That Time John Lewis Was The Biggest Superhero At Comic-Con

John Lewis at Comic-Con 2016 with collaborators Nate Powell (L) and Andrew Aydin.

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When civil rights pioneer and Congressman John Lewis died July 17 at the age of 80, he left behind a legacy of accomplishments that includes a National Book Award for the graphic novel trilogy, March, which tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement.

Our newsroom's John Horn, host of KPCC's The Frame and the podcast, Hollywood, The Sequel, interviewed Lewis at Comic-Con 2016 in San Diego where the Congressman was introducing the third part of his trilogy. A few months later, it would become the first graphic novel to win the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. According to Lewis:

These books are history but are also a guide. It's a manual to teach and also to inspire. To get young people and people-not-so-young to stand up, speak up and speak out, and find a way to get in the way. To get in, what I call, "good trouble." You see something that's not right, not fair, not just, and you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something and not be quiet. You need to make some noise.

Lewis had a long and distinguished record in civil rights. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC. As part of Mississippi Freedom Summer, Lewis helped lead the effort to register black voters, and was one of the organizers of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, where in 1965 he and many others were savagely beaten by Alabama state troopers.

Lewis co-authored the March series with Andrew Aydin, who also served as Digital Director and Policy Advisor to the Congressman. The trilogy is illustrated by Nate Powell, whose images depict many of the horrifying events from the civil rights movement, and also celebrate its greatest victories, like the signing of the Voting Rights Acts.

John Horn met with John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell at a San Diego hotel, just steps from Comic-Con prior to their presentation at the convention.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

You were only 17 when the 1957 comic, "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," was published. What did reading that book do for you?

Lewis: I was very inspired by this. I'd heard of Martin Luther King Jr., heard of Rosa Parks. It said to me, If Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and others can believe in and accept a way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, then I too could do something. It made me the person that I am today.

The 13-page comic published in 1957 was influential to a then 17-year-old John Lewis.
The 13-page comic published in 1957 was influential to a then 17-year-old John Lewis.

You've co-written these graphic novels — although its not really a novel because it's a true story. What are you able to do in this format that you're not able to do in a memoir?

Lewis: I believe in this format. You are able to make it real, make it plain, make it simple for young people and people not so young to understand. It's drama— high drama. That's what the civil rights movement was all about — drama.

A lot of people, and especially young people, may not fully understand what actually happened during the civil rights movement. How does a book like this change their understanding of what happened? And how does the presentation of a comic affect an audience in ways that a documentary or a book or a movie like "Selma" can't?

Lewis: The writing ability and capacity of Andrew Aydin, the co-author, and the ability of Nate Powell, the artist, make it so real. It tells us, the reader, what happened and how it happened. You can see us sitting down at lunch counter stools and people spitting on us, pouring hot water on us, hot coffee. And we're so orderly and so peaceful and we get arrested and go to jail. It tells stories that are powerful. Just a group of young people, of college students coming together believing in the way of peace, the way of love and the way of nonviolence as a way of living.

Congressman John Lewis shakes hands with a fan during Comic-Con 2016 in San Diego.
Congressman John Lewis shakes hands with a fan during Comic-Con 2016 in San Diego. (John Horn/LAist)

Andrew and Nate, how do you see comics as an effective medium for communicating John's story?

Aydin: Comics, I think, are incredibly important right now because of the Internet. The visual literacy that the Internet requires makes comics the language of this generation. If we want to speak with them, we have to speak with them in their language.

Congressman Lewis, do the illustrations in this book trigger memories of things that maybe you had forgotten? Do you start reliving the period by researching it?

Lewis: At times, I had to lay the book aside because I had become very emotional. To re-live what happened in Selma when we tried to walk across the bridge, I kept saying to myself, How could human beings treat their fellow human beings the way we were treated? We had a constitutional right to march in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion.

To re-live the three murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi or to go to the church in Birmingham for a few hours after the church was bombed and to attend the funeral of the four little girls — you have to relive all of that. It's almost too much.

Congressman Lewis, does it almost feel that even though these books as a trilogy are completed that there's a whole other series of books you could start writing now?

Lewis: I think the climate and the environment and what is happening in America and around the world, I think you could start writing another series.

Your collaborators are nodding in agreement. Do you guys already have plans for how you can pick up the story?

Powell: Generally speaking, one of the biggest considerations, about halfway through making the "March" trilogy, was exactly where we bring it to a close. The end of "March 3" covers what Congressman Lewis considers the end of the movement as he knew it. It does not mean that the work was done or that the movement in a broader sense was done. It expanded and changed fronts. There was enough content in the next few years after, in the late '60s, that we didn't know if that was going to be a long epilogue or a fourth book or exist outside the trilogy. For now, we decided that in a narrative sense the trilogy needs to be self-contained here as an idea, but we always want to emphasize that by no means does that mean that it's this unilateral victory or that the book itself is closed or that it's ever closed.

Aydin: It's dedicated to the past and the future of the movement. For me, seeing Congressman Lewis, he becomes an infectious force in your life. My father was a Muslim immigrant and I never knew him very well. My mother all my life was insistent that I shave. She never wanted me to have a beard or facial hair because she thought it would make me look more Muslim. I was raised Methodist, but, because of my father, she was very sensitive to that. When the Republican nominee started saying all of this stuff and wanting to register Muslims, I grew my beard out because I work on Capitol Hill and I want every one of my colleagues and every one of the members of Congress who sympathizes and empathizes with that position to know who they're talking about and what it is they really are saying to America.

For me, I've heard them say, honestly, It's okay, you're one of the good ones. That's completely unacceptable. So we have to use nonviolence not just as a tool and tactic, but as a way of life and a way of living. We are all trying to do that through "March" as well.