Civil Rights History as Graphic Novel

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Today, August 28, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the historic The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. For many, it propelled the Civil Rights Movement to national prominence.

Nate Powell, 35, was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up with a broad, basic understanding of civil rights history as a product of his baby boomer Mississippian parents. He’s the artist behind the new graphic novel, The March: Book One by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, the first in a trilogy account of Congressman Lewis’ struggle for civil and human rights, since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal history, it reflects on the struggles, triumphs and defeats of civil rights movement.

Powell, a winner of the Eisner Award, was exposed to social and political issues in adolescence, primarily through the music and ideas within the underground punk rock scene, so did a sense of interconnectedness shared by pressing social issues. It wasn’t, however, until his mid to late 20s that he grew past the reactionary political posturing of his age group, and felt he had enough perspective to address some of these issues, “many of them Southern-centric, carrying their own anxieties,” into his work. Here he talks about what led him to The March.

March Book One cover (100dpi)

(A Teacher’s Guide can be downloaded here.)

How did you become involved with Congressman Lewis?

I’ve been publishing with Top Shelf [publisher] since around 2005, and have known them since the late ’90s. In early 2011, I caught Top Shelf’s press release about MARCH (sans artist) while I was finishing up work on two graphic novels, and about to jump into another. A few weeks later, my publisher Chris Staros called me up, insisting that I was the right artist for the job. Flattered and energized, I worked up a few demo pages from the script, sent them to Congressman Lewis (who had already spent a few years co-writing the script with his staffer and comic enthusiast Andrew Aydin), and the creative relationship began to take shape.

John Lewis, N Powell, A Aydin in Washington

What was the most challenging aspect of recreating this history?

Finding the balance between accurate and responsible representation (with a story so full of historical figures, quite a few of whom are still living) and the expressive, intuitive depictions of personal experiences within the narrative. Learning to trust my storytelling sensibilities when making decisions regarding that very balance.


Are there facts or remembrances that were not already public?

Oh yeah, I believe so! Much of this material is naturally covered in Lewis’ excellent memoir, Walking With The Wind, but we occasionally got the Congressman to come forth with new sides to the story while Andrew and I were interrogating him for extra details. This is a trilogy, so there are two more volumes in which to illuminate these memories.


With the semi-repeal of Voting Rights Act provisions, this must have a bitter-sweet taste. Am I right?

Of course — I’d simply describe it as bitter. At times in the last few months, the world we occupy threatens to take on a distinct unreality while I’m neck-deep in the account of these young people’s struggle 50 years ago to set these measures in place. There is a powerful push to send our society backward in time, with its accompanying imbalances and atrocities (not that any of those have truly disappeared since then, admittedly).

Do you feel that the graphic novel is the best place for this story?

When I started work on this project, I was very excited at the challenge of turning their script into the kind of comics narrative I recognize and enjoy. I enjoy reading comics as literature, and typically don’t consider their audience or potential destination when creating them. It wasn’t until a couple of months after the artwork was finished for Book One that I began to understand the potential scope and life this trilogy might take on. Since then, I’ve been exposed to hundreds of teachers and librarians who are so passionate about the role March will potentially play in classrooms, in families, in a much larger social dialogue. I feel very grateful to be a part of it, and am trying to use my storytelling abilities to their fullest without getting too anxious thinking about the book’s reception.


About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →