Democracy Dies in Darkness

Comic Riffs

Rep. John Lewis's National Book Award win is a milestone moment for graphic novels

By Michael Cavna

November 17, 2016 at 8:30 AM

A scene from the “March” trilogy. (courtesy of Top Shelf)

"THREE" at last: A graphic novel has finally broken through.

"March: Book Three," the third installment in Rep. John Lewis's powerful civil rights memoir, received the National Book Award on Wednesday evening in Manhattan.

Five times before, a graphic novel had been named a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature — beginning with Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese" a decade ago. Yang, now the Library of Congress's national ambassador for Young People's Literature (and a 2016 MacArthur grant recipient), repeated that feat three years ago with "Boxers & Saints."

David Small's "Stitches" and Noelle Stevenson's "Nimona" also have been finalists. Yet this year, the building achievement that is "March" could not be denied the ultimate prize.

Related: [‘March: Book Three’ rises to the historic occasion]

The trilogy, anchored by the 1965 march on Selma, is authored by Lewis, Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell. The Eisner-winning project was started because Aydin, the digital director in Rep. Lewis's office, was a comic-book fan — a passion deeply appreciated by his boss. Sixty years earlier, a teenage John Lewis was inspired to follow a life of nonviolent protest after reading a comic about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and "the Montgomery story."

"When they called our names, I couldn't help it — I just started crying," Aydin tells The Washington Post's Comic Riffs of Wednesday's ceremony. "I cried for all of those whose story we have been able to bring into the light. I cried for all of the comics I've loved and been inspired by, and the creators whose shoulders we stood upon to be able to receive this honor."

Aydin has noted often that when Rep. Lewis was an adolescent, Congress was actively trying to crack down on the content in comic books — a '50s overreaction that crippled the industry for years.

“March: Book Three.” (courtesy of IDW Publishing / Top Shelf Productions 2016)

Now, "March" officially takes its place on the shelf of landmark graphic-novel memoirs, alongside such works as "Persepolis" and the Pulitzer-winning "Maus."

"I'm humbled, moved, and emboldened to continue to write and create," Aydin says, "and to take unconventional paths to achieve important progress."

For complete coverage of the 2016 National Book Awards, click here.

Read more:

Congressman John Lewis, Colson Whitehead win National Book Awards

'March: Book Three': profoundly virtuosic art that measures up to the content of the characters

THE TRIAL BALLOON: O teachers, after a banner year for graphic novels, don't ban these books

Authors Nate Powell, Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin stand several years ago at the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, Ala. (Photo courtesy of the authors)

Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.

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