March, a graphic novel written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, tells part of the story of the Civil Rights Movement through the experiences of John Lewis. A sense of urgency and activity is reinforced not only in the plot but also in the structure and artwork of the novel. With the illustrations beginning immediately on the same page as the dedication, Lewis & Co. drop their readers directly onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. As the scene escalates, the calm speech bubbles of Lewis and other protestors are continually cut off by jagged-edged bubbles of screeching and obscenities from the police. The work is intended for an audience grade eight and older, so Powell is able to portray the violence and brutality of this scene and many others without censor.
The novel is set as a series of vignettes from Lewis’ life, as he tells his story to a mother and her two sons in his office on the morning of President Obama’s first inauguration. Not only does this format allow Lewis and Aydin to cover a vast expanse of time in Lewis’ past, but it also pulls the story into the present day, providing a contrast to the America of the 1960s.
Lewis’ story begins as a young child taking care of chickens on his family farm. His involvement as an activist is foreshadowed by his deep empathy for the suffering of others, and later aspirations to be a pastor put a religious imperative behind his social consciousness. A trip to Buffalo, New York, opens young Lewis’ eyes to a vastly different reality from his life in rural Alabama, and a call from his school librarian to “read, read everything” helps to push him along his path. The novel, which is book one of three, follows Lewis through school and up to a compelling and close-up view of lunch-counter sit-ins and their subsequent arrests, ending on a high note of their success.
By using the graphic novel format for this account, the authors and illustrator highlight the absurd injustice of police brutality and racism in a unique way. The traditional onomatopoeia of comic book violence, motion lines of swinging punches, and sharp impact lines of a landed hit are detached from our reality—they apply to supervillains and imaginary bad guys. However, in March, these effects are all used in the context of real events—real people being beaten for doing absolutely nothing wrong. This, along with the high-contrast black-and-white illustrations with dynamic use of line, gives the events of the not-so-distant past a vivid energy.
Lewis, Aydin and Powell have created a simultaneously informative and intriguing work that relates the Civil Rights Movement from an inescapably close perspective. America is by no means perfect today, and it is important to study the past as we look ahead. To reinforce this message, the novel ends on words that apply to any situation of injustice: “No lie can live forever. Let us not despair, the universe is with us. Walk together…Don’t get weary.”