‘March’ takes civil rights legend into new medium

“March: Book One” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. To Shelf Productions. $14.95.

A keynote address by Rep. John Lewis Fri., August 30 at 8 p.m. at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University is sold out.

Lewis will be signing his graphic novel along with his collaborators Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, at the AJC Pavilion at the Decatur Book Festival on Sat., August 31 at 1 p.m

Funny how some things are born.

One moment, Rep. John Lewis’ staff is laughing at the idea of one of his aides attending a comic book convention. And the next, the Georgia Democratic congressman and the aide, Andrew Aydin, are co-writing a comic book detailing Lewis’ role in the civil rights marches and demonstrations of the 1960s.

Lewis helped lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and spoke along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Today, "March: Book One" makes its debut in bookstores across the country. Tonight, its authors will be guests on The Colbert Report, one of a dozen appearances planned in the next few weeks, including a book signing at Barnes and Noble in Buckhead Saturday and a keynote speech at the AJC Decatur Book Festival over Labor Day weekend, to promote the 128-page graphic novel.

“In 15-plus years of publishing some of the biggest names in comics, we’ve never seen this level of anticipation for a graphic novel,” said Chris Staros of Top Shelf Productions, the Marietta-based publisher of March. “It’s off the charts.”

In separate interviews, Lewis and Aydin laughed as they recalled the conversation five years ago that birthed March.

“The staff started making fun of him for reading comic books, and I said, ‘Well you shouldn’t laugh,’ ” Lewis recalled. “There was another comic book about the movement that came out in 1957.”

Ayden said, "I went on to learn about this comic book and ended up writing a graduate thesis on its role around the world."

"Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story," illustrated in 16 pages the work and achievements of the Montgomery bus boycott and the nonviolent methods of King and his fellow civil rights activists.

Aydin had grown up in Atlanta hearing stories about the movement and then later from the congressman himself but never much about its non-violent philosophy. He had an idea.

“Why don’t you write a comic book,” he asked Lewis.

The congressman didn’t respond right away but weeks later, when Lewis’ 2008 campaign was drawing to an end, Aydin broached the subject again.

“OK,” Lewis told him. “I will do it but only if you write it with me.”

Midnight oil

Sometime in the spring of 2009, the two began writing, working late into the night because, well, that’s what John Lewis does.

“He works so hard it’s a constant struggle to keep up with him,” Aydin said. “It taught me to stay up late and to get up early, but it was hard to keep my game face on when I was holding 18-hour days. He has just an unbelievable drive.”

Aydin was 24 then; Lewis 68.

And the more they worked, the more Lewis saw the effort as more than an exercise in writing. He’d already written two books - “Walking with the Wind” in 1998 and “Across that Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change,” out last year - recounting his life and works.

Now, he said, he wanted to inspire today’s youth to engage in peaceful, non-violent action to bring change.

It didn’t take long for the two to decide one comic book wouldn’t do, that far too much would be left unsaid.

So March: Book One is the first installment in a three-part series. The second, Lewis said, will publish next year to coincide with the anniversary of signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the third in 2015, the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson.

“It’s a way of informing and educating and inspiring people to take up their cross, not to be quiet, to make some noise and find a way to get in the way,” Lewis said recently. “If they see something that is not right, not fair, do something about it.”

As another anniversary approached – the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington - Lewis talked about his work on the trilogy and the overwhelming response he, Aydin, and illustrator Nate Powell have received.

News networks have been lining up to interview Lewis, who along with his impressive civil rights resume’ now becomes the only sitting member of Congress to pen a comic book. Fans camped out this summer for a chance to meet him at the 2013 Comic-Con International convention in San Diego.

Lewis said crowds across the country have turned out for pre-release signings, wanting to hear more about him raising chickens as boy, about the role of music in the civil rights movement, and being refused a library card when he was a 16-year-old growing up in rural Troy, Ala.

Asked how they settled on the title, he recalled King saying on occasion that “there isn’t anything more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people.”

March, he said, seemed the obvious choice.

At first Lewis thought the book was the perfect way to reach youth, but he quickly discovered that many adults around the world read comic books, too.

Lewis himself was 17 when he found inspiration in the King comic book.

“I hope that this book will inspire young people all around the world the same way,” he said.

He said he hopes March ultimately teaches us to care for each other.

“We’re one people, one family,” he said. “We all live in the same house. Not just the American house but the world house. If we get it right, and I believe we will, America will emerge as a model for the rest of the world.”