The history recounted in March: Book Two is, or should be, fairly familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the 20th century. The Freedom Riders and the other struggles of the early 1960s American civil rights movement have by now passed into legend, with iconic footage blending with equally iconic music in the world’s collective memory. It happened over fifty years ago, and most of the people involved have passed away, but not John Lewis. He was there — he is an historic figure and still a member of the US House of Representatives, but as a young student he rode with the Freedom Riders, went to prison, endured indignity and lived to tell the tale. Improbable though it may seem at first blush, the comic book is the perfect medium with which to share his story and give us a new way to remember this troubled, violent period of modern history.
March: Book One told the story of Lewis’s early life in Alabama, and the beginnings of his awakening to a life in politics and activism, including the famous Lunch Counter protests. Book Two hits the ground running, starting in November of 1960 with a new wave of nonviolent protests to segregated eating establishments, and moves through the Freedom Riders and on to the growing prominence of the early civil rights movement, leading up to the “I Have a Dream” speech (Lewis also spoke that day) and ending just before the events that would bring the eyes of the world to a little town called Selma. Films, books and numerous TV documentaries have told this story many times before. But nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how well-suited the medium of comics is to this story, and how powerful it all feels to the reader. There is little wonder why March: Book Two is nominated for a 2016 Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Book.
Written by Lewis himself with Andrew Aydin, it’s Nate Powell’s art that almost steals the show from the great men and women being depicted, and their historic words. Certainly, there are a lot of images of conversations and speeches, but they’re rendered with such energy and power that it’s almost more captivating than if they were presented on a motion picture or TV screen. With a style heavily indebted to Will Eisner (this is a good thing), Lewis, Aydin and Powell give us a rich world of vistas, violence, fear and courage, with action scenes, suspenseful scenes, scenes rendered almost completely in stylized darkness, and others in full-scale documentary light. Not since Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland have I seen a comic tell such an engaging and informative true-life story in glorious comic black and white. The medium is used to such an effective extent that just about every other page is a straight-up lesson in the possibilities of that peculiar combination of words and pictures that comprise our favourite medium.
The framing story here is Lewis’s participation in the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, which, as Lewis and his collaborators show us, closes at least one chapter of the African-American saga. Though with the passage of years, we may have seen the reality of his Presidency fail to live up to expectations, there’s no denying the raw emotion portrayed on Lewis’s face as he shakes the hand of a US President of colour, having seen all he had seen.
It’s the “seeing” that makes all the difference here. It’s one thing to read about these events, or to see a few blurry photos or shaky film clips, but to have the whole story of police brutality, criminal injustice on the part of elected officials, naked racial hatred, discrimination and fear spread out before the reader in graphic detail packs a serious emotional punch. As someone from Canada, I constantly have to remind myself that these events took place not in the 1860s but the 1960s, in the same country that was in the process of putting a man on the moon. And almost a century after the Civil War was supposed to put these issues to rest. Watching how much activists (of all colours, by the way) respond nonviolently to these outrageous miscarriages of basic civilization, never mind justice, is breathtaking. Basic things like getting a cup of coffee, using the bathroom or riding on a bus became monumental issues in that struggle, and Lewis tells it all, just like he remembers it. The fact that it all really happened makes his handshake with Barack Obama all the more powerful. Lewis has had a front seat at one of the most significant historical events of our times, and he’s only too willing to share it all with a new generation.
This isn’t a fairy tale: Lewis takes care to show how the civil rights movement itself was changing and evolving as the sixties wore on. Nonviolence, practiced by well-dressed, well-behaved College students, is falling out of fashion as March: Book Two draws to a close, with the movement beginning to splinter into more militant factions, determined to assert an African-American cultural identity as well as creating political change. Lewis picked his side and stayed with it, but the more “active” activists are not portrayed as cartoonish, but simply impatient and outraged, with good reason. Several “civilians” who stepped up and played important roles at the right time (such as a nice white couple who took in some stranded Freedom Riders after they were abandoned in Klan country) are also given their due. The Kennedys, both Robert and his Presidential brother, are not clothed in their usual saintly robes, but shown as the shrewd politicians they were, practicing the imperfect art of the possible, edging forward with a movement that was always pushing them a bit farther than they were able to go. Martin Luther King is here, but he isn’t the centre of the story for a change. Rather, King is shown as one of many leaders who certainly was a media star and an important and beloved ally, but he hardly ran the whole movement from behind the scenes. He makes mistakes, too, and doesn’t always display the courage for which he is justly remembered.
This story gets its authority from Lewis, but Aydin and Powell are emphatically equal partners in the creation of this remarkable comic book. It’s an important achievement in our favourite medium, and its ending promises that March: Book Three will be no less impressive.