Some media are custom-made for heroes. Ava DuVernay's gripping film Selma gains much of its drama from the beauty — physical and metaphysical — of David Oyelowo's portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oyelowo's incredible voice gives practically everything King says the compelling force of a sermon, and his physical presence — strangely small and economical of motion — is as unique as it is potent.
Comic books are known for their heroes, too. But in March, U.S. Rep. John Lewis' graphical trilogy about the civil rights movement, things are a lot messier than they are in most comic books — or, for that matter, in DuVernay's film. There are heroes in March: Book Two, but they're largely nameless. They're found among the tens of thousands of people who each played their own small role in the struggle.
Lewis has every reason to strike a heroic pose in this book, should he want to. A child of Alabama sharecroppers, educated in a segregated schoolroom, he became one of the "Big Six" leaders of the civil rights movement. (In Selma he's played by Canadian actor Stephan James.) Lewis addressed 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. It would seem only natural for this book — modeled on the 1950s comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story — to become "John Lewis and the Civil Rights Story."
Instead, Lewis continually downplays and even obscures his own role. When he's selected to head the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — and nearly killed in a car accident on his way to accept the position — he says only, "It seemed strange to me. I saw myself as a doer. I never had any thoughts of being chairman." His speech at the March on Washington, depicted at the end of the book, is devoted to images of common people: "The Mississippi sharecropper who is put off his farm because he dares to register to vote ... a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year."
When Lewis mentions other notable figures, he humbles them, too. King is shown caviling at demands that he participate in a freedom ride. "I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgotha," he says finally, eyes to the side, beads of sweat appearing on his brow. On the other hand, Lewis spotlights undersung hero Bayard Rustin, who was marginalized because of his homosexuality and ties to the Communist Party. Without Rustin's knack for logistics, Lewis notes, the March on Washington could have been a disaster.
Speeches and meetings might seem like dull stuff for a comic book — or, at least, like the dull parts of a comic book — but award-winning artist Nate Powell doesn't let that happen. His pen skitters and dances, imbuing every human face and form with explosive potential. When there are clashes to be depicted, he rocks out. The white Southerners are chilling, subhuman. A woman holding an infant screams terrible slurs. A boy missing a tooth leers at the reader in tight close-up, extending dirty fingers as a voice urges, "That's my BOY — git him! Them eyes — git them eyes!"
Powell doesn't always know when to stop short of one more pen stroke, muddying such moments as a confrontation between a small girl and a cop at the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade. But he's got terrific energy in his line, just what's needed to create a coherent visual story that encompasses so many radical shifts in tone. He and the book's third co-author, Lewis aide Andrew Aydin, have also thought carefully about framing and composition. It's evident in practically every spread.
Powell uses dynamic panels and lettering to invigorate the illustration of Lewis' big speech, but perhaps the most moving page is much earlier in the book, in 1961. After being sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary for disturbing the peace, Lewis and his fellow freedom riders are finally released. But when the prison door is opened, they find there's still a long, long walk to the main gate visible in the distance.
It's a great visual metaphor, and a particularly suitable one for a low-profile hero like Lewis. He makes a characteristically no-drama comment in the book's prologue, jostling through another Washington, D.C., throng. "There's no need to hurry. I'll end up where I need to be," he says. The occasion? The inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.