On March 7, 1965, over 600 civil rights activists marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, AL, to agitate for black voting rights. After they crossed the bridge, they were attacked by local police brandishing tear gas and clubs. Among the leaders of that march was John Lewis, the 25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose skull was fractured by a policeman’s night stick. Fast forward nearly 50 years and John Lewis is a Congressman from Georgia, representing the state’s 5th Congressional district since 1987.
As of this month, Lewis is also a first-time graphic novelist. The first of three installments of March, a new graphic autobiography of Lewis and the Edmund Pettis march, was released by Top Shelf Productions a few weeks ago. While comics have long tackled weighty issues, never has a person so central to such an important historical event actually written one of those comics — until now.
March is drawn by Nate Powell, a writer and artist whose breakthrough graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, focused on adolescence, mental illness, and love. It won the 2009 Eisner Award (the comics industry’s highest honor) for Best Graphic Novel and was the first graphic novel since Art Spiegelman’s Maus to be nominated for the LA Times Book Prize. Powell followed that success with Any Empire, a meditation on our culture of violence.
I spoke with Powell via email about March, political comics, and the contributions of X-Men comics and thrash metal to political consciousness.
Sam Costello: I’m curious about the genesis of March. Do you know if John Lewis brought it to Top Shelf, or did it come into being another way?
Nate Powell: Here’s the origin story of March (first revealed in Journey Into Mysterious Suspense #154): as a staffer for Congressman Lewis on his 2008 campaign, Andrew [Aydin, Lewis’ aide and a comics fan,] mentioned he was headed to a comic con after the campaign’s end, and got teased for it a bit in the office. John Lewis interjected, “You know, a comic book was published in the early civil rights movement that was very influential,” and told the tale of Martin Luther King And The Montgomery Story, which directly inspired four college kids in North Carolina to become The Greensboro Four, staging the first major lunch counter sit-ins of the era. Lewis read the book, as did most of his activist and student peers. Andrew was so blown away at this foggy chapter in the history of comics—and of the movement—that he began hounding Congressman Lewis, “Where’s the comic about that? About what came after, and about where those convictions took you and everyone else in the movement?” After sufficient pestering, Lewis agreed to do an autobiographical comic, on the condition that Andrew co-author it.
They worked up the entire script and signed a deal with Top Shelf, sans artist, in early 2011. I remember seeing the press release for the deal, and being intrigued by it but having too much of a workload to seriously consider it at the moment. Andrew had previously pitched the book to [DC’s imprint] Vertigo, and had also run it by [writer/artist/publisher] Jimmy Palmiotti, who strongly suggested that Top Shelf was the ideal publisher for the work.
How did you get involved?
About a month after the press release for the book deal, [Top Shelf Publisher] Chris Staros called me up, briefly describing the book, and strongly suggested I try out for the book. I worked up a couple of demo pages from the script and sent them to Congressman Lewis and Andrew to see how we’d work together, and we very quickly struck up a strong partnership.
I’d imagine neither John Lewis nor Andrew Aydin has written comics before. What kind of script did you work from? A full, panel-by-panel version or did you have more control over the layout of pages and pacing of the story?
Their script was done in a classic comic script style, broken into pages and panels, with scene descriptions, captions, and dialogue clearly broken down. At this point, March was a single 150-to-200-page graphic novel. Very soon after I started breaking down the script into pages based on my own sense of pace and flow, I realized we were looking at a 500-page book, which everyone was even more excited about — so, yeah, I basically threw out the original page and panel count. Knowing that a book of that length would take me three or four years to draw, we decided to work with the natural chapter breaks in the script, breaking the tale into a trilogy. Congressman Lewis and Andrew have both been extremely trusting of my half of the storytelling process; communication about the story, accuracy, reference, tone, or any other consideration is a near-daily part of the work, and it feels good to be building up this story in a balanced way.
Was there anything that Lewis or Aydin did or asked as first-time comics writers that struck you as interesting in terms of the way people not immersed in comics see/interact with the medium?
To be fair, Andrew is a lifelong comic book nerd — to the core — and his enthusiasm for the medium, and the creative process, is what pushed this book into existence in the first place. Having said that, the original script kept a very stable panel count from page to page. Part of this might’ve been his being new to the creative end of comics, but much of the structure was also a nod to the 1957 comic Martin Luther King And The Montgomery Story, told in a very traditional Silver-Age style. Their changes to the script as I produced visuals was exciting — we all got to watch the narrative become a living thing, evolving to meet the demands of the creators, and recomposing itself to better serve the story. I’m currently drawing Book Two, and Andrew’s script production is much more compatible with my storytelling style, having worked up a creative rapport over the last year.
You lived for a while in Montgomery, AL. How much of the story of the Civil Rights Movement, or even specifically march over the Edmund Pettus bridge, did you know then?
I didn’t really know anything about the Selma bridge march, but as a Southerner with Mississippian parents who came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s, an awareness of the civil rights struggle and its resulting social changes were part of my understanding of the world from a pretty young age. Having said that, the fundamental attitude towards discussing the segregated South at that time was to very clearly note, “Well, it was a different time,” and to change the subject fairly quickly. I know now that this was pretty common for middle-left, middle-class white Boomers — it seems to me that the perspective to be able to really discuss these issues (admittedly a huge exercise in privilege) didn’t emerge until sometime in the 1990s, or even later.
Well, the entire pilgrimage weekend was a profound and transformative experience — we also visited a number of sites in Montgomery and Birmingham, as well as other sites in Selma, before the culmination of events across the bridge. Some of my thoughts on the bridge itself were simply focused on how weird it was to have Vice President Biden walking twelve feet ahead of me, some were focused on Secret Service popping out of their disguises as event sanitation workers, and how many weird secret agencies had operatives in the march, some of them oblivious to each other.
On a more emotional note, one of the marchers adjacent to me was a man in his late eighties — he actually drove down from Ohio with a friend to participate in the original 1965 march, but their car never made it. The two men were stopped by some law enforcement entity, and the other fellow was actually killed in the incident. This amazing old man who survived all this was now walking across that bridge, slowly but steadily, with the physical assistance of his loved ones. Throughout the process of drawing March, I periodically catch myself taking certain elements of the civil rights struggle for granted, accepting the world I’ve been allowed to live through without fully recognizing the human component of the ongoing struggle.
In March, John Lewis is portrayed as having a sense of what’s right, and being willing to crusade for it (in this case, the treatment of the family chickens) at an early age. Were you similarly concerned with justice as a kid?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a concern for justice, but the gravity with which John Lewis describes his childhood perspective, the way he pursues what was central to his world view at the time, and especially the sense that his core personality was crystallized at a very early age are all traits and dispositions to which I felt a powerful kinship. Part of the general atmosphere, and much of the content, of my book Any Empire revolves around that gravity that I carried with me in elementary school, though filtered through a very different context — and yet, just fifty miles from John Lewis’ childhood experiences. I’d say those childhood accounts (particularly the way he describes them in Walking With The Wind [Lewis’s 1999 memoir]) were what sealed the deal for me.
What got you interested in justice/political issues?
In general, I credit a potent combination of thrash metal (specifically Anthrax) and Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men. My awareness of the human sides of these struggles was expanded considerably once I became involved in the underground punk rock community, presenting both windows by which to see relationships between human rights, animal exploitation, capitalism, war, prisons, and other industries/structures, and most importantly, providing a means of exchanging these ideas with other people. Being able to read and write zines, trade with people, write lyrics, listen to or read other band’s lyrics, and having late-night discussions about all these issues were incredibly important.
Along with Alan Moore, Suzie Cagle, and a few others, you’re one of the only comics creators I’m aware of who has a substantial body of work that I would consider “political.” Other creators may talk about politics online, or reference it in their work, but between books you’ve illustrated — March, The Silence of Our Friends, Edible Secrets — and work that you both wrote and drew, you seem really engaged with political expression in comics. Why is that important to you?
Actually, I don’t attach any greater value to comics that are politically focused — I don’t think it’s necessarily important in and of itself. My creative goal is to express what’s important inside me at the time, and the political/historical sides of existence are no less essential to me than our internal landscapes, our emotional health, our love lives, our experiences with the unexplained or transcendent, or our memories. There are a lot of stories to be told, and I try to weave narratives that allow room for as many of these interests as possible.
There aren’t a lot of straight-up political works in comics, whether they’re polemical or historical. We tend to have the politics abstracted by a layer of superheroes or metaphor. Why aren’t there a lot of explicitly political comics?
Well, for the same reason there aren’t a lot of explicitly religious comics — they’re usually boring, insulting, or crappy because the comics medium is seen as being in service to a much more important Mission. And that may be valid in some cases, but that’s usually how you wind up with dry or embarrassing comics. The most successful works in this area are transcendent, humanizing, and capable of conveying deep intimacy, either with characters or the world presented — my all-time favorite example here is Eric Drooker’s Flood!, which completely changed the way I made comics.
How did Flood! Change your work?
Growing up in Arkansas, my exposure to true alternative comics was very limited — with the exception of our local underground comics scene, TMNT and Cerebus were about as far in the outfield as could be found. It wasn’t until moving to the East Coast for school in the mid-’90s that I was finally exposed to books that showcased the breadth of subject matter and formal possibilities in comics. Early notables were Brooklyn Dreams by J.M. DeMatteis and Glenn Barr, I Never Liked You by Chester Brown, and Al Burian’s comics related to his Burn Collector zine, but Flood! presented a (wordless) narrative as epic and far-reaching as any space opera or power fantasy, as intimate as many personal tales I’d encountered, but focused on presenting the evolution of an entire social framework, the very history of power in the face of humanity. I’d also read plenty of books with pattern-heavy page compositions by that point (panel layouts of Frank Miller, Alan Moore’s scripts, Dave Sim), but Eric Drooker’s willingness to make repetition the formal spotlight of his pages, moving from splash pages to 4- to 16- to 64-panel grids, was something I’d never really understood until that point.
Are there ways that comics can do politics differently, or even better, than other media?
I hadn’t really given this much thought until Andrew and I did a panel with some folks from Search For Common Ground, which is a conflict resolution non-profit that, among other things, publishes comics to address specific issues to specific groups of people across the world — to demobilized child soldiers in Central Asia or Nepal, to occupied or resisting communities in central Africa or Southeast Asia. Despite all our talk about how “accessible” comics are, it was only then that I really understood that comics can convey pretty complex information and address concerns to folks with varying degrees of literacy — and perhaps most importantly, that these comics are shared amongst circles of friends, squads of soldiers, etc., further generating dialogue about the issues addressed.
A recurring theme in your work, especially in Any Empire, is the idea of putting yourself in the way of a system you oppose as an act of protest. In another interview, you said: “If we really want a better world not ruled by murderous a–holes but can’t do much about it, do we still participate in acts of resistance that are really gestures?” Can making comics be one of those acts of resistance?
As much as it’s essential to pick one’s battles, it’s also true that no gesture is totally wasted. Making intimate, heartfelt comics that convey one’s concerns and reveal different ways of viewing the world are part of the fabric woven by art, by literature. It’s essential to present other possible worlds, to allow space for offense, for discussion, for feeling like someone else shares the indescribable sentiment or experiences you’ve carried with you. That’s why I make comics and music — the world is far too lonely of a place without them, or without the lovely people around us.