Cartoonist Nate Powell has been here before, signing comic books for his fans at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland.
The Bloomington-based artist hasn’t missed the annual alternative comics festival in a decade—but this year is different. This year there’s a line leading from a stack of his graphic novels out the ballroom door and down a wall of the hotel lobby. This year, he and his collaborators received a standing ovation during their panel presentation.
This year he’s standing next to, and signing his name beside the signature of, Rep. John Lewis.
John Lewis, the 13-term liberal congressman from Georgia. The youngest and now only living speaker from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago. The civil-rights icon. The co-writer of Powell’s latest graphic novel, March.
The slim volume is the first in a trilogy chronicling the 73-year-old congressman’s life. It details his days raising chickens as a boy, his role as leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, his witnessing the inauguration of the first black president, and all the marches, sit-ins, and arrests in between—the “getting into good trouble,” as Lewis calls it.
When it was released last month, the Washington Post wrote that March “should be stocked in every school and shelved at every library.” NPR declared that the novel was destined for a “place at the pinnacle of the comics canon.” It’s a New York Times best-seller.
“The reception has far exceeded my wildest expectations,” Powell says. “I’m very proud of the book, and I knew it was going to be the biggest book I’ve been a part of, but you sort of lose a little bit of perspective on the actual scope and scale of a book of this nature when you’re drawing it.”
Powell’s been drawing and self-publishing comics since he was 14, when his friend Mike showed him an X-Men comic with art by Arthur “Art” Adams in the early 1990s. The last couple of decades have seen Powell move from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Bloomington, create music with a punk band and his own record label, and, inspired by his brother (who has autism), work with adults who have developmental disabilities.
Throughout it all, he’s kept drawing comics, and in 2008, the success of his graphic novel Swallow Me Whole (which he both wrote and drew) allowed him to focus on drawing full-time. That book was published by Top Shelf Productions, a partnership that ultimately led him to illustrating the life of John Lewis.
The roots of how Lewis ended up writing a comic book memoir stretch back to 1958, 20 years before Powell was even born. That’s when Lewis first came across a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which he credits as one of his inspirations for joining the civil-rights movement.
That comic classic has since been translated into other languages, including Farsi, and used as inspiration for non-violent protests in South Africa, Uruguay, and Egypt’s Tahir Square.
In America, however, it’s remained shadowed in obscurity. In some ways, the relationship the United States has with comic books is still marred by the congressional “indecency” witch hunts of the 1950s and the geeky stigma many still associate with the medium.
Lewis brought the comic book to his staff’s attention about five years ago, when they teased a young staffer named Andrew Aydin for going to a comic book convention.
“'Don’t laugh,'” Aydin, who co-wrote March, recalls Lewis saying at the time. “’There was a comic book during the march.’ It sort of boggled my mind.”
Aydin eventually convinced the congressman that the two of them should pen a comic of their own.
Powell was brought on as the artist after drawing some sample pages. His expressive but dark and inky style had already been used to relate a smaller chapter of the civil rights struggle in the graphic novel The Silence of our Friends, as well as to illustrate some short stories that examined racism and power in America.
“Being a southerner, growing up in a white middle-class environment, it took until my late twenties before I was really comfortable enough to access what I felt I had to say about race, power, and violence,” Powell says. “It was time to put this on my palette of stuff that I’m interested in talking about.”
After signing on to do the book, Powell first met Lewis at last year’s Small Press Expo. The cartoonist joined the congressman on a pilgrimage to important civil-rights sights, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, where state troopers brutally shoved, beat, and gassed Lewis and other marchers on what is now known as “Bloody Sunday.” The intense buildup to the attack became the opening scene of March.
Through that trip and a whirlwind publicity tour this summer, Powell and Lewis have developed a “nice friendship,” the artist says.
“The big relief is that he is the genuine article,” Powell says. “It’s refreshing to know somebody that’s a career politician who is the real deal, who continues to fight the good fight. In general, he’s a fairly quiet, pretty easy-going guy who has a sort of hidden sense of humor. So you can kind of forget about this power and dynamism that comes out of him. I still get teary every time he gives a speech.”
After hours of signing copies of March at Top Shelf’s booth on the festival floor, Powell heads to his own signing table, where he’ll greet a much smaller stream of fans. Now that the publicity tour, the comic conventions, and the events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington are winding down, Powell’s focus will soon turn fully back to drawing. (Well nearly, anyway. He and his partner Rachel have a young daughter, so he does occasionally switch the ink bottle for a sippy cup.)
The second volume of March is scheduled for release in less than 18 months, and Powell says it’s longer, darker, and more brutal than the first. The pressure he already felt in bringing to life a true—and historically important—story is magnified by the success of March: Book One and the violent events he is now inking onto the pages of Book Two.
“It’s easy to forget that sense of pressure when you’re working, but with this story, once you get down to the nuts and bolts of the action, reaction, violence, resistance, it’s intense and harrowing even from my limited perspective of just drawing it,” Powell says. “I’m feeling it right now.”