Wednesday, May 6, 2015

31 Days of Comics: Day 6 – A Nonfiction Comic You'd Recommend to People Who Don't Read Nonfiction

ROB'S NOTE: May has become the go-to month of the Comic’s Industry (even though National Superhero Day is late April, but whatever… Congress… pshaw).  It is when Marvel drops their big movie of the year.  May also sees the annual Free Comic Book Day celebration take place on the first Saturday of the Month, so I hope you all got to check that out.  May also has 31 days of the month so what better way to celebrate the wonderful world of sequential art with the 31 Days of Comics?

Seth Hahne, who runs the blog GoodOkBad, has put together the 31 Days of Comics challenge.  A daily challenge in which you are given a category and you have to fill it with a comic that you think fits it the best.  You’re all on the internet, I shouldn’t have to explain it to you.  For the rest of the month I will be taking this challenge.  It is my hope it encourages others to make and share their own lists either in the comments here or on their own websites.  The sharing not only might turn comic fans on to works they have yet to sample but maybe catch the eye of a few non-comic fans and highlight the diversity of the form. 

Our prompt for Day 6 is “A Nonfiction Comic You’d Recommend to People Who Don’t Read Non-Fiction”

March (Book  1 and 2)
Written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Art by Nate Powell

In my secret identity I teach American Government and History (I also wear glasses and have a curl in the front of my hair… hmmmm).  So when two of the biggest loves of my life, comics and getting paid, come together I appreciate it.  Even without a background in the subject March provides an eye-witness and personal look at the Civil Rights Movement in the United States as told by one of its pioneers.  And wouldn’t you know, a comic book played a large role in it.

John Lewis grew up in rural Alabama during the days of Jim Crow.  Although he was only 50 miles from Montgomery it might as well have been 5 million.  Isolated from the news about the early days of the Civil Rights movement it wasn’t until he was 15 when he met James Lawson, a worker for the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He was given a comic by Lawson, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story”, which told the tale of Rosa Parks, MLK, and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.  Lewis later points to this comic as not only influencing his decision to fight for civil rights but his embracing of the philosophy of non-violent resistance.  Lewis became one of the key leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, a speaker at the 1963 march on Washington, and in 1987 became a Congressman from the state of Georgia.  Lewis’ decision to tell his story in the form of a graphic novel came from a random discussion with one of his aides Andrew Aydin, a comic book fan, about the impact that the MLK comic had on his life.  Aydin, realizing that perhaps Lewis’ story could impact young people in a similar way pitched the idea to Representative Lewis. 

And luckily for us, he accepted on the condition that Aydin join him as the co-writer.

March is a planned trilogy of graphic novels telling the story of the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of John Lewis (Books 1 and 2 are available now with Book 3 having no release date as of yet).  Lewis and Aydin are joined by artist Nate Powell on the series.  It seems weird to give separate credits on March, as Lewis and Aydin have repeatedly said that Powell has brought so much to the project.  One could guess that since Lewis and Aydin haven’t ever written comics before much of the storytelling and pacing is being driven by Powell’s experience in the form.  Regardless of who is responsible for which aspect of March it is an achievement on all levels.

Book 1 opens with a scene from the bloody conflict on Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. While the scene doesn’t last long it is depicted brutally as the state police attack the protestors with batons and tear gas.  Juxtaposed against Book 1’s framing device, Lewis telling his story while getting ready to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration, it lays out the basic message of the movement: hope that things can and will get better but only with pain and great sacrifice.  And March is not going to sugarcoat the brutality and the violence these pioneers faced.

Book 1 follows Lewis from his life on a farm to his early days as an activist, ending with the desegregation of businesses in Nashville, Tennessee.  Book 2 follows Lewis as he joins the Freedom Riders throughout the South and culminates with the 1963 March on Washington.  While the actual, well known historical events are portrayed wonderfully the two aspects I found most fascinating were the behind the scenes look at the training and planning for the protests and the inner-family struggle Lewis faced when he made his decision to pursue his calling. 

Looking at history books we tend to assume that the philosophy of non-violent resistance came fully formed through King into the civil rights movement.  March shows the volunteers taking turns insulting and abusing one another as they practice simply not responding to the provocation.  Seeing how difficult it is, not only on the abused, but on those who have to pretend to abuse their friends was moving.  In addition, seeing how different members of Lewis’ family reacted to his decision makes the story that much more personal. Lewis, who described himself as a “boy who was raised to not cause trouble”, is met by a mixed reaction from members of his family.  It puts in perspective that those that came forward and fought for civil rights not only had to possible sacrifice their freedom and their health, but it could take even a personal toll on their relationship with those they loved.

This book was a slam dunk for me as my favorite thing to study in American History is Civil Rights.  Non-fiction, especially when done by inexperienced authors, can often be too clinical and dry.  March not only blew me away as a history nerd but also as a fan of comics.  Nate Powell manages to convey the brutality of the moments in his depiction of the conflicts, but also capture the underlying hope and resolve through the quieter and smaller moments. 

In the end March stands not only as a great history book, but a brilliant comic book.

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