The second volume of March, the acclaimed graphic novel adaptation of the experiences of Rep. John Lewis during the Civil Rights Movement, was released Wednesday. The story was adapted for comics by Lewis’ longtime aide Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole). We spoke to Aydin and Powell about the challenges of adapting Lewis’ story, capturing the intricacies of the Civil Rights era, and the continuing relevance of this period.
Newsarama: Andrew, Nate – what was the process of research and turning the recollections into a script/finished graphic novel like?
Nate Powell: Intense and thorough on all levels. Andrew and Congressman Lewis keep me well-supplied with reference and documentation, but I do about an hour of extra research every day I’m drawing, and occasionally get personal and environmental details from conversations with my parents, or from my own memories two decades later in the same locations.
Our editor Leigh Walton is extremely dedicated to his own waves of reference and research; along the way we’ve discovered opportunities to add something to the historical record and even correct errors in that existing record. History is a living thing, and our hunger for conveying it in a whole, fair, humanizing way grows the further we dive into this epic with the Congressman.
Andrew Aydin: It was an exhaustive process. This is a period that has been written about by titans in the nonfiction world, folks like David Halberstam, Taylor Branch, and Diane McWhorter. I had to read everything I possibly could and sift through details until the complete picture emerged.
Nate did a spectacular job of finding photo references and adapting words and recollections into concrete, beautiful images. Leigh Walton went through the rough draft with a fine tooth comb, finding nuances for us to explore and details for us to include to bring even greater depth and emotion.
Nrama: Book Two is a much darker, and at times more expressionistic work than Book One. What was the most difficult part of adapting the material?
Powell: As the movement made more measurable gains, a disproportionate increase in violent responses to those gains were established as the norm—that’s really the focus of Book Two. There were certainly sections of the book in which I was able to work through those depictions without much issue, but more frequently I found myself deeply disturbed and horrified.
This was certainly magnified by the general misconception that Civil Rights Era activism was a small series of peaceful, televised events that resulted in a smooth passage into modern America—as much as I know that to be a lie, that template is still something that smacks me in the face whenever I dive into the real lives, the names and faces, of those who were injured, imprisoned, or killed, made all the more powerful by having met and/or developed personal relationships with some of these people.
Aydin: I think for all of us, there was an emotional toll to producing this book. Nothing compares to the sacrifice of those who lived it, but we were forced to experience and relive moments of pure evil.
For me personally, the hardest part was internalizing these stories, living with them for months and months, and seeing Congressman Lewis every day, who remains such a happy and kind person, but seeing the scars he still carries on his head, having to fight back the urge to just hug him, to tell him how sorry I am that this country did that to him, to thank him for carrying our burden and inadequacy.
Nrama: How do you feel this experience has expanded your understanding of the Civil Rights movement, and how it relates to America today?
Powell: I was born in the late-70’s and grew up in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, the child of Baby Boomer Mississippians, and thus was raised with a basic, working awareness of the movement. I was familiar enough with the setting and context to escape a more fundamental shock there.
However, I think I’m consistently amazed and challenged by the time and persistence these gains took to achieve. What it must be like to survive beatings and arrests not once, not twice, but a month’s worth of that danger, a year’s worth, before seeing a crack in the sidewalk.
Even the staple event of the Montgomery bus boycott—that was14 months of half the population of a city choosing to make sacrifices, take huge risks, and coordinate alternative structures to their lives and livelihoods every day for a goal they had absolutely no promise they’d ever see achieved. Every day!
It extended even further—I’m reading about the Lowndes County movement just down the road from Montgomery, and the bus boycott had significant effects in their community as well, as domestic workers had to coordinate independent carpools and rideshares in and out of the capital city thirty miles away, every day for over a year, under a much more exaggerated threat of violence and retribution.
I try my best to clarify and communicate the sense of time passing, of these not being immediate victories, especially when being absorbed for thefirst time by a generation of people for whom those delayed payoffs are even more abstract.
Aydin: This experience has shown me how little most of America knows about the Civil Rights Movement. I think if more people understood what truly happened, how it happened, America would be a more peaceful and more just place.
Nrama: Have you started work on Book Three yet?
Aydin: Yes, the work never stops. I'm working on a new draft of the script based on what we learned and how we grew as collaborators while creating Book Two. I think the work is also facing some additional pressure in light of the film Selma.
Powell: We never stop rolling. Working on the cover right now, as well as my own independent research and reading, while Andrew restructures and refines the earlier script for Book Three—many of those changes are based on collaborative details and new information that have emerged as we were finishing up and editing Book Two. It’s a living thing, one that keeps growing and changing as we do.
Nrama: How do you feel March will read once it is a complete work? The two books so far are very distinct from one another, but also have a feeling of a unified work.
Aydin: I think March will read as a complete story. Sure, it changes, it develops, but that's reflective of John Lewis' as a human being growing up and the movement itself over the time we are discussing.
Powell: We definitely want the individual volumes to have a separate feel and tone reflecting the shifts in strategy, philosophy, and culture at each point in time. It should read with plenty of darkness and levity, with boredom and disillusionment as well as inspiration and momentum. We’ll see when we get there.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Aydin: I'm going to continue serving on the Congressman's staff, maybe write a few stories here and there. I know I've got one big project on the horizon that I'm very excited about it, but we probably won't be able to announce anything until this summer at the earliest.
Powell: In May, Top Shelf is releasing You Don’t Say, which collects a bunch of shorter comics I did from 2004-2013, many of them unpublished or unavailable in English. Closer to wrapping up work on the March saga, I’ll be drawing a Dark Horse series with writer Van Jensen called Two Dead—there’ll probably be an announcement about it this summer.
As soon as March is finished, I’ll get back to work on my long-delayed solo book, Cover, which Top Shelf will publish in 2018. In between, I have some big pots cooking which I can’t discuss yet.