For our January Reading into History Family Book Club, we are honoring the civil rights movement and the late John Lewis by discussing the graphic novel March: Book One. We chatted with co-author Andrew Aydin about how he convinced Congressman Lewis to tackle this project, what comic books meant to Andrew (and to the civil rights movement), and how March helped create a climate for change.
Andrew will join us for our book club meeting and we’re looking forward to discussing even more with him and you on Sunday, January 17, at 2 pm ET. Please join us via Zoom to chat with him yourself!
How did you become a co-author for the March trilogy? What was it like working with Congressman John Lewis?
It was the summer of 2008 and I was serving as Congressman Lewis’ press secretary on his reelection campaign. One of the big questions we were facing was how do we tell people who he is?
I grew up in Atlanta in John Lewis’ district, and he had been my congressman since I was three years old. Yet no one told me about the role of young people in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the civil rights movement! It was always a story of “gods and kings”—President Johnson vs Dr. King, those sort of things. But on the campaign trail, I would hear John Lewis telling his stories to young people, and it really opened my eyes. This was a story I should have been taught in school! Because this was the most powerful example of young people directly affecting the laws we all agree to abide by.
On the campaign, we kept talking about how to tell Lewis’ story. We had him on YouTube and Facebook by that point—that was my role—but then I suggested that he write a comic book. I will never forget the silence in that room as everyone slowly turned their heads. The congressman looked at me, nodded a little bit, and said, “Well, maybe.” And everyone moved on.
To me, comics were always my refuge. It was where I read stories about people who were doing the right thing. I was raised by a single mother—my Turkish Muslim immigrant father left when I was very young—and comics were a vehicle for escape, for understanding a better version of our society.
One day, staff were talking about what they would do after the campaign—going to see their parents, the beach, etc.—and I said I was going to a comic book convention. Everyone laughed at me—“what a nerd.” This was a room full of very serious people. But the congressman said “Don’t laugh, there was a comic book in the movement that was very influential. It was called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.”
I went home that night and looked it up on the internet, and it was beautiful. It was an introduction to Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and to nonviolent civil disobedience. I remember sitting there that night after reading it and thinking, why isn’t there a John Lewis comic book? For real. This was something Dr. King had used to further his goals immediately after the Montgomery bus boycott. If John Lewis is trying to tell his own story, and introduce the new generation to nonviolent civil disobedience, why wouldn’t he take that lesson from his mentor and do the same thing?
So I just kept pushing. Sometimes I can get stubborn. For the rest of the campaign, every time this issue came up, I would suggest it. Finally, the Congressman and I were campaigning with a group of volunteers in southwest Atlanta near his house. The only two things John Lewis was afraid of in this world were snakes and thunderstorms. We were on the side of the road and we heard a crack of thunder, no rain yet. And John Lewis just bolted for the car – this is a 68-year-old man, hauling butt down the side of the road! He dives into the car just before the rain starts and we all join him. We’re all sitting together, waiting, in the car with the rain beating down on the roof, and one of the volunteers told me, “Ask him again, ask him again.” And Lewis said “Ask me what?” So I said “Congressman, I really think you should do a comic book.” He replied, “Well okay, but only if you write it with me.”
What primary sources were important in writing the books?
There were a lot of sources! I’m down in my basement and have my whole research archives, just boxes and boxes of stuff. A lot of our research came from CRMVET.org, a website run by civil rights movement veterans who have done a spectacular job of digitizing, categorizing, and archiving their individual records and primary source documents. Congressman Lewis had written his own memoir by this point, but we knew for March a range of primary sources were especially important. We were looking for dialog and scene setting moments, to know who was present.
We ended up using walk-line reports, after-action reports, and quotes from The Student Voice, the SNCC publication. The thing that was so surprising to me is how much historical versions disagree. Historian Taylor Branch’s version is different from John Lewis’s version, which is different from journalist Diane McWhorter’s, which was different from journalist David Halberstam’s. We had to do a lot of work to compare all these narratives. And then go back to John Lewis and say “This is what they all say—what do you remember?” We would take his memories and evaluate the primary sources, so we could put together what we hoped would be the most accurate possible account using the visual medium.
How did illustrator Nate Powell fit into the collaboration and what was the process like for the three of you?
Well, we needed to get very close and that was a challenge. The congressman had a day job; Nate had just had his first child when we started this; and I was still full time staff as the congressman’s social media director. We were all working on these crazy schedules.
Nate had the hardest job of all because he had to understand this human being from a distance and illustrate his life. Nate met the congressman twice during Book One. Nate would have questions, so I would slip them to Lewis throughout the day, in an elevator, late night on a call, at events all over the country. As time went on, the three of us were more relaxed and we knew what we wanted to say. I think that’s why you see the third book won so many awards—because by then we were firing on all cylinders.
At certain points in the books, the n-word is used. How and why was the decision made to keep such explicit and derogatory language in the books?
Well, it was an easy decision to include the n-word because that’s what they said! Those were their words and that’s the history. The congressman’s feeling was—we need to tell the whole story and we don’t need to sweep anything under the rug. If we don’t confront the historical use of the n-word, then people aren’t going to fully understand the connotations of their actions when they use it.
We wanted to create a real and vivid picture, not tinted one way or the other. There are people who want to put Lewis on a pedestal and present a homogenized version of the past, similar to what they do with Dr. King’s legacy. John Lewis refused that. We refused that. If you aren’t authentic, people can tell. We had to be truthful with every step of the process.
What was most challenging about the project? What was most gratifying?
The most challenging part was convincing people that this was a project of substance. In the early days, people thought we were out of our minds. Especially once we started going to comic book conventions—people felt this was not dignified for Congressman Lewis. And I was the guy who enabled it! That constant negativity was incredibly difficult. Some people only want to hear about “quiet John Lewis.” And that side did exist! It is why he was so effective in Congress—he could bring a moral voice. But when he was really enjoying his life—he was the John Lewis who was in the streets, creating drama, and stirring up good trouble.
These challenges set up the gratification – the awards March won and what they mean to us. The first book we worked on for four years and people said I was nuts, and then March debuted at no. 1 on New York Times bestseller list. I’ll never forget, we were standing in the office and our publisher called to tell us the news. The congressman had just come from a television interview and had a full face of makeup. And when he got the news, he just started crying and buried his face in my chest, and we’re hugging and we’re both crying. When he pulls back—because his face is all wet with tears—there is a full makeup version of John Lewis printed on my shirt! And he says “I’ll get you a new shirt!” I said, “Sir, we’re no. 1 on New York Times, I don’t care about the shirt!”
Within a year or two of March being taught nationwide, we have a generation that is very well versed in civil disobedience. They are not afraid to get out and march in the streets. That goal was underneath everything that we were trying to do. I think John Lewis played a pivotal role in creating the climate for change.
Do you have any advice for our young readers, who may be aspiring writers, illustrators, or politicians themselves?
Never give up. If people are laughing at you, it means you’re probably doing something right.
Thank you Andrew!
Families, we hope to see you Sunday, January 17, at 2pm for our Reading into History book club to discuss March: Book One and chat with Andrew.