussing that book with his telecommunication and technology policy aide, Andrew Aydin, Congressman Lewis realized his memoirs might make a comic that similarly inspires young people to take action. Lewis agreed only on the condition that Aydin would work with him on the project, and so it began.
Book One begins, initially, with the March from Selma to Montgomery reaching the moment that would later earn it the name “Bloody Sunday.” State troopers unleashed tear gas and night sticks on Lewis, Hosea Williams, and over 600 other marchers that day. Then, the scene cuts to the framing device of a mother and her two sons visiting John Lewis on Barack Obama’s election day. Lewis begins telling the boys his story, as his symbolic purpose is to cue the coming generation to the events he lived through. Lewis starts with his childhood, growing up on rural Alabama farm. He loved the chickens his family would raise, and he would preach to them while they incubated their eggs. He gives the kids a couple of examples of when he tried to do too much and stretched the hens too thin, or when he tried to hard to indoctrinate the chicks with a baptism and almost killed one of them.
Lewis then contrasts his family life with what he learned on a trip up North to Buffalo with his uncle. The contrast between the more integrated north (with white neighbors on both sides of his aunt and uncle) and the segregated south showed John how different the world could be.
From there, Brown v. The Board of Education outlawed segregation and the world started to change. Kind of. Lewis noticed many people didn’t want to rock the boat, people like his parents who feared trouble, or the community minister who never mentioned the atrocities faced in the community but would ride home in a very nice car. Fear of the system or comfort within the system often held people back from stirring the pot. Lewis heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message of the Social Gospel and immediately connected. Outright defiance of anti-segregation also permeated the culture, including the murder of Emmett Till. Dr. King inspired John Lewis that he could do more.
And so he does. He goes to school and ends up briefly meeting Dr. King before joining up with Jim Lawson and his movement for non-violent and passive resistance. There he encounters that comic book we discussed at the beginning that was so important. That’s followed by four pages of the training regimen that he and his fellow protesters train against the perils they anticipated. Imagine the scene from Rocky where he’s training in the butcher shop, only now the slabs of beef have eyes and are human and are trying to make the world a better place. It’s pretty intense.
It’s almost as intense as when John Lewis and company start their nonviolent sit-in protests at the lunch counters in Alabama. This is where the comic form comes into play again. The hate speech they encounter and the way it’s presented–the lettering–it all goes so far in establishing the tone. The comic book form does a great job in simultaneously depicting the events in a way that’s abstract enough to be accessible but concrete enough to see how dehumanizing the events truly were. Once the sit-ins begin, Nate Powell’s art conveys the isolation and the aggression and the determination to keep marching beautifully. At the end of the first book, you get to taste a victory, but a victory that’s easily fallible by resistance. I’ve got a feeling most of the victories in this story are going to be continual steps forward in spite of the societal pressures pushing back.
At the outset, I mentioned that this comic feels important. Our culture is one where the continued march towards acceptance still encounters hurdles, even today–especially today. When I was in my younger days, race riots, marches for civil rights, they all seemed like relics from the past and history books. Thank goodness that’s over. Except it isn’t in any way. My own blinders of privilege shielded me from seeing how much further we need to go. Police brutality, corruption, and politicians more intent on driving people apart than bringing them together all add up to a lethal mix right now. Books like March can go a long way in not only helping people to empathize and reach a state of understanding, but they can also educate and shine a light on a way to help the situation improve. It may be slow; it may be fraught with peril and resistance at every turn, but at least it’s working towards a possible solution. It’s also nice to see our elected officials trying to inspire others to bring us together instead of drive us apart, especially through comics which has had a long history of promoting social justice. I’m hoping that plenty of folks of all ages see John Lewis’s message and take heed. It’s more important now than it’s ever been.
Final grade: A+. This is one of the books that defines comics as an art form. I don’t think this story works nearly as well as a regular novel or movie. The story is intense, historically accurate, and the art masterfully conveys a variety of emotions and ideas in a way no other form could. I can’t wait to pick up the next two editions and share this story with others.
Until next time, I’ll be the guy getting yelled at for reading comics in class–I’m learning, I swear!