Shockingly Timely: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell – March Vol. 1-3

I’m not a big reader of non-fiction but I gave this graphic novel trilogy to my boyfriend last Christmas so it was at the house. The Black Lives Matter protests as well as John Lewis’ death in July of this year kept bringing me back to these books and so I finally picked them up myself and devoured them in just a couple of days.

MARCH VOL. 1-3
by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin
art by Nate Powell

Published: Top Shelf Productions, 2013-2016
Paperback: 560 pages
Series: March #1-#3
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: “Can you swim?” “No.” “Well. neither can I. But we might have to.”

March is the story of John Lewis. It is the story of the Civil Rights movement, of how Black people protested peacefully in order to gain basic human rights. As a reader of (mostly) fantasy, this is not the kind of story I usually pounce on, but the year 2020 has done a lot of things, one of which is me trying to read more diversely and educate myself on topics that I find important. And as these books were already in my home and my boyfriend said they were really good, I picked them up, thinking I’d know mostly what to expect.

I did not know what to expect. Sure, when you hear “Civil Rights Movement”, certain images come to mind. People marching in the street, King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, and so on. But John Lewis did much more in this trilogy than rehash a history lesson we all had in school. He tells his story, beginning with his childhood and ending with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The frame story takes place just before and during Obama’s inauguration speech, but it’s the flashbacks that tell the real story.

We learn about segregation in the South, how John Lewis came to the SNCC, how people trained and practiced in order to stay peaceful even when faced with physical violence and to say that these scenes were harrowing is an understatement. Imagine letting a friend shout vile things at you, slap you, pour drinks over your head, and you have to stand there calmly, not even defending yourself… That’s just one of the things that got to me and, frankly. it’s the least terrifying one. Sit-in protests in Whites only establishments turn ugly pretty quickly but the protesters persevere and slowly – ever so slowly – gain a little bit of the rights that any human should have. There is paperwork, there are meetings with state officials, there are marches and the attempt to register to vote. There is a lot of jail time.

At one point, I actually laughed (in a desperate sort of way) when I read “This was the first time I was sent to prison in Selma. It would not be the last.” because John Lewis had said the same thing before about prison in general… He was arrested so often that he had to specify his first arrest in a certain place. And while reading about his time in various jails wasn’t exactly fun, it was still not the worst of what’s in this book.
No, what really stuck with me, was the violence with which all these peaceful protests were met. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, given what we now see on the internet all the time. But it goes to show how well this graphic novel is done. When every other page a church is blown up, or people are beaten bloody simply for standing in line, waiting to register to vote, or people are murdered by police… you don’t really know what to say to that. We all know these things happened and they still do (even if the racism isn’t quite as overt anymore) and yet I found it shocking and terrible and I cried more than once reading these books.

You can also expect a fair amount of politics in these comics. There are grand speeches, corrupt politicians, other politicians who give the people hope, even more paperwork, endless hours of travel between places, organizing protests, politics within the organizations fighting for Black people’s rights, and so on and so forth. Those parts should have been boring because, come on, paperwork as such is a tedious job, but reading about someone else doing paperwork should be mind-numbing, right? Well, John Lewis wasn’t just a man with a vision who dedicated his life to civil rights but he also was a damn good storyteller!

I admit I didn’t remember all the names of the people involved in the protests, who led which organization at what time, or who held what speech in which church, but that’s not important for the story to work. This book, although it is John Lewis’ story, also doesn’t present him to be the one true hero who saved his country by being the best – no, he’s part of something much bigger, of a group of people, most of whose names aren’t even mentioned because there were so many of them. I loved how he never lifts himself above his fellow Americans but stands side by side with them, sometimes in the face of great violence.

The book ends – beautifully – with Barack Obama officially becoming the President of the United States and thus fulfilling a dream many Black people didn’t think would ever become a reality. But despite this enormous achievement, March also makes it clear that the journey isn’t finished, that there’s a lot left to be done. But it’s a trilogy that leaves you with a sense of hope and a smile on your face.

It feels strange and even wrong to “rate” a book like this. After all, it’s someone’s life we’re talking about here and it’s not like I’m going to judge it by its plot. So I’d like to stress here that my rating is purely about how the story is told. The artwork, the pacing choices, etc. but not the actual events or the characters – because there is no way for me to judge any of that and I don’t feel that things like likability  (who are REAL PEOPLE in this case) should figure into it. But this also happens to be a very well told story, an important story, and one that’s more fitting our current times than it should be.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!