August 28, 2013

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Rep. John Lewis and March Book 1

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Top Shelf has always been one of my favorite indie publishers, as long-time Panel Patter readers know. The quality of their books, both in content and in presentation, never fails to impress.

This time, they've taken content to a new level, bringing something that I don't think I'd ever have expected to happen to the world of comics: A book co-written by a sitting United States Congressman. And not just any Congressman, either, but Rep. John Lewis, the last living speaker from the March on Washington, held 50 years ago today.

That is simply amazing to me. The medium of comics has come so far. As more and more people come to the realization that comics are an art form of their own that young people really attach themselves to, I think we'll see more of this, but Top Shelf gets to the be the first.

Working with his aide, Andrew Aydin, and comics artist Nate Powell (a favorite of Erica's), Rep. Lewis begins his story by looking back at the moments that forged his desire to be a part of the social justice movement, including his first meeting with Dr. King. The graphic novel moves from past to present, using President Obama's first inauguration as a jumping off point. As the congressman moves through parts of his early life, we see a few funny moments (he used to preach to chickens and even tried to baptize them) mixed in with the larger shadow of oppression, such as when he has to use the broken down school bus or when the shadow of threats to his family forces him to pull back on a plan to integrate an all-white college.

Lewis describes in detail his path to a non-violent protester, starting with being inspired by a speech from Jim Lawson to learning how to resist attackers without attacking back. As the book nears its climax, Lewis is involved in trying to integrate the lunch counters in Nashville. It's slow, painful work, and not everyone within the African American community is solidly behind the methods of Lewis and his fellow protesters. The book ends on a note of hope, as Nashville gives in, and the tide of progress moves one step closer to the shore.

One of the things I really like about this book is that Lewis doesn't pull any punches. He's frank about the fact that the older generation of African Americans weren't always conducive to the work that he, Dr. King. and others were doing. His parents, beaten down by Jim Crow, always said to keep out of the way. Leaders in the NAACP weren't always supportive, either.

It's also nice to see the book isn't trying to make history nicer than it should be. The n-word flows freely here, because that's what Lewis and the other heroes of his book faced on a daily basis. Seeing them practice being insulted and attacked was especially powerful for me. Nate Powell is an amazing artist, and his depictions of crucial and difficult scenes like that one help make this book one of the best non-fiction comics I've read.

A perfect example of this is the visit to Buffalo. Powell uses body language clues and facial expressions to show that the white people interacting with Lewis in the north are vastly different from those of the south. It's subtle, but clear. Similarly, his depiction of Nashville's mayor, who sweats out a difficult decision but ends up doing the right thing, shows a lot of power in just a few adjustments of posture. Powell ensures that every character in the book is distinctive, even those we only see for a panel or two. His likenesses are strong without feeling like he copied from a photo. When Dr. King or Rep. Lewis move around the panels, they flow naturally.

I really appreciated Powell's work here. Every book from him gets a little bit stronger in terms of his craft. His thin lines allow him to hone features and details, while the washed style of shading allows him to blur and obscure at will. He uses an increase of dark and light backgrounds to highlight key moments. Powell's facial work is especially strong here, bringing out hope or hatred as needed. He plays it pretty straightforward in terms of panel construction, relying on figure placement and varying close-ups with long shots to keep the work varied. I especially liked how certain things are almost doodled into the background, as though Lewis's memory is drifting out from things that are clear to ideas and concepts. It's truly stellar work.

As anyone who follows the news knows, the Civil Rights Movement is far from over. The rights of people of color are being challenged daily, as are those of women and the queer community. We need to remember that only through struggle and staying vocal and prepared can we win the humanity and dignity that can so easily be taken away form us by those in power. March is a book that puts that fact squarely in our faces.

It is a book everyone, young and old, needs to read. I really hope its message is getting to those who most need it, namely the young people for whom the torch must be passed for the work of Dr. King, Rep. Lewis, and many, many others to continue and thrive.

Can't make SPX? March right to Top Shelf's website and pick up a copy of March. You won't regret it.