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Find more The Booklist Interview
When March: Book One came out in 2013, it was a breakout hit. Congressman Lewis’ personal journey from son of a sharecropper to civil rights leader made an easy shift to the graphic-novel format, helped in particular by Andrew Aydin’s writing assistance and Nate Powell’s stunning, dynamic artwork. March: Book Two is no less impressive, and Lewis, Aydin, and Powell spoke to Booklist about their collaboration, the young readers they hope to inspire, and the importance of depicting history’s heroes with all their faults intact.
Can you talk a little about your process for the graphic adaptation?
John Lewis: Nate Powell is one of the best. He’s thoughtful. He has the rare capacity to make the words and ideas sing, to make the text almost literally jump off of the pages.
Andrew Aydin: The process for creating March is unlike anything I’ve ever been fortunate enough to participate in. As I listened to Congressman Lewis tell the stories you see in the book, I realized I was watching him actually relive these moments. The rise and fall of his cadence told its own unspoken story that I tried to bring to the page, and Nate brought that to life with unbelievable clarity and emotion. The stacks of reference books haphazardly topped by files brimming with photocopies of historic documents have come to pervade our homes.
We’ve really become a team. I’ve learned a great deal from Nate about how you make a good comic book. He’s such a master of the form that the highest praise is when you send a script section and he’s totally happy with it. We jokingly refer to ourselves as Team March, like we’re the nonviolent Justice League or something, but we’ve become so in tune to each other’s creative perspectives that, to me, working together has become one of the most important and fulfilling parts of my life.
Nate Powell: Our work on Book One really helped crystallize a collaborative method that played to each of our strengths. I certainly had to develop an appreciation for the sanctity of certain lines of the script that had a decades-long precedent in oral tradition, as opposed to having been crafted specifically for the written word, and that posed some narrative challenges as we found the most powerful balance of words and images.
At the same time, by Book Two, Congressman Lewis and Andrew had both gotten a very clear feel for the moments and passages within the script—often wordless and highly subjective or intense—that allowed me to express emotional and environmental content that filled the air around a given scene that only existed between the lines of the dialogue or captions. We’re in constant contact about the pages as I draw, passing pencils and inks back and forth, fact-checking and correcting.
BKL: How do you hope showing the shortcomings and human realities of the individuals involved in the civil rights movement will affect readers?
John Lewis: In Book Two, we have not tried to hide anything, to sweep anything under the rug, or in some dark corner. We’ve tried to tell the whole story and make it plain, so others will be inspired to take action. The movement was not perfect; we all were human. But we did our best. We told it as we saw it and as we experienced it.
Andrew Aydin: Revolutions are messy, but as time goes by, the rough spots tend to be smoothed over and sanitized. Then, when things happen today and they are messy, simple minds look back and say, “This isn’t what it was like,” and use that position to discredit the events at hand. We didn’t want to sweep anything under the rug. People need to know that these were real people struggling to cope as best they could, finding their capacity for greatness amid difficult, trying times. Hopefully, when young activists read this today, they will feel heartened to know that they are not alone, that great women and men who we revere today went through these struggles and managed to bring great change.
Nate Powell: History is a living creature, affected as much by the way the present dictates discussion as by the past itself—in other words, history is not “what happened” but “what is preserved.” Remaining mindful of some of the people and situations that have fallen through those cracks—and of the privilege and responsibility of creating this first-person historical account—allows us to shed light on as many of those moments as we can.
Besides hopefully giving a more well-rounded and complete view into the movement (albeit largely from one person’s perspective), I feel that the most important element here is the humanization of these historical figures, particularly imparting that these were people in their teens, twenties, and thirties changing the very fabric of our society. These weren’t mythical heroes fighting for freedom in Asgard or whatever; they were our neighbors, our classmates. They could have been us, and by that token, it doesn’t seem so daunting to see oneself following in their footsteps.
BKL: Can you speak a bit about your choices regarding the visual style of the book?
John Lewis: The visual style of this book is so powerful to me. When I open and turn the pages, it is so real. Some scenes make me want to cry, some scenes make me want to laugh. To have Aretha singing at the president’s inaugural together with a scene from the Freedom Ride, it says something about the distance we’ve come, and the progress we’ve made. President Obama was born in 1961, the year of the Freedom Rides. And when Aretha performed that day, it was history and the future coming together.
Andrew Aydin: As I imagined the gunshot from Floyd Mann hanging in the air, finally bringing to a close one of the most brutal beatings suffered by John Lewis so far, I couldn’t help but think back to that moment on Inauguration Day as Aretha sang, imagining her voice swirling as the reader recoils from the brutality of the scene. It’s fitting and appropriate to look at that moment in that light. For Nate to add the scenes within the spread of Aretha, it really shows how we have come to understand each other’s vision and draw out the provocative nuance to stir the reader’s consciousness.
Nate Powell: I’ve been drawing comics for 25 years, and my brain has basically been hardwired to find visual relationships between moments, to measure time and convey intangible information by laying images in sequence. This is the fun part for me (despite the disturbing nature of some of the narrative), particularly looking for the best transitions between scenes or moments. Comics’ greatest narrative strength is the ability for readers to process content from simultaneous (and often competing or contradictory) moments. It is absolute control over the flow of time, not just from the creator’s end, but in forging a unique relationship between each reader and the book.
BKL: What were some of the challenges of fitting a decades-long, eventful career into such slim volumes?
John Lewis: We have tried to tell the whole story—and not just the facts, but also the drama, to make it real and make it come to life. Anything that may have been left out in words, Nate Powell has made up for with the drawings and graphics.
Book Two weighs in just shy of 200 pages, much longer than Book One. Our challenge was to create the most meaningful and complete experience for the reader, and I think we’ve done that. Nearly every time we had a question about whether or not something should be included, we ended up putting it in the book. Still, we know that for many readers, March will be just the first step, that initial spark, to capture their imagination and lead to a greater intellectual curiosity about the movement—not only reading more, but pushing themselves to get involved in their communities, becoming, as the congressman says, a doer.
BKL: How did the emphasis on young people and their abilities to affect change influence the project?
John Lewis: This project is dedicated to another generation of young activists. It was the young people, the children of Birmingham, the children of Selma, the children of Albany, Georgia, that led the way. With children, it was their involvement that helped to educate and move members of their families or move their teachers and the adults around them. That’s what made the Birmingham movement so successful. It was a children’s crusade. People couldn’t stand to see little children being knocked down by water from fire hoses or being chased by police dogs.
Andrew Aydin: Young people are the primary reason we decided to do this project. We have to find a way to reach them, to teach them, to inspire them, because they are the greatest hope our society has for becoming more just and more peaceful. I don’t think anyone believes this world is perfect. There are a lot of problems in need of solutions. One thing the civil rights movement shows us is a way to deal with catastrophic, institutionalized wrongs that have been allowed to permeate our society.
I know, for me, when I was young and felt powerless to fight back against the challenges my mother faced being a single parent, my escape was reading comics. But back then, there weren’t comics telling young people you could do something, at least not without superpowers. I wanted to change that with March and make sure that the next generation that comes along reading comics as an escape can read something that shows them they can be powerful just as they are. They don’t need superpowers to change the world, just a dedicated heart and a strategic mind.
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