The first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning landmark “Maus” landed 30 years ago, and ever since, I’ve wondered when I would encounter another epic historical memoir that, in stirring word and stark picture, might achieve some of the same power as that game-changing graphic novel.
The closest American peer I’ve found to “Maus” has arrived. The final volume of Rep. John Lewis’s “March” trilogy is a milestone. This work is the last movement in Lewis’s personal symphony of civil-rights memories. Lewis might be a nonviolent protester, but in terms of delivering drama, the hero packs quite a punch.
This summer, when the congressman led a House Democratic sit-in over gun control, Lewis’s book collaborator and artist Nate Powell said, “I love it when he speaks about ‘dramatizing the situation.’ ” Powell was referring to Lewis’s gift for magnifying aspects of a conflict to provide a concrete sense of what is at stake. That might as well have been a guiding creative credo for every volume of “March,” each one illustrated by Powell and co-written by Lewis and his comics-loving staffer, digital director Andrew Aydin.
Last month, the second installment in this gripping trilogy received the Eisner Award — the nearest thing to an Oscar for comics — for Best Reality-Based Work. This month, the even-more-accomplished “March: Book Three” culminates the mid-’60s drama that spans from Albany to Alabama.
What the authors achieve with this conclusion is a window into living history that could not resonate more deeply in a year of political conventions against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and its many battle lines of engagement.
What “March: Book Three” does even more deftly than its predecessors in the series is to spotlight a range of crucial characters who loom as large as life on the printed page. They personify years of conflict in the Deep South and official Washington. These figures include:
● Jim Clark, the brutal, health-addled segregationist sheriff of Dallas County, Ala., who, Lewis writes, “was made all the more dangerous by the sundry gang of white men he deputized for the sole purpose of doing whatever it took to stop black people from voting.”
● Bob Moses and Al Lowenstein, the black Harvard graduate and the white former Stanford University dean who teamed up in Mississippi to hold a mock election — a “freedom vote” modeled after that of South African activists.
● Fannie Lou Hamer, the arrested and severely beaten SNCC activist whose heart-rending televised testimony not even LBJ could fully silence. Lewis calls her effectively “the soul of the Mississippi movement.”
Then there are two men who need no introduction, but do require contextualizing within the book’s flow and focus:
● President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose role as civil-rights champion and/or hindrance is debated to this day, is viewed as the ultimate horse-trading politician, trying to halt protests and slow the movement until the wheels of Washington can catch up.
● And Malcolm X, whose chance encounter with Lewis at a Nairobi hotel provides one of most historically striking — and heretofore lesser-known — episodes in “Book Three.”
Those figures, as well as everyone from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Barry Goldwater, illuminate the roiling conflicts of the era — all deftly connected through Lewis’s deeply felt narrative as a leader not always in lockstep with his SNCC friends and colleagues.
“March: Book Three” is the set’s most ambitious book in terms of packing some panels with facts, names, dates and locations. But such details, even when they slow the narrative’s march by a step or two, are crucial to include. This is, after all, a book whose readership includes students born in this millennium, so “March” will introduce many to the roots of the movement. (Another deliberate editorial choice: Including the occasional racist slur or profanity for full, accurate impact; this isn’t meant to be primary-school content.)
Yet in terms of timeliness, the book’s social echoes to today toll as loud as a Southern Baptist church bell. Convention speeches and presidential politics in tumultuous times — and the sense of a decade’s crucible forging change amid spilled blood — give Lewis’s vivid recollections a relevance undimmed by the decades. And the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis led that March 1965 protest into the maw of Jim Clark’s barbaric violence, looms like another character in these pages. The “March” trilogy is essentially bookended by the Pettus Bridge events, which sparked enough outrage to lead to the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
Powell saves his highest artistic achievement for the book’s climax. First, we get a vertigo-inducing viewpoint from the marchers atop the span. We are there. Looking down upon the deputized attackers and into the distance at a would-be promised land, the perspective itself “dramatizes the situation.” And when a beaten Lewis is felled and thinks he “sees death,” the scene becomes an eerie fever-dream of blanched surreality.
This is, flat out, some of the most immersive graphic-novel art I’ve experienced in years.
Who knows whether Team “March” will continue its literary journey past 1965? For now, I won’t get greedy as a reader.
“March,” the full trilogy, should be shelved in every school library across the land as towering achievement. Right next to, of course, “Maus.”
Michael Cavna is the creator of Comic Riffs.
By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin
Illustrated by Nate Powell
Top Shelf. 256 pp. $19.99