If I had to pick one moment from the second volume of John Lewis’s March to explain what makes it so special, I know what I would choose. It happens at almost exactly the halfway point, and at first glance, it’s completely innocuous. In the scene, Lewis, one of the Freedom Riders testing a new ruling prohibiting segregation on buses, has boarded his bus and is leaving for Mississippi. At the top of the next page, we see two panels—one, a boxed interior shot of the bus, and the other, an open external shot of the bus driving away.
Nothing special in that, right? But if you look just above the two panels, you’ll find a little piece of comic book magic. Just over the first panel, Powell draws a very small image of the bus, followed by exhaust. Then, above the second panel, he draws the bus again, even smaller, with an even longer exhaust trail. On a practical level, the two bus images help to convey the passage of time and space. On a symbolic level, the buses are also freed from the confines of the conventional comic book panel, truly “freedom rides,” both historically and visually.
It’s a throwaway moment, perhaps, but it’s indicative of what I love about the March books. They’re not simply “important” or “educational” books; they’re also genuinely great comics.
Last year, I wrote a column about the first volume of March in which I openly confessed to not having expected much from it as a comic. Even though I’m a huge admirer of John Lewis and love the idea of comics that explore race, history, and the Civil Rights Movement, the way in which the mainstream press was covering March implied that it was the comic book equivalent of broccoli and kale—the kind of comic your grandmother might give you. But as I wrote last year, I was wrong. Not only does Lewis have a great story to tell, but co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell really know how to use the medium to tell a story and tell it well. This is particularly important considering the number of non-comics readers who are paying attention to these books, as well as the number of high school students who will likely encounter comics for the first time once these books are fully incorporated into the high school curriculum, as I’m sure they will be.
Lewis and Aydin keep the pace brisk throughout this second volume, and they really use the comics medium well to convey complex bits of information. For example, when they need to introduce readers to a new cast of characters, such as the Freedom Riders, they take a nine-panel page to present each of the key players, almost like the roll call sequence in a superhero team book. As a result, they manage to honor some of the participants who might not factor directly into the story later on, while simultaneously personalizing those who do, such as Professor Walter Bergman and his wife, Frances. We don’t actually see much of Bergman, but 20 pages later, when Lewis tells us that Bergman suffered brain damage and a stroke after being beaten in Birmingham, we don’t have to see the beating to feel the pain. We already know him because we met him—he’s the married professor from the introductions page.
If the writing in March is good, the art is superlative. Nate Powell continues to demonstrate why he’s one of the best cartoonists in comics. His line work, layouts, and hand lettering are all reminiscent of Will Eisner, and he uses a large arsenal of visual techniques to help communicate ideas. Looking back through the book, it’s really a tour de force. He presents the reader with two-page spreads, splash pages, realistic details, symbolic images, nighttime scenes, violence, action, and iconic illustrations. It’s masterful work and really helps to elevate these books far beyond the dreary expectations that typically come with “educational comics.”
But more than the writing and art, what ultimately drives this series is the power of Lewis’s life story. In book one, we watched him as a student participating in the earliest of the lunch counter protests in Nashville, and book two takes him through the Freedom Rides and, ultimately, to his role as one of the principal speakers at the March on Washington—and the only one still living today. There is a cumulative power that arises from one harrowing incident followed by another, and it’s particularly sobering to see Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders led into Mississippi’s notorious prison—Parchman Farm—based solely on a disturbance of the peace charge.
I sometimes think that our cultural history tends to simplify and compress things to such an extent that in the popular imagination, the Civil Rights Movement consisted of Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of a bus, leading to a peaceful march, and culminating with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Then we all lived happily ever after. The virtue of Lewis’s March books is that they document just how long and hard the road to progress can be. The title, March, is telling. Originally, I saw it as merely an allusion to the march in Selma, for which Lewis is most famous, but in retrospect, it’s a perfect metaphor for the Civil Rights Movement. As retold in these books, the movement, much like the act of marching, is slow, involves a mass of people, and relies on extraordinary levels of training, persistence, and discipline.
The book also refuses to pull punches. There are a few individuals from history, like Bull Connor, the Birmingham official who ordered marching children to be sprayed with fire hoses and attacked with dogs, who are viewed with almost universal disdain, but the book also reminds us that in addition to reviled figures like Bull Connor, there were also people like Strom Thurmond who behaved disgracefully without ever really being held accountable.
Thurmond rose to national prominence when he ran a segregationist campaign for President in 1948, and he remained a fierce opponent of civil rights thereafter, once conducting a 24-hour filibuster single-handedly in an effort to block a civil rights bill. Like many other racists, he switched to the Republican Party in 1964 as part of an ideological realignment that still largely dominates the political landscape today.
His was an abysmal career, but he was nevertheless rewarded with the longest senate tenure of anyone in history at the time, and in the final decades of Thurmond’s career, he was treated as something akin to a lovable mascot in the U.S. Senate by the mainstream press. But in March, Lewis and Aydin remind us that at key moments, such as the buildup to the March on Washington, Thurmond used his power to try to destroy the movement, accessing FBI wiretaps to publicly out one of the March’s organizers as gay. Reading March reminds us of where people like Thurmond stood and help us to see the ways in which that ideological realignment of the mid-‘60s continues to affect the politics of today.
It’s ironic that only a few years ago, many commentators began tossing around phrases like “post-racial society,” particularly after the election of President Obama, but as the past half-dozen years have clearly demonstrated, racism in America is alive and well. I never thought I would see members of the United States Congress actually heckle a President during the State of the Union Address, nor did I imagine seeing a House staffer publicly attack the President’s school-age children, but clearly the standard rules of protocol and decorum don’t seem to apply to this President. It’s not hard to figure out why.
More troubling, of course, is that over the past year we’ve seen the tragic results of antagonism between law enforcement and the African-American community, and, in ways that echo much of the farcical legal proceedings during the days of the segregated South, we’ve seen the sense of helplessness that comes when the justice system is corrupt, with prosecutors in both Ferguson and New York operating in bad faith while hiding behind grand juries.
March: Book Three will presumably cover the marches in Selma that helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Given the fact that the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act and that several Republican-controlled states, mostly in the South, have systematically moved to restrict access to voting in ways that target the poor, minorities, and college students, the third volume of the March series may sadly wind up being the most relevant one of all.