After years of schoolwork, countless documentaries, and numerous film adaptations, the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s seems so familiar to us that we may feel there is no new way to approach it. I’m happy to say that March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell gives the reader a fresh perspective on this oft-discussed historical period, digging deep into Lewis’ experiences as a young protester, and adding a distinct element through the use of the comics medium.
The book frames Lewis’ story by introducing us to him in 2009 as he interacts with his constituents as a U.S. Representative. As he tells his story to two young African-American boys, the narrative switches between 2009 and the 1950s and 1960s of Lewis’ Alabama youth. Lewis grew up on a farm; he was a particularly sensitive child who raised chickens and dreamed of becoming a preacher. His caring nature made him invested in the well-being of his chickens and his righteousness at their mistreatment would later make him a good advocate for the non-violent protest movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis became involved with the movement when he went to college and trained to conduct “sit-ins” at segregated lunch counters in the South. The comic expertly depicts how a coordinated, organized movement that carefully trained its young protesters was able to affect change across the region. Though Lewis does get to meet Dr. King in the course of the story, its focus is on Lewis and the other protesters as they quietly protest at lunch counters and subsequently deal with the consequences of their actions. It is an inspiring story.
Lewis understands the power of storytelling through comics, noting the influence that a Dr. King comic had on young men like him in the 1960s. He’s found the right artist to help him tell his tale in Nate Powell. Powell effectively uses shadows and shading in his black-and-white drawings to set the tone of the book. Often, artists working on black-and-white stories with many characters have trouble differentiating their looks, but Powell’s attention to detail in clothing, height, and facial features allows the reader to easily follow the action, even when the story jumps in time. There is no attempt at photo-realism here; Powell’s drawings are reasonably realistic while retaining a cartoon-like style. His use of perspective and variety in his panels keeps the reader engaged.
Overall, March is an excellent story told by an experienced comics artist at the top of his craft, and I’m looking forward to subsequent volumes. I hope that this book falls into the hands of its intended audience of middle school and high school students as they begin to learn about the Civil Rights Movement. I could see it being featured on many school reading lists in the years to come.
March: Book One
by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin
Art by Nate Powell
Top Shelf, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: (13+)