Every year at SDCC I stop by the Top Shelf booth and buy something from Nate Powell. I do this not only because I love Nate Powell's work, but because Powell is a great human being, and I'd rather purchase from him directly than through other means. It also provides me with an opportunity to speak with Powell about his current projects, what's coming up and whatever is on his mind. SDCC 2013 was no different, but the conversation was a little more serious. Last year, Powell had given me a preview of March, the project he had taken on after The Silence of Our Friends, a remarkable and intimate story by Mark Long and Jim DeMonakos that he had illustrated that gained an extra dose of relevance in the wake of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. And what's sad is that Trayvon Martin's death dominated Powell and I's conversation this year because it is just as relevant to March, Powell's new work with Representative John Lewis, a pivotal figure of the civil rights movement, and his aide, Andrew Aydin.
A memoir chronicling Lewis' childhood and the education and events that turned him towards civil rights activism, March is a moving document of an era we take for granted in an age in which we claim to have conquered racism. Utilizing a framing device where Lewis explains his origins to a new generation of black youth, the first book of March depicts Lewis' humble beginnings as the son of a farmer who put every dollar he had into the purchase of his own farm up to the formation of SNCC, the organization he is still most recognized for. Lewis' narrative provides Powell ample opportunity to show off his storytelling skills as well as his uniquely expressive style; an early sequence featuring Lewis sermonizing to the chickens that are seemingly his best childhood friends is particularly impressive for the way Powell gives the poultry the kind of personality and identity Lewis projected on them. But the story truly excels in the moments when Lewis, Aydin and Powell move towards the non-violent activist groups Lewis became associated with.
Lewis first met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because of his desire to become the first integrated student at Troy University, but the danger that that desire potentially posed to his family and friends forced Lewis' hand and he instead went to the American Baptist Seminary. Lewis' time at the Seminary takes up the bulk of book one of March, from his introduction to Jim Lawson (and a comic on Martin Luther King Jr.'s use of non-violent activism) to the sit-in lunch counter protests he helped coordinate in Nashville which eventually led to the development of SNCC, an organization Lewis later served as chairman for. Powell brings Lewis' experiences to vivid life, capturing not just the aesthetics of the early '60s but the powerful feeling of being on the right side of history, with silhouettes filled with appropriate dialogue and Lewis and his compatriots wearing the expressions of those who know eventually right will conquer all.
As Lewis says throughout March, his exposure to Lawson's non-violent tactics changed his life forever, and the early work he and his peers did training themselves to handle whatever was hurled their way stuck with him, but that training and the eventual non-violent protests that came from it involved being treated to humanity at its worst. Powell has always been a master at emotion, but March is perhaps his greatest work yet, full of vitality and righteousness and passion, as well as terrifying acts of inhumanity that test the will of the activists. Lewis' story is in many ways the ultimate American experience, an examination of how an intense devotion to a dream can often overcome even the most profound obstacles and Powell is the perfect artist to showcase Lewis' journey. Despite being a relatively young white man, Powell appears to have a telepathic link to Lewis, his depictions of the era so expressive they make it remarkably easy to become fully immersed in the work.
As intriguing as the subject matter is, it's the power of that chemistry between the creators involved that allows March to be such an inspiring work, particularly at a time when it's tragically perfectly synced up to current event. As the only surviving member of the “Big Six,” Lewis' experiences are all the more important for the conversation that has once again formed around race in America. Given the frustration and anger that rose up in the wake of the conclusion of the Robert Zimmerman trial– a frustration and anger that is extremely present in March's past, even as Lewis advocates pacifism– Lewis' story is all too relevant and we would be smart to learn from his example. It's rare that a graphic novel arrives so perfectly synced up with its time, but it's rarer still that it is of such phenomenal quality and power. Let's hope that potency translates to visibility as well.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool.