March Proves Heroes Don’t Always Wear Capes

Veteran congressman and activist John Lewis tells his life story in a three-part graphic novel

john_lewis_march_booksIt’s a common lament this election season that there are no politicians with integrity, who actually believe in something and back it up with action. Overlooked in that judgment is John Lewis, the veteran congressman and civil rights activist—but, thanks to his autobiography, March, Lewis is drawing a new audience.

“Drawing” is an appropriate term: Rather than a ponderous tome, Lewis has told his story in a three-volume graphic novel that follows him from his Alabama childhood through his involvement in the civil rights movement, culminating in the 1963 March on Washington. Written with Andrew Aydin (plus illustrations from Nate Powell), the books have topped The New York Times best-seller list and March: Book Three has been nominated for a National Book Award.

The graphic novel format fits Lewis’ story perfectly, giving it both cinematic scope and humble scale. There is also a distinct sense of character—not just in Lewis’ transformation from a kid who raised chickens to leader of a nation-changing movement, but in the many other people he meets along his journey, from Dr. King and Malcolm X to lesser-known heroes such as Fannie Lou Hamer, as well as the farmers Lewis tries to register to vote.

Lewis seems moved not by ego or destiny, but by decency and a sense of fairness. When he must lead the March on Selma in the absence of Dr. King, the scene of Lewis packing his backpack and putting on his raincoat, knowing that he may never come back, has all the suspense of watching Professor Xavier prepare for a final battle against Magneto. The scene on the bridge, as voting rights marchers face off against police, is as vividly imagined as any climatic comic clash, though Lewis is fighting a battle for justice against a force of evil that is somehow both more prosaic and more terrifying than any alien/cyborg/mutant villain that Stan Lee could dream up.

At 76, the congressman shows no signs of slowing down. When Book One came out, Lewis attended Comic-Con, cosplaying as himself in his raincoat and backpack for an audience of stunned kids; in a recent appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, he jumped into the audience and crowd-surfed like a 20-something rock star. Earlier this year, Lewis co-led a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to demand a vote on gun control—House Speaker Paul Ryan threatened his colleagues with penalties if they didn’t move (Like that would scare John Lewis. Does Batman give a damn when someone says they’re gonna call the Penguin?)

In a time when many people think “fighting for justice” = “posting memes on Facebook,” John Lewis reminds us what it really means to change the world—and that any of us can.