Monday, January 19, 2015

Comic Bookshelf: March: Book One

The opening scene in March written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
with art by Nate Powell.
Though we have only been back to classes for two weeks, and that on the heels of of a two week Winter Break, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which of course means no school. Last week, in anticipation of the long weekend, when I reminded students that we would be out of class today, they were naturally excited. Sadly, those who have arguably been most positively impacted by the work of Dr. King and his contemporaries were completely unaware as to the reason for the day off. In many ways, despite good intentions many of us lose sight of the reason for recognizing the achievements of Dr. King. This may because we (and more reasonably, high school students) tend to think in the here-and-now, with little practical connection to our national history.

Occasionally, popular media reminds us of the steps that have been taken thus far, and those strides that are still being attempted, however stilted the gait, toward racial equality. One such powerful reminder that I recall picking up two years ago was the very successful, and honored, graphic novel, March written by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin with art by Eisner Award-winning illustrator Nate Powell.

March: Book One, published by Top Shelf Productions, is the first of a planned trilogy of graphic novels following the life and career of Civil Rights activist and United States Congressman John Lewis (GA, Fifth Congressional District). As the only living member of the "Big Six", Lewis's perspective is unique given his activities on behalf of Civil Rights, including the personal challenges he faced in rising from humble beginnings. Though he ultimately reached elected office and was present at the inauguration of our nation's first African-American president, it was Lewis presence at Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama, on March 7.

Transition to Lewis' humble
beginnings (page 7).
Much more than a retelling of Congressman Lewis's life, March takes us through multiple historical moments during the Civil Rights Movements. Deftly moving from time period to time period, the storytelling structure allows the reader to experience both the "big" recognizable historical moments as well as the smaller, less publicized interactions with his moments that reflect Lewis personal commitment to continuing the work begun in Selma.

page 73
Though the story told is not new, the graphic novel format employed here is. While the story of Lewis's rise from sharecropper's son to U.S. Congressman has been previously told in his autobiography, Walking with the Wind (1998), Nate Powell's beautiful artwork gives added heft and weight to the visual orientated culture of today. In alternatively soft and stark blacks, whites and grays, Powell creatively uses both panels and wide splash pages to keep the kinetic energy of Lewis's life moving forward in a manner that engages and educates.

One of the challenges of commenting on such widely reviewed works such as March: Book One is that, in most cases, others have already done so in a way that better explains the work's value. If you need further convincing of March: Book One's effectiveness as either an educational tool or quality reading experience, here are a few choice reviews from websites I frequent:
March: Book One is deserving of consideration for reasons both artistic and educational, much as Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale has (rightly) become the "go-to" graphic novel for high school approved book lists and libraries. Just as Maus has been successful in both connecting the horrors of the holocaust with modern readers (and extending the genre's acceptability by educators), March has the potential  to reframe in an accessible way for young readers the hardships, triumphs and individual contributions of those involved in the Civil Rights movement.

The follow up volume, March: Book Two, will be released in book stores tomorrow.

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