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John Lewis is one of the few surviving key members of the American Civil Rights Movement.  He was one of the original Freedom Riders, served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was instrumental in the organization of sit-ins. Lewis currently serves as a U.S. Congressman, and has served his Georgia constituents since I was fresh out of the womb.  March is a trilogy recounting John Lewis’ experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, and Lewis co-wrote it with his aid Andrew Aydin.  Nate Powell, one of my favorite figures in the sequential art world, is the illustrator for the series.  Book One was released in August 2013, and Book Two came out in January of this year.

Plot Summary

Starting in present day, John Lewis recounts his childhood and teen years to a few visitors that have come into his office.  Lewis highlights his first face to face meeting with Martin Luther King, his choice to back down from his decision to become the first black student at Troy University due to potential harm to his family, and starts going into detail when he talks about how he taught non-violent protest methods to other students. It was the amount of training and painful calibration that the student volunteers went through before even being tested on the streets that drew me into this book, because I had never heard from that angle of the story before. It re-contextualized why the numerous marches, protests, and sit-ins never erupted into an even uglier display of mutual violent acts and gave the difficulty of maintaining a non-violent demeanor in the face of physical harm and emotional humiliation more weight.

Visuals

Nate Powell had to look up and study the faces of hundreds of civil rights activists, study period clothing and cars, and stray from the subtle surreal elements that are normally mainstays of his artwork.  In order to make sure that the novel’s visual style wouldn’t end up looking like a courtroom sketch of historical figures, Powell stated that he worked from a basic skull structure and then added a few details from there.  I highly commend his attention to detail in this equally detailed retelling of history.

Themes

This graphic novel seeks to educate others about this important period of American history, and places importance on how many sacrifices were made to achieve legal equalities for black American citizens in the southeast.  The amount of education and temperance required of the individual members is also recognized, so this novel doesn’t seek to just dryly recount events as they happened, but also teaches the personal development it took of the people involved.  Thus, it’s a far more interesting novel than something like Gonzo, which read like an illustrated encyclopedia entry.

Overall

I greatly enjoyed learning about the process that John Lewis used to teach his fellow students in the ways of non-violent protest.  The early parts of the novel aren’t as interesting as some other autobiographies, which is unusual, but at least it consistently gets better from there. Check it out, and the second one too.