It wasn’t John Lewis’s first brush with authority, but he was never this happy about it.
The 26-year veteran of the U.S. Congress (D-Ga.) and civil rights icon made his first visit to San Diego Comic-Con last month to sign advance copies of his graphic novel, March (Book One), the first installment of an autobiographical trilogy that was officially published August 13 by Top Shelf Productions.
At 73, Lewis is the recipient of the 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest civilian honors, and the last surviving keynote speaker of the 1963 March on Washington, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.
After Lewis’s panel drew more than 300 people and a standing ovation, the line of fans snaked around his booth, further jamming the already congested isles of the convention floor and prompting fire marshals to threaten to shut down the signing. Not that they’d have much luck, as fans pressed to shake Lewis’s hand, get photos taken with him, and thank him for his bravery and years of public service. Many were educators, hoping that a turbulent time in American history in graphic novel form might make it easier for young people—especially non-English speakers—to digest.
But in many ways, Comic-Con—a haven of inclusion for a long-marginalized population of geeks, nerds, and self-described social misfits—was the perfect congregation to hear Lewis’s message of tolerance and acceptance.
"I’m a 6-foot-2 black man who is damn near reduced to tears being in the presence of greatness," says Michael Davis after getting his book signed. Himself an activist, Davis co-created Milestone Media, the first mainstream African-American-owned comic book company; he organizes the Con’s Black Panel to spotlight minorities and their industry concerns.
"Comic-Con is the biggest pop culture event in the world," he said. "Anybody who dismisses it as these geeky people with comic books is an idiot. The fact that he’s here and embracing this audience is phenomenal. He’s not only a role model—he’s living history. And the fact that he would come here. . . . Comic-Con has now jumped to another level."
March (Book One)—cowritten by Lewis’s former press secretary, Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning graphic novel artist Nate Powell—tells the story of Lewis’s journey from sharecropper’s son to the battles for civil rights.
"This is my first Comic-Con. It is unreal," says Lewis with a combination of exhaustion, elation, and adjustment to his new spandex-clad constituency. "Everybody’s so wonderful, so gracious. It’s almost like a happening. It reminds me of some of the great marches—from Selma to Montgomery, and the last days of the March on Washington—when people just came together under one banner, one idea."
There was just one glitch. "I kept asking,`Where’s my hat, my mask?’ I feel somewhat out of place going around with a suit and tie on."
But this being Comic-Con, you’re bound to run into fellow superheroes. This year, Lewis met another black icon, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, there to promote his upcoming Fox series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.
"How are you doing young man?" says a jovial Lewis.
"Doing good!" Tyson laughs. "Trying to, you know, keep the universe real."
Not only were both fans of each other’s work, but Tyson learned that Lewis knew his father, Cyril, who had been active in the civil rights movement in New York in the 1960s. The elder Tyson had been an original member of the 100 Black Men, a civic organization formed in New York in 1963 to improve community conditions.
"Please tell him I said hello," says Lewis. "I remember your father very well."
Read more about their encounter here.
The seeds of March were planted after Lewis’ 2008 primary campaign, when fellow staffers teased the then-24-year-old Aydin after he announced plans to attend a comic convention after the election. Lewis came to his rescue, mentioning a precedent: an influential 1957 comic book, Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story, which introduced young civil rights activists to the concept of nonviolent protest.
"I was completely enamored with the idea of a comic book having such a major impact for social change and being an inspiration for young people," says Aydin, now 29. "I believe very strongly that comic books can be a force for good. And it seemed like such a natural idea, especially now, when we’re losing the history. People are forgetting what happened during the civil rights movement."
Aydin kept pressing Lewis until he relented. "Only if you do it with me," he said.
The pair worked for two and a half years before signing a publishing deal with Top Shelf. Aydin would interview Lewis and write a draft, then circle back to Lewis for corrections. Powell came aboard three years in, referred by publisher Chris Staros, who had previously released Powell’s Eisner-winning Swallow Me Whole.
"As a visual storyteller, a lot is learning what to include so you’re not being redundant between images and text," says Powell. "There was a unique responsibility with this book in that the primary text was coming from decades of oral storytelling. Another challenge was the balance between historical accuracy, representation, and emotional expression." Nailing the portraits of recognizable historical figures "brought a new level of anxiety and responsibility."
For Aydin and Powell, the considerable production challenges of compiling a graphic novel took a backseat to the emotional impact of such sobering subject matter and Lewis’s ability to transcend his circumstances without bitterness.
"Every week would be a new revelation about the enormity of the context," says Powell. "There’s a lot of personal and transformational information along the way that shattered a lot of things I took for granted. It had a pretty deep emotional impact in addition to the normal professional challenges."
"I’ve learned so much from him over these last six and a half years," adds Aydin. "I’m relieved the book was received so well, because I didn’t want to let him down."
Lewis never wavered from his purpose, even when his civil rights efforts first landed him in jail at age 20.
"When I was arrested the first time, I felt free. I felt liberated," he says. "I grew up overnight."
Well before his first protest, Lewis and other activists studied the civil disobedience teachings of Mahatma Ghandi, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and the philosophies of various religions. "We were taught to see individuals as little children, little babies," says Lewis. "We came into this world as innocent, then something happened to each one of us. Our environment teaches us to put someone down because of his nationality, color, height, being gay or straight, liberal or conservative. What is it?
"So when it came time to protest, I became committed with the philosophy of nonviolence," Lewis adds. "Not simply as a technique, as a tactic, but as a way of life. Yes, I may get arrested, I may go to jail, I could even die, but, as Dr. King said, `It is better to die a physical death, than a psychological death.’ "
And this was Lewis’s other purpose for coming to Comic-Con: not just to sell a book, but an idea.
"It’s our hope, that young people and people not so young will be inspired by March and have the courage, the raw courage, to get in the way," he said in a riveting speech during his panel. "To get in trouble —good trouble—and to make some noise."
Lewis will be back—with two more books that chronicle his life leading to the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where police attacked 600 peaceful civil rights demonstrators. That event, known as Bloody Sunday, lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"We’re gonna travel on a steady journey toward reconciliation, through Selma and the confrontation on the bridge, where we were beaten, left bloody, and some of my colleagues were killed," says Lewis. "We’re gonna travel through Mississippi, Alabama, through the March on Washington, and move closer to a sense of community."
For his return to Comic-Con, Lewis already has a costume in mind.
"A cartoonist in Atlanta once drew me in a robe carrying a staff, with the words, `Let my people vote,’ " he laughs. "So maybe, when I come back in a year or two, I’ll dress like a modern-day Moses leading the people toward full participation in the political process—just older, grayer, and with less hair."
For an aural take on John Lewis’s visit to Comic-Con, listen to my piece on the Los Angeles NPR station, KCRW. Also check out the PBS documentary The March, premiering August 27 (check local listings).
[Images courtesy of Susan Karlin | Top Shelf Productions | Marion Trikosko]