March: Book One. By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. Top Shelf Productions, 2013.
Robert Greene II
It is always refreshing to see history brought alive through nontraditional media forms. One of the reasons March: Book One works so well is because it is a novel approach to telling history. The graphic novel format is used to great effect by Congressman John Lewis and his coauthors Andrew Aydin (a staff member in Lewis’s Washington, D.C., office) and Nate Powell (an experienced graphic novelist). This fresh take on the civil rights movement comes at a time when veterans of the movement wish to continue to engage the public—and March: Book One offers a fascinating model for how to do just that.
March: Book One, the first installment of a planned trilogy, tackles two interrelated stories. The first framing story is Lewis meeting some of his constituents on January 20, 2009, before Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration. While readying for the event, he regales several African American children with his early life story. This second story, flowing from his early upbringing through his involvement in the Nashville student sit-in movement of 1960, illustrates Lewis’s humble origins and describes how he became a young civil rights activist.
Readers unfamiliar with the civil rights movement or those wanting to brush up on a few events from its early history will find March: Book One to be an enlightening read. The book would also be useful for teaching American history to high school students or college undergraduates. Graphic novels such as March: Book One can reach students in a way that, at times, history textbooks may not be able. The artwork of graphic novels, for example, can communicate the fear civil rights protestors endured when facing racists in the South that even the best-crafted sentence in a monograph cannot quite accomplish. We see this in the book’s opening scene, as Lewis and hundreds of others are attacked by state troopers and police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. While history should never leave behind the traditional book, works such as March: Book One, Max Brooks’s The Harlem Hellfighters (2014), and Andrew Helfer’s Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography (2006) demonstrate that the graphic novel as a medium of telling history is here to stay.