It has been an interesting exercise, at once gratifying and devastating. One question keeps popping up: “How did I manage not to know about this?”
That’s how I felt when my friend Resa told me she was reading a comic book trilogy by Congressman John Lewis.
A comic book? By John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader? It won the 2016 National Book Award? How did I not know of this?
The “March Trilogy” turned out to be some of the most moving, timely, and relevant reading I’ve done all year.
I have what I would call a strawman’s understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. The foundation of my knowledge was what I learned in high school thirty-five years ago, in circumstances far removed in time, location, and experience from the actual movement.
Still, it surprised me that a comic book could reveal so many gaps in my understanding of American history.
The trilogy covers familiar biographies and events of the Civil Rights movement. It also covers the political and legal aspects, laying out abstract strategies like a battlefield history. I did not expect this of a comic book.
I have a new respect for the art of storyboarding.
Another blind spot I discovered: I didn’t know that comic books were that good at conveying emotions and violence. Fans of Marvel and anime already know this.
There are parts of the “March Trilogy” that made me wince and shudder. I have experienced visceral reactions when reading regular books (see Call of the Wild). The illustrations of “March” transformed me to that visceral zone sooner and deeper. I think it’s because the subject matter is so devastating, and because images come alive more readily than words.
I read the March trilogy the same week that John Lewis passed away. Dying from cancer, he visited the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC.
He wrote a final essay to be published by The New York Times upon his death.
It took quite a confluence of circumstances and attitude adjustments for me to pick up and read the “March Trilogy.” I now know that John Lewis wrote a comic book history of the Civil Rights Movement for people exactly like me. Having read it in conjunction with his final days makes me feel more personally vested and connected to his life’s work as a statesman and an artist.