Artists on the Front Lines

I CAN’T QUITE TELL, as I stare at the armed and deputized white racists way down below, whether artist Nate Powell has been building toward this eye-popping scene himself — steadying his nerve across years — or whether he generously has been building the story up to this staggering visual pinnacle all along, saving it entirely for our sake.

Either way, the climb has been sublime: After hundreds of pages across several volumes in the Eisner Award-winning “March” trilogy, we are rewarded with an image that is as immersive as a mountaintop.

Nearing the 200-page mark in “March: Book Three” (Top Shelf/IDW), which hits shelves Tuesday, Powell provides a view from atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” near Selma, Ala., in 1965. The scene is the climactic apex in Rep. John Lewis’s civil rights memoir forcefully told in graphic-novel form. We, the reader, are standing with the nonviolent marchers, 600-strong, while at the foot of the Pettus is brutal Sheriff Jim Clark and his maw of waiting men, perched like the horsemen of a corrupt and murderous system. The bridge’s decline feels steep, and the panel’s sweep feels about as cinematic as a printed page can.

In word and in image, Lewis, Powell and co-author Andrew Aydin have successfully hit a literary height — one of the most engrossing, white-knuckle wide-shots I’ve seen in comics in years.

Yet then, Powell has one more artistic feat to unfurl. The Selma march effectively bookends the entire trilogy, so we know that young John Lewis will be beaten by a trooper. Soon enough, we are submerged into the bloody clash as batons are swung, skulls are cracked and tear gas canisters clink and hiss.

Then comes one of the series’ most gripping images: Lewis is in close-up on the ground, in a pool of his own blood, wispy dialogue balloons rendering his words indecipherable until the first-person narrative of recollection …

“I thought I was going to die.”

As Lewis wills himself to get up, the dark, foreboding tints are bleached out and blanched. In Powell’s stunning near-photo-negative effect, we suddenly are placed within Lewis’s hazy point of view — a surreal scene of the senses that itself seems to smokily float somewhere between life and death.

This scene, over just a couple-dozen pages, is a jaw-dropper in an entire trilogy that rattles you viscerally even as it propels you visually.

In illustrating a must-read history book, Powell has also provided a graphic novelist’s textbook.

Just gaze at the grids: Powell’s sophisticated page layouts work precisely in tandem with the story — steady and even grids as the movement gains traction; jagged panels when conflict breaks out; and clean, borderless, open spaces when scenes need room to breathe, or we’re being transported narratively and spatially to a fresh setting.

After more than five years of rendering such scenes, Powell has a noir artist’s easy command of chiaroscuro. Burning crosses scorch our senses; the cover of darkness in a Mississippi Burning-season of violence also blankets the scene like profound fear. And lush gray washes provide a depth that evokes historical photographs of the era.

At this point, I’m not sure what scene or angle Powell can’t render. He captures the lazy hang of rural power lines; he unfolds the long, high sweep in convention-hall ceilings; and his camera deftly moves from emotional close-ups to mood-establishing long shots. He conveys both inauguration-month chill and the swelter of a Southern Freedom Summer. He even has the audacity to render massive throngs of people with a devotion that approaches the feel of photorealism.

And then there is the opening scene in “Book Three,” which had me feeling pangs of mourning even before I could reach the title page, as we’re choked back by the sooty plumage and dark foreboding of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls. Not even a dozen pages in, and Powell’s ability to render the claustrophobia of ’60s racism has reached to our very hearts.

“March: Book Three” is an achievement on many fronts, including a narrative that builds like the arc of a long bridge. And among the highest accomplishments here is profoundly virtuosic art that measures up to the content of the characters, and the import of the story.

After nearly six years, it’s time to take that bow, Mr. Powell.