Drawing on Lewis’ history

By Bill Castanier

Graphic novel illustrator recreates life of civil rights hero in comic form

There are no capes, masks or superhuman abilities in the graphic novel “March: Book One.” But there is a hero: Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, 73, the book’s co-author. “March: Book One” is the first part of a three-volume set illustrated by Nate Powell, who visits East Lansing on Friday for a book signing at Hollow Mountain Comics.

Powell’s appearance is part of the Michigan State University Comics Forum 2014 (see story below).

Powell, 35, calls working on “March” a “transformative experience.” He said he sees this graphic novel as part of the sense of connectivity to the past. Powell, an Eisner Award winner — the highest honor in the comics world —said the goal of the book was to “create a sense of realness and a connection to a recent past that many younger people have forgotten.” (To that end, the book’s publisher, Top Shelf Productions, released a comprehensive teachers guide to “March” last week for grades 6-12.)

Powell said he started drawing at age 3; in fifth or sixth grade he began drawing comics and in the 9th grade he published his first comic book.

“I’ve been pursuing my passion for 24 years,” Powell said by phone from his home in Bloomington, Ind. “I know how lucky I am and how rare it is to be able to that.”

The first volume of “March” tells the story of Lewis’ childhood in rural Georgia through his ascension to a youth minister and a leader in the 1960 Nashville sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters. Later volumes will tell the story of his leadership in the Freedom Rides, his role as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and, when he was 23, rising to the podium as the youngest speaker at the August 1963 March on Washington.

“March” depicts in graphic detail the brutality suffered by civil rights protesters. “Book One” begins with a flashback to the March 7, 1965, clash between 600 peaceful protesters and Alabama police — an event that came to be called Bloody Sunday — where Lewis suffered a skull fracture after being beaten by state troopers. Powell said the site of that beating, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., was the first place he visited with Lewis when he was selected as the illustrator for the series. Born and raised in the South, Powell said he had knowledge of who Lewis was, but that he “took it for granted.”

“Then, I realized (Lewis) was the guy in every photo,” Powell said. “Today, the concept of uniformed government employees beating citizens in open view seems surreal.”

In strong black and white images with dramatic shading, Powell tells the story of Lewis’ early life in a powerful way.

“I wanted to find the space (in images) to explore the emotional qualities of John Lewis,” he said. “I tried to not pull any punches with any of the violent scenes. I needed to illustrate them respectfully, but accurately.”

One of his most disturbing illustrations depicts the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American youth who was viciously beaten and shot for talking to a white woman. But Powell balances the tragedy with lighter material, including a meta scene when Lewis defends a staff member’s visit to a comic convention. In the comic, Lewis’ character points out that it was a comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” that helped inspire his early passion in the civil rights movement.

That might be Powell’s way of pointing out that the “are comics literature?” debate is settled: Yes they are.

In-store signing with Nate Powell

Part of the MSU Comics Forum 2014 5-6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21 Hollow Mountain Comics and Games 611 E. Grand River Ave., East Lansing comicsforum.msu.edu

MSU Comics Forum welcomes acclaimed graphic novelist Stan Sakai

by Jonathan Griffith

For seven years, the MSU Comics Forum has attracted comic book writers, artists, scholars and enthusiasts from around the world to East Lansing, celebrating noteworthy comics, graphic storytelling and sequential art. All events are free and open to the public.

The three-day event starts at 7 p.m. Thursday, when the MSU Library holds a screening and discussion of the documentary “Naji al-

Ali: An Artist with Vision.” Al-Ali, a Palestinian cartoonist who was assassinated in 1987, is best known for his creation "Handala," which became the symbol for Palestinian defiance.

Acclaimed comic book creator Stan Sakai will give the keynote speech at 7 p.m. Friday in the Resident College in the Arts & Humanities Theatre, 362 Bogue St., East Lansing in MSU’s Snyder-Phillips Hall. Sakai, 60, is best known for his tale of Usagi Yojimbo, an anthropomorphic rabbit ronin. Sakai has earned numerous awards, including several Eisners, in his 30-year career in comics. His most recent work is “47 Ronin,” a graphic novel adaptation of one of Japans best-known tales.

"Were really lucky to have him this year," said Ryan Claytor, the event’s director. “The forum is growing every year, and this year we have the most artists yet.”

On Saturday, the forum concludes with several panels covering the history of comics. For those looking for something a little more interactive, there will also be the Artist’s Alley in Lookout! Gallery and the surrounding classrooms. Sakai will be there with other industry veterans and relative newcomers.

And until the end of the month, the Lookout! Gallery in Snyder-Phillips will exhibit pieces from the MSU Comic Art Collection, with a focus on items from its Asian comic collection.