By Nancy Powell
The line outside Room 23ABC at 9:20 AM Saturday morning was already two deep before staff let people filter into the room nearly half an hour later. School children – Muslims in burqas, black, white, Asian, Hispanic — had taken up many of the early spots. Their roles would be explained later. Regular attendees, with the March trio of graphic novels stowed solidly in hand, echoed that excitement, albeit with a stoicism that was matched in intensity by the excitement and awe of youths witnessing the slow parade of cosplayers marching by.
At the appointed hour, John Lewis walked through the door with trench coat and backpack to a standing ovation by a packed room. He began the discussion with a description of what he carried in his backpack — the trio of March graphic novels — but in an earlier time, those contents would have been replaced by an apple, an orange, a toothbrush and toothpaste for the days he anticipated spending in a prison cell. The language was electrifying; it was the language of “struggle”, of the peace marches from which his history had been made, and it was done to a sermonised introduction in which a young John Lewis, aspiring to be a minister, preached to a cadre of chicks who “tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues in Congress.”
It wasn’t the “I have a dream” speech, but Lewis’ words had the same affect—of empowerment, of justice, of that sense of moral right and wrong from a moment in history so far away, yet never more immediate than in the racial divides that now inform our present.
“When you see something not right, not fair, not just; you have to do something about it.”
Lewis provided a brief overview of March: Book One and March: Book Two, which won the Eisner Award Friday evening in the category of Best Reality-Based Work, before then launching into March: Book Three. The third graphic novel was released early to the public during the Con this weekend, and continues the story of the preceding two books with the March 25, 1965 march in which Martin Luther King led 600 demonstrators, lined up in twos to walk peacefully from Selma to Montgomery to register African Americans for the vote. It is by far the longest and thickest of the three books, covering the struggles and factions that erupted within the movement that would lead in a historic showdown in Selma. Lewis spoke about the importance of March in his own history, but also of the lessons that it taught as it related to the current social climate.
“The story of March is saying that we must never give up, or give in, that we must keep the faith, and keep our minds on the prize; that we must use the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence to overcome issues.”
The rise and flow of the discussion was like the rise and flow of a sermon to a reverent audience, concluding with a rousing “We cannot go back, we must follow…we are one people, we are one family” before handing off the discussion to co-writer and Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, whose parents were Muslim immigrants and who grew a beard in protest against Donald Trump’s statements in reference to Muslims.
“Because I want the people on Capitol Hill… I want them to know because of their bigotry, because of what they are doing to our society.”
The former press secretary described his ambitions in 2008, which was to write a comic. The idea was derided by all except for one man — Congressman John Lewis. He soon goaded Lewis into helping to co-author the book, describing humorously how a conservative congressman complimented Aydin on the comic and passed it on to his own son to read, prompting him to remark:
“Imagine if we instilled a social conscience in every nine-year old; imagine how different this generation would be.”
Aydin described the role of social media in organizing protests and activism in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the revamping of the Voter’s Right Act, citing the importance of being real activists in the street versus armchair activists, and the legacy that comics plays in the future.
“If you are a digital native, you speak in sequential storytelling. If we want to reach the next generation, if we speak for them, we have to speak in their language. And I believe comics are the best way to do it.”
Aydin’s viewpoint was a recurring one throughout the convention, about the use of comics as a teaching tool.
When Nate Powell took the podium, he described his own perspectives as a Southerner, growing up in Alabama in the eighties and receiving a very basic, “informational packet” knowledge of the Civil Rights movement and the South’s role in it (i.e., the racist role blamed on the South). He likened it to a “removed history” that didn’t mean very much. It wasn’t until Powell started working on his own books that he began shedding his Southern baggage.
“With the last decade, March was the longest process of learning how to find my own voice, using my personal experiences to be able lends a voice to other folks from where I come from, to be able to bring this into the larger discussion.”
Powell delved into the power of comics in uncovering social conscience, citing the influential role Chris Claremont’s X-Men had in awakening his own social conscience.
“When teachers started actually using it [March] in history classes, we realized we had to play a particular game. We were contributing in certain ways to the historical record and our book was going to continue as history or as memoir. It became a matter of being very thorough about what was and what was not included and that we were dotting our t’s and crossing our i’s.” Powell went on to discuss the trio’s stewardship and responsibility in maintaining the historical record, stating how a slight mis-remembrance or edit could alter the historical record.
The panel concluded with a march led by Congressman Lewis and the children down to the IDW booth, followed by the adults in the audience. It was an experience that attendees would not likely forget in this strange new world of uncertainty — inspired and a validation on what unity could accomplish.