Crafting the series was a new frontier for both men, neither of whom had written a comic book before. And yet the three volumes — collectively titled “March” and published between 2013 and 2016 — proved wildly successful. They earned the two authors, plus illustrator Nate Powell, an Eisner Award — considered the Pulitzer Prize of the comic book world — as well as a National Book Award. The trilogy is now required reading in schools across the country, and the writing duo is working on a forthcoming sequel series about Lewis’s 1986 run for Congress.
Aydin, 36, still seems a little shellshocked when he talks about the enormous and unexpected success of “March.” “It’s in so many schools now, but it was written by a kid who had no idea what he was doing,” he told me recently as we walked around Lewis’s office on Capitol Hill. He recalled going to comic book conventions just to buy copies of other writers’ scripts, and imitating their formatting for his own fledgling drafts.
The “March” books presented challenges for Powell, a celebrated graphic novelist in his own right. “Instead of making the words bend to my work, I needed to have my visual storytelling accommodate Congressman Lewis’s voice as is,” he recalls. (Powell — who two years ago authored a piece for a special issue of The Washington Post Magazine — is involved in the new series, called “Run,” but it will also be illustrated by Afua Richardson, who earned an Eisner for her work on “Black Panther: World of Wakanda.”)
Writing a graphic memoir isn’t something that most lawmakers and their aides do together, but Aydin and Lewis have a unique relationship for the Hill. Aydin says Lewis is like a father to him, a weighty statement for the son of a single mother who died not too long ago. “I hear his voice in my head all the time,” Aydin says. “It’s like having your dad in your brain.”
Aydin likened the writing process for “March” and “Run” to speechwriting, in that he tries to mimic the congressman’s speech patterns and his penchant for weighted silences. “He is very economical with his use of words,” Aydin said of his boss. “That negative space where you choose not to put words can say as much, if not more.”
While they were writing “March,” they would spend hours on the phone combing through Lewis’s memories of sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters and the Bloody Sunday attacks during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. Occasionally they’d even fall asleep while still on the phone. “It reminded me of when sometimes Martin Luther King Jr. would call me late at night and he would fall asleep, and then I would fall asleep,” Lewis told me. “We’d talk and talk.”
Both men drew inspiration for the project from the 1957 “Montgomery Story” comic book that Lewis read as a teen. (It sold for 10 cents a copy.) They also looked to successful graphic memoirs like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.”
Evan Narcisse, a journalist and co-author of Marvel’s “Rise of the Black Panther” series, places “March” alongside the “Montgomery Story” as a touchstone in the genre’s long history of presenting sociopolitical issues in digestible ways. In both subject matter and authorship, “March,” he says, is “a story where people from black and white backgrounds come together to achieve something.”
Aydin still works in Lewis's D.C. office, but he does his best writing at the farm outside Asheville, N.C., that he inherited from his mother. There, he alternates between mowing the lawn and writing — the mindlessness of operating a push mower helps him come up with creative ways to transition out of difficult scenes.
These days, Washington does not seem to hold much peace for Aydin. The amount of time he’s spent on developing and promoting “March” has put a strain on his relationship with his colleagues. Even in casual conversation he has a habit of jumping to defend his credentials and his role as a co-writer, even if no one is questioning them. He has the build of a jock from his daily pre-work runs, but the air of someone who did academic quiz bowls as an extracurricular in high school. He’s the nerd who made it.
His success has also led to something of a midcareer crisis. He’s far from his mail-opening days — his current title is digital director and policy adviser, and he’s tasked with developing tech and business policy initiatives as well as managing social media strategy — but his 13-year tenure with the same congressional office is something of an oddity on the Hill. He assumes that getting a job with another office would be difficult because of the success of “March.” Whether or not that’s true, politicians do typically want their staff focused on internal issues, not outside creative projects.
“I still have ambition,” Aydin says. “I still want to reach the next level, but I don’t quite know what my future looks like.” He says he’s been seriously considering moving to Georgia and running for political office himself.
Regardless of what his future holds, he’s already hard at work on the new series. The first of the new books will follow the contentious 1986 congressional campaign in which Lewis ran against and ultimately beat his close friend and fellow civil rights leader Julian Bond. Aydin says they are aiming for a fall 2020 publication.
For Lewis, the new series is a chance to take a trip back in time. “Sometimes it’s good to have the capacity to relive part of your life, when you were much younger and you had friends and comrades that were part of the same effort,” Lewis says. “And we’re happy to inspire another generation.” For Aydin, it’s a chance to reach a new audience, to tell another story, to be, in his own way, a comic book hero like the ones he grew up reading about. “I’m trying to keep my energy level up,” he says. “It’s sort of superhuman.”
Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and culture reporter for WAMU-FM (88.5).