Congressman John Lewis (GA-5), a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, held a Saturday panel during Comic-Con International in San Diego to discuss the debut of "March," a graphic novel about his historic life. Joining him was one of his staffers and his co-writer Andrew Aydin, and award-winning artist Nate Powell ("Swallow Me Whole").
Congressman Lewis greeted people for about 15 minutes prior to the beginning of the panel as free samplers of "March: Book One" were passed out. Leigh Walton of publisher Top Shelf Productions was on-hand to introduce the panel to the packed room. Congressman Lewis' introduction elicited an unprompted and enthusiastic standing ovation.
The Congressman began by admitting that this is his first Comic-Con and spoke to the personal significance of his attendance.
"To be here with Andrew and Nate, and to be part of this effort to tell the story of a struggle, of justice," said Congressman Lewis. "A struggle to be part of a beloved community. To create a society where we can lay down the burden of race and move on."
He then went on to talk about some of the stories told in the first book of this planned trilogy. The congressman grew up in Troy, Alabama, where his father had purchased 110 acres of land after saving up $300 in 1944. His family still owns that land today. Lewis was responsible for raising chickens on their farm, which he enjoyed. He wanted to be a minister as a child, so his siblings and cousins would sometimes gather up the chickens to act as the congregation.
"I would start preaching," recounted the Congressman. "And when I would look out on the chickens, some of them would bob their heads, some of these chickens would shake their heads, but they never quite said 'Amen.' But I'm convinced that some of the chickens that I preached to and talked to in the '40s and the '50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress. And some of those chickens were just a little more productive."
This story won a big laugh and applause from the audience. Congressman Lewis explained how those chickens taught him patience, persistence and to not become bitter or hostile.
As he grew up, he saw the signs posted for segregation stating whether something was for "White" or "Colored." In 1955, at the age of 15, he heard about Rosa Parks in nearby Montgomery, Alabama. She famously refused to give up her seat in the colored section of a bus for a white passenger. The same year, he also heard about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At 17 years old, he met Parks, and the following year, he met King and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1956, Congressman Lewis, his siblings and cousin tried to get library cards at their local public library. "We were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only," he recalled. "And not for colors."
The following year, he wrote to King in the hopes of getting assistance with his ignored application to attend Troy State College. He met King, but Lewis instead ended up getting accepted to attend a small college in Nashville, where he learned about non-violence.
"It was during that time that we started studying the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence," said Congressman Lewis. "And many of us grew to accept non-violence as a way of life, as a way of living. We studied the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence."
He started to participate in sit-ins in fall 1959.
"Someone would come up and spit on us. Or put a lighted cigarette out in our hair or down our backs. Pour hot water, hot coffee, hot chocolate on us. And we would look straight ahead," said Congressman Lewis. "Because we really believed that through the power of love, peace and non-violence, we could transform the city of Nashville and transform America and create a beloved community.
"And so in 'March: Book One,' it is that story of a young child growing up very poor, but who was inspired by the teachings of Gandhi, the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., the actions of Rosa Parks, and others," he continued. "By sitting down we were standing up for the very best in American tradition."
Congressman Lewis recounted how he was arrested 40 times during this period. He faced beatings from police forces and others, which sometimes resulted in hospitalizations and jail time. Fifty years ago, he spoke at the historic March on Washington, and today he is the only one still alive.
"So Nate and Andrew, I want to thank you," Congressman Lewis concluded. "For having the courage to believe that we could do this and do it together. It is our hope that young people and people not so young will be inspired by 'March' and have the courage to get in the way, to get in trouble, good trouble, and to make some noise."
After a lengthy applause for the Congressman, he turned the panel over to Aydin, who has been on his staff for over six years. Aydin gave attendees the origin story of "March." Following the successful conclusion of Congressman Lewis' 2008 campaign, Aydin was asked about his plans for the following weekend.
"I 'fessed up and I said, 'I'm going to a comic book convention,'" recalled Aydin to some laughter. "In politics, that might not be the most expected thing to say. So they were teasing me a little bit, and [Congressman Lewis] turned around and he stood up for me and he said, 'You know, during the Civil Rights Movement there was a comic book and it was incredibly influential.' And that small moment changed my life."
Aydin began researching that 1957 comic, "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," and went on to write his graduate thesis about its history and influence in the Deep South and the world. He then asked Congressman Lewis if he would write a comic book, and a few weeks later he agreed.
"He said, 'OK, let's do it. But only if you write it with me'," said Aydin. "And I was terrified. But it was something that became my mission. It was my mandate. I felt like I had a moral obligation to make this happen."
The two spent the next five years working on the script and working with Powell on the art.
"You have no idea what this means to me. And I'm a fanboy. This is the coolest thing I've ever done," admitted Aydin, which won first laughter and then applause.
Aydin then went through some of the history of that original civil rights comic book to provide historical context to what they are hoping to accomplish with "March". A slideshow presented some pages of the comic, which was originally produced by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The comic focused on the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 and '57 to inspire young people that non-violence can create social change.
"Dr. King actually helped offer some edits," Aydin revealed. The comic was then distributed during workshops on non-violence and influenced sit-ins in the late '50s and early '60s. It was eventually translated to Spanish and used in South America and Latin America. It was used in South Africa where it was banned, in Southern California for a worker's rights campaign, and most recently in Egypt during their political revolution in 2011.
"Comic books can change the world," declared Aydin. "I believe that. We've seen it happen." And then, proving that he truly was among his kind at Comic-Con, he added, "I don't know if any of you guys have ever seen 'Battlestar Galactica', but 'All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.'" The crowd burst into applause at the reference.
Aydin revealed his hopes for "March" and explained that it is the beginning of a new campaign to spread the message of non-violence to a new generation. The graphic novel offers over 500 pages of different stories showing how non-violence was used to attack different evils like racism, poverty and violence.
"I got a little teary when I sat up here for the first time because we've been working on this for five years," admitted Aydin. "And I didn't want to seem like John Beohner, but this is amazing."
After some laughter, Aydin then thanked the attendees for their support and expressed hope in making "the ultimate difference if we really are to make a society at peace with itself". Aydin expressed thanks and admiration to Lewis.
The panel was then turned over to Powell, who referred to Congressman Lewis and Aydin as "the genuine article." Powell relayed some of his background in the south and his artistic process for this project, which he expects to continue for the next three to four years.
Growing up "very aware of the specter of the hyper-segregated south," Powell recalled a childhood memory of seeing a fully-costumed Ku Klux Klan circle with a cross in the middle of a town square while traveling through Anniston, Alabama, on a family vacation in the early '80s. He was only 5 years old at the time, but he remembered being confused by this event happening in the middle of the day, and his parents' reaction to it.
"Beginning to get into Chris Claremont's run on 'X-Men' radically shaped my perception of oppression," Powell said. "It made me much more aware of racism, [and also] sexism and homophobia and xenophobia for the first time, all through the guise of these superhero narratives."
Powell then talked about his approach to the project as a cartoonist. He explained how he is typically "drawn to narratives with very intimate depictions [and] highly subjective personal experiences", which he finds to be universal.
The project required daily research, which required regular contact with his collaborators and examining historic footage and photo archives. It also led to specific questions to his parents about their experiences in Mississippi in the '50s and '60s.
"Originally, "March" was going to be roughly a 150 to 200 page graphic novel," revealed Powell. But as he explored the story, he discovered a lot of moments not explicitly included in the script that he felt were required to provide the full emotional state and experience of the story. To fully capture the tension of one scene, for example, it might require expanding the script from two panels to two pages.
"Once I started breaking down the script into comic book page numbers, there was a quick phone call," Powell said. Not wanting to sacrifice crucial moments of Congressman Lewis' life, the team eventually decided to expand the project into a trilogy.
A page of script with Powell's notes was shown, as well as a look at his thumbnail sketches in working out pacing and finding the moments to "walk around in [Lewis'] shoes". A look at the rough penciled stage and then the finished page was shown of Congressman Lewis' first trip to the north.
"Another one of the primary challenges that I had as a visual storyteller, with this being a work of non-fiction, was finding a balance between accuracy and expression," explained Powell. "Perhaps the greatest anxiety came the first time I had to render Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."
Powell discovered that King had one of the most iconic and simple facial structures best rendered in four or five lines. He found that adding just one or two lines too many would eliminate the reader's ability to accept the reality of the story.
Congressman Lewis was then asked to recount the first time he was arrested. He recounted how he was among 89 black and white students arrested during a sit-in.
"I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I had crossed over," the Congressman remembered. "So the other 39 times were easy."
There was a quick overview of the creation of the cover as well as a look at the cover blurb provided by former President Bill Clinton.
A brief question and answer period followed. Asked about the writing process, Aydin explained that he would interview Congressman Lewis over the phone on nights and weekends after work. He would record and transcribe those interviews so that his history would be captured in his words, which was very important to Aydin. Congressman Lewis would then read the script and offer changes.
"It almost made me cry. It was so real, it was so real," Lewis said about the first time he read some completed scenes drawn by Powell. "It was like reliving my childhood all over again."
The final question was from a history teacher, who thanked the panel and looked forward to adding the graphic novel to her students' reading list. She asked about the possibility of restoring the portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was recently struck down by a Supreme Court ruling. Congressman Lewis expressed optimism over members of Congress coming together to do just that.
"I think people believe that the vote is the most powerful non-violent tool or instrument we have in a democratic society," Lewis said. "It's so powerful, it's almost sacred."