Art Inspiring Social Change: A review of March: Book One & conversation with illustrator Nate Powell

March book

By Westley Ashley

My knowledge of social change in America (in particular, the Civil Rights Movement) was personalized at a young age by my mother and grandmother. My mother helped integrate a school in small town Arkansas and her mother served as a social worker of sorts for a five county area in southwest Arkansas. Either through my mother thwarting my attempts at avoiding school with her “in my day” rebuttals or through stories told during daily crappie- fishing excursions with my grandmother, I learned important lessons about American history through oral history. As I age, events like realizing kids born in 1992 can now legally purchase alcohol or realizing many of my peers have never heard of Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats stop me in my tracks. But when I realized how many Americans don’t have a close connection to the Civil Rights Movement, I was honestly shocked at my own cluelessness. It just never dawned on me that many of today’s young adults have parents that were too young to recall Jim Crow’s death rattle. In other words, I foolishly thought everyone’s oral history included a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement.

A recent addition to the world of graphic novels, March: Book One could go a long way toward connecting young Americans to events and issues of the Civil Rights Movement. This skillfully crafted graphic novel can also help individuals of all ages understand why others appear unable to shake off the injuries acquired during this dynamic period of social change. March is billed as a vibrant first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights in America. Book One is set on Inauguration Day 2009 but frequently employs flashbacks to inform the reader of young John Lewis’ life in the Jim Crow South. These flashbacks appear crucial to the graphic novel’s contemplation on how far we have come, yet how far we still must go. Book One spans Congressman Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the battle to end segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins.

As Congressman Lewis explains, March is patterned after a comic book he read in the 1950s that inspired him and many other activists at the time to join the movement and use the principles of nonviolence to battle racial discrimination.[1][2] In an article based on Mr. Aydin’s Georgetown thesis The Comic Book that Changed the World, Aydin investigates the power of one comic book to encourage social change.[3] Aydin found, despite the downturn in popularity of comic books, the art form succeeded in promoting the story of the Montgomery movement’s effective nonviolent protests to masses of subjugated Black Americans. The power of the medium did not stop with the American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, the comic book that inspired Congressman Lewis’ March project, found its way to South Africans resisting the apartheid regime and was rediscovered and translated into Arabic and Farsi less than a decade ago.[4]

The power of the medium is unquestionable. Nonetheless, for some, it raises the question “Why now? What could Congressman Lewis’ autobiography in graphic novel form do for social change some six decades following the start of the Civil Rights Movement?” Unlike the time period in which Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was originally published, American literacy rates are generally higher than they were in the 1950s. More importantly, graphic novels are quite popular today. Take for example the success of The Walking Dead, Persepolis, and Watchmen. The potential for March to exceed the reach of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story exists because of the current popularity of the graphic novel form. Additionally, the potential for March to inspire Americans to push for progress goes beyond the Civil Rights Movement. Just as Congressman Lewis put his life on the line in the pursuit of human and civil rights, there is always a need for others to fully commit to pursuing meaningful social change. With the current boom of the graphic novel medium and the plethora of social issues bubbling to the top of our melting pot, the authors’ timing is well received.

Award winning, Arkansas-born graphic novelist and artist Nate Powell was selected to illustrate the autobiographical, three-book series. The firsthand narrative of March is emotional for sure, but Powell’s illustrations add depth to those emotions. From the sequence on the Edmund Pettus bridge to the end of Book One, Powell successfully amplifies the impact of Congressman Lewis’ life story. The inspirational aspects of March definitely draw me to the series but Book One is simply an enjoyable (but stirring) read. Maybe it’s Powell’s use of panels, triptychs, and other devices, but I wish more topics were addressed in graphic novel form. Just think how enjoyable case books would be! Some might argue this graphic novel is aimed for high school-aged individuals and other young adults, but I find March appeals to older adults as well. It is easy to get lost in the innocence of Congressman Lewis’ youth (especially the sermonizing of chickens), in the excitement of a young John Lewis experiencing the integrated wonders of Buffalo, and in the energy of Book One’s climax. The days of preparation for civil disobedience and the physical violence endured by a young John Lewis depicted in Book One also work to give a perspective on the hurdles Americans face today.

I can’t decide whether it is the subject matter or Powell’s artistry which led me to devour Book One in one sitting. I can say that Powell’s meticulous illustrations are definitely a draw. His ability to evoke such emotions through two-dimensional, black-and-white images is a talent obviously well-honed. Whether due to the personal story or the remarkable illustrations, March: Book Oneis a great tool in shining light on the sacrifice social change can require. Hopefully many of my peers will take the time out of their busy reading schedule to give March a glance. If nothing more, you’ll experience an interesting use of an art form to retell an important part of American history. With any luck, March will follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story and inspire more individuals to make the sacrifices that push us down the road of social change.

In reviewing March, I reached out to Mr. Powell in hopes that he could share his thoughts regarding working on March, the idea of art facilitating social change, and other such musings. What follows is a portion of our conversation:

WA: Do you personally believe social change is attainable through art?

NP: Art and music have long been central components of bringing dialogue to the table, of making our world something to be talked about—and to that end, acted upon. Social change exists in a continuum, and is always occurring (quickly, usually with blood and tears, and gradually, with blood and tears).

WA: How were you selected as the illustrator for March ?

NP: I’ve been working with Top Shelf for about 10 years now, and we have a wonderful relationship. In early 2011 I was finishing work on Any Empire and The Silence Of Our Friends, and I remember reading a press release about March being signed to Top Shelf sans artist. I took note, but thought nothing of it, and had more than enough work lined up at the time. A couple of weeks later my publisher, Chris Staros, called me up and suggested that I try out for the role of artist. I made two demo pages from the March script and sent them back to Congressman Lewis and Andrew. Then I got some feedback, redrew the pages, and resubmitted them. We worked out some kinks and very quickly felt this was the right creative relationship. It was a very natural decision. I think I officially signed on in fall 2011.

WA: What attracted you to taking on this series?

NP: Only a fool would reject an offer to make something together with one of the most incredible and significant human beings of the last 60 years. John Lewis is the genuine article. Beyond that, his life story told through his words is deeply moving and transforming. It was a no-brainer.

WA: Can you speak to Congressman Lewis’s goals in having his life depicted in graphic novel form?

NP: Congressman Lewis and Andrew are both a little more focused on getting this information out to a new generation of people—I’m also invested in that, of course, but because all three of us are on the same page politically and socially, I’m afforded the opportunity to focus more on the formal and creative aspects of telling that story, using a narrative language I speak well. John definitely became much more aware of the potential within comics as our collaboration progressed—he had to trust Andrew and [me] to navigate that field.

WA: What was so appealing about working on a project aimed at a younger audience?

NP: It’s not aimed at a younger audience—this is the problem with books marked as being 13+, or labeled as YA, or otherwise at a teen audience. Andrew (as well as Leigh, publicist for Top Shelf) were more aware than I was of the potential in schools and libraries, and that a large percentage of books were going to be read specifically by teenagers, but I had absolutely no interest in the perceived demographic of readership. I now acknowledge it, and have learned a great deal from the process of getting the book out into the world, but I also think that anticipating one’s audience in any way is how shitty books are made. And it’s what the book industry, in general, loves to do. I made a focused effort not to dial back any of the violence, language, brutality, or sheer gravity of any scenes in this trilogy—I recognize that I’m sort of the gatekeeper of visual content here, and feel it’s important not to police any of that by virtue of being aware these are books filling up schools. Let the work speak for itself. Lots of indie comics readers might pass on the book simply because it’s perceived as being a YA title with a particular agenda, so I’m personally working against that grain.

WA: When you take on projects, whether they are collaborative like March or your own projects like Swallow Me Whole, do you consciously think about your project having a role in facilitating social change?

NP: All of the stories I make, and much of the music I’ve made, has a strong social and political component, but it has never been my intention—my conceit—to play a role in social change. Any Empire is probably the most concrete and overtly political book I’ve done (not counting March), but it’s largely a book of questions in a Southern gothic narrative. The more I age past my dogmatic early-mid 20’s, the more strongly I feel that putting a “message” at the forefront of one’s work is the easiest way to make shitty work. A graphic novel must stand as a book first and above all else—otherwise, why spend 3 years working on it, when you could spend a couple of months on something much more rewarding, less time consuming, that will be virtually guaranteed to be taken more seriously? I never would’ve joined the March team if the book didn’t stand as its own narrative first—there were plenty of possibilities for it to be a message-first failure, and what sealed the deal for me was the sense within the script that the book was existing for its own sake, that the narrative itself was important enough.

WA: What are your thoughts on the fact that March is a collaboration of three folks of different ages and background working together to tell a portion of the back-story to such an important time in American history?

NP: …[I]t’s a very satisfying and formally successful combination of our various strengths, but its transgenerational properties (from a creative standpoint) have been illuminating. We’re all Southerners, and beyond John Lewis’ personal life narrative, so much of the visual storytelling is a product of combining my life experiences and environment (over a generation later) with his. Besides being a native Arkansan, I spent most of my elementary school years in Montgomery, Alabama, and my family hails from northern Mississippi. The shameful historical inheritance of the South is countered in equal measure by a culture, by surroundings, so distinct and beautiful that I’m honored to be able to inject some of my own memories into the visuals. In contrast to the usual narrative of how much time has seemingly passed since the Jim Crow South, I feel our comic helps simultaneously reveal how clearly fifty years is NOT a huge span of time. These are towns, streets, and farmland that we all know and recognize. By the same token, these struggles were waged by people just like us—by our neighbors, our parents, our grandparents.

WA: How did the idea of telling Congressman Lewis’s story (at least in Book One) as a series of flashbacks during Congressman Lewis’s preparation for the swearing in of President Obama develop?

NP: That comes down to Andrew, co-writer of Marchand John Lewis’ staffer. Andrew was present at the Capitol on Inauguration Day, and got to see some incredible things. His unique and privileged perspective there as a veritable fly-on-the-wall was something he thought could weave the past and present in a resonant and relevant way. So many of us were deeply moved on election night, Inauguration Day, and the months between, though many of us are confused by and suspicious of those same feelings. Especially as (in my personal opinion) Obama has firmly established himself as just another president, as a centrist- appeasing disappointment (I must counter that by also stating I voted for him both times, and would do so again), so many of us were shocked by what seemed the tangible possibility that things could actually be different on a very large scale, that it was possible to have a president who wasn’t a total bastard. I felt the same way—we fight for change on smaller fronts, but to see evidence of a larger, more encouraging step forward was exhilarating. We cried, and felt that a divergent future was actually possible. In 2014, it’s very easy to forget that specific feeling (or more commonly, to be embarrassed by it), but the Inaugural scenes in Marchserve to remind most of us how we felt on that day, and allowing the reader to tie the past and the present together in a meaningful way.

WA: In illustrating March, what part of the story did you find the most difficult in depicting and why was it so difficult?

NP: One of the most challenging aspects is finding the proper balance between emotional, subjective, often internal representations of experience, and responsible, accurate depictions of real historical folks with real lives and families. The first scene I ever touched was young John Lewis’ first meeting with Dr. King, and I quickly learned how difficult it is to correctly draw King. His face is so recognizable, so iconic and simple, that any unessential line destroys the delicate rendering of his likeness. Virtually every character comes with that same baggage—a lot of research and practice to give the illusion of an effortless, consistent likeness.
Also, the unconcealed brutality. In Book One, the most difficult page was definitely drawing the corpse of Emmett Till accurately but “tastefully”, responsibly but without cleaning up the sheer horror of what these monsters did to a teenage boy.

WA: Along the same lines, of your illustrations in March, are there particular images you found (or hoped) to be powerful depictions of the Civil Rights Movement?

NP: In Book One, it’s definitely the scenes of activists walking through a rare snowy day in Nashville, exiting their church, moving through downtown, entering stores. This is largely because of the romance carried in Southern snow, of these young people being caught up in it amidst their mission. Another powerful sequence is John Lewis getting sucker punched as he approaches a Woolworth’s counter, then in a Steve Ditko-esque 3-panel sequence, forcing himself back to his feet, taking the counter seat as his peers continue to be beaten and pulled from chairs as they attempt to sit.

WA: Despite the United States currently having a President whose biracial heritage is so clearly evident, where do you see the Civil Rights Movement currently standing?

NP: The “Civil Rights Movement” is a fairly specific thing, and so I assume you’re talking about contemporary struggles for human rights outside of that specific movement—we’ve arrived at a spot in which we have no choice but to push issues to the forefront of public discussion again, revealing the deep, pervasive presence of white supremacy in our lawmakers and cultural fabric, at times made worse by many white people’s privileged thinking that we’ve arrived at a place beyond traditional racism (and this is by no means limited to racism, of course). The push backwards has consistently gotten louder and more dangerous in the last five years, and there’s no more space for Baby Boomer-era fence-sitting and moderation. While working and speaking out to advocate for all folks’ dignity and sovereignty, it’s also true that we do just have to wait for a previous generation’s attitudes to weaken and fade as people die off.

WA: What do you hope older readers will gain from March?

NP: What can’t be gained? It’s a powerful, deeply personal narrative, and perhaps enough time has passed that a return to a first-person account never before depicted in this manner does in fact reveal new perspectives on these collectively shared cultural memories. The book’s narrative focus is much different than Walking With The Wind in that regard, and hopefully pushes older folks to revisit and share their own experiences of living through this massive social transition.

[1] http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/watch/civil-rights-history-illustrated-in-new-book-62229571856 (accessed March 15, 2014).

[2] Graphic novels are much longer and tend to be more complex. While a comic book often tells a story over many issues, graphic novels more often have their storylines wrapped up in only one or two books. For the sake of brevity, I chose to combine both mediums in discussing the power of art to feed social change.

[3] http://clatl.com/atlanta/the-comic-book-that-changed-the-world/Content?oid=8807186 (accessed March 15, 2014).

[4] http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2011/02/20/Comic-heroes-of-the-Egyptian-revolution-How-Martin-Luther-King-found-his-way-to-Tahrir-Square/stories/201102200165 (accessed March 15, 2014).

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