SPX Spotlight 2015: March Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

It's another entry in Panel Patter's SPX SPOTLIGHT series! We've been highlighting creators, publishers, and comics related to SPX since the site opened in 2008, but 2015 marks our fifth year of extensive coverage that is unlike what you'll find elsewhere! It's a great way to create your own personal guide for the show onSeptember 19th and 20th, 2015, in Bethesda, Maryland. Don't miss it! You can find all our SPX SPOTLIGHT posts here.

And if you're interested, Rob McMonigal highlighted March Book One during the SPX 2013 Spotlight series.

March Book Two
Written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Drawn by Nate Powell
Published by Top Shelf Comix

There’s probably a part of most of us that wants to read Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s March Book Two as ancient history. For many of us, the racism that Lewis endured and fought against happened in our parents or our grandparents lifetimes but not ours. And yet the south was still segregated just over 50 years ago as black men and women still struggled and fought to be equal. Most couldn’t even vote for a President that they hoped could give them the rights that they should have had. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and still black people were not equal. In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and still black people were not equal. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his I Have A Dream speech and still black people were not equal. “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” Even now in 2015, when black men are killed by the police in the streets of America, black people are still not equal.

March Book Two isn’t a history lesson. More importantly, it’s not penance or absolution for anyone. This book is a mirror using the early 1960s to show us an honest reflection of the struggles for all men be treated like they are created equal.

George Wallace, Governor of Alabama
The emotional weight of March is that Nate Powell does not draw this as a period piece. Set mostly in Alabama in 1961, the fashions and styles of the time do not stand out as to make the story strictly a piece of history. Powell could have gone the Mad Men route of depicting the 1960s, focusing on the visual elements that obviously set the story in the past and in doing so, he could have created an artifact of that particular period of American history. That’s not to say that his representation of the clothes or the cars aren’t accurate but his attention to the heart and soul of John Lewis’s story are the firm foundation of the book more than the adherence to recreating 1961 down to the way that women wore their hair. To a large degree, the construct of the first book about Lewis telling his own story to citizens of his Congressional district is largely abandoned so the story of 1963 becomes less a retelling of the past as it becomes a story of racism, segregation and a very modern and still continuing struggle for equality.

Lewis and Aydin’s story is built on this wonderful device of a black man remembering his past while Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, is being sworn into office for the first time in 2009. In this second volume, the events of 2009 are not focused on as much as they were in the first book so there’s this feeling in the book that the struggles, violence and racism of 50 years ago are potentially leading us to an improved today or, at the least, a better tomorrow. Where black people are fighting for basic rights in one timeframe, we see the later time frame where it looks like we’ve taken a big step forward and gained a basic understanding and appreciation of humanity no matter what you look like. And we have made great strides since 1961 but is it really enough yet? In 2015, it’s difficult to answer anything other than “no” to that question.

The cost of segregation

And then there’s the collision of the past and present in March Book 2. On one of the Freedom Rides to Montgomery, AL., where black civil protesters rode buses into the heart of the segregated south, the riders were met by an angry, racist mob that brutally beat these black (and some white) people. Powell doesn’t shy away from the violence in this sequence or even the animalistic glee of the people brutally attacking the protesters. Lewis, Aydin and Powell depict the mob mentality at its worst. And then they show the aftermath of that, as the people in the mob start to realize just exactly what they’ve done.

That aftermath of the attack in 1961 is woven together with Obama’s 2009 inauguration when Aretha Franklin sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and Powell fills a double-page spread with images from both time periods and it’s just a stunning moment in a book filled with many breath-taking images. Here’s this powerful woman singing, “Long may our land be bright, with freedom’s holy light, protect us by thy might, oh let freedom ring!” and while we’re taking in that glorious moment, Lewis, Aydin and Powell show us just a glimpse of what that “freedom’s holy light” was built on. Aretha sings in 2009 and in 1961 look at the blood on their hands and in the streets, each dealing with their actions in their own ways. Some are proud and others are shocked by what they’ve done.

Aretha Franklin sings amid celebration and memories

March is a comic that makes us face our national past even as it reminds us that we can make the future even better than it is now. Lewis, Aydin and Powell aren’t wanting to absolve us of any collective sins. These events happened and they continue to shape who we are individually and nationally. We may not have been their in the early 1960s but racism continues to touch each of our lives in many different ways. Even over 50 years later, there are still lessons to be learned from Lewis’s struggles and victories as a black activist that March wants us to learn. These glimpses into human nature, both of the oppressed and the oppressors, that Lewis, Aydin and Powell show to us are just as real and active now as they were in what we consider history.

You can find Nate Powell online at his website, on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. He will be at SPX2015 at table W64-67.

March is nominated for a 2015 Ignatz award for Best Continuing Series.

Nate Powell, Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin (photo by Sandi Villarreal, from Top Shelf Comix)