Correcting The Record: Nate Powell & Andrew Aydin Talk ‘March: Book Two’ [Interview]
March: Book One was easily one of the best graphic novels of 2013. Not only did it begin a story of immense historical consequence– the mid-20th Century fight for civil rights in the American South– it also told that story from a strong, personal perspective. That perspective came from U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who serves as the reader’s guide through some very weighty material.
Now, the pressure’s on. Lewis, his co-writer Andrew Aydin, and artist Nate Powell are getting set to release March: Book Two in early 2015, and their challenge is to follow up a lauded text — one that’s been used in a good many classrooms since publication — with a second chapter that gets more violent and shows just how difficult the struggle for civil rights really was.
ComicsAlliance chatted with Powell and Aydin for a few moments at Comic-Con International in San Diego to talk about that challenge, the difficulties of depicting such intense violence, and creating what’s being regarded as an official historical text.
ComicsAlliance: March: Book One ended with a buildup to darker stuff coming. It’s all historical, so we know what it is and we know that Book Two is heading toward the big march on Washington in 1963. Was the collaborative process on Book Two different than Book One? Did the more intense stuff of Book Two change your process?
Nate Powell: In general yeah, it was a different process for Book Two. We’re using the same collaborative template, but we essentially worked out a lot of creative kinks in Book One. We figured out, during the process of Book One, how to actually make a creation, a work that was a proper balance of the three creators. By the time Book Two rolled around, I feel like we had really reached a cohesive way of telling the story and a cohesive way of running ideas and questions back and forth to each other.
In terms of content, it’s interesting, in history and reflected in the book, in terms of watching how, increasing pressure on the side of of the people, of justice, might be minute but is responded to with exponential opposition. Even small movements forward are countered with relatively extreme measures against it. So that is essentially one of the main themes of Book Two, really bringing to attention how quickly things get thrown out of control once small gains have been made.
CA: One thing I think is really interesting about Book One is how personal of a story it seems to be about John Lewis. That comes through in your art as well as the words. Do you have a lot of direct contact with John Lewis in the making of the book, or is there a translation process?
NP: Sometimes, it’s both. In my day-to-day activity at the drawing table in Indiana, while Andrew and the congressman are in DC, I’m in touch with Andrew every day. He works with the congressman every day. There is usually a game of telephone then. I talk on the phone with congressman every once in a while, and whenever we’re traveling to do events for March, we get a good amount of face-to-face time.
For six months straight, we were doing an event every weekend or every other weekend. Whenever we do have a little time and I have some questions that usually relate to his crystalline memory, then I need to get clarified on the spot. I save those for in-person moments. I definitely scour his memoir and compare that to other documents and books. I do a lot of Google image searches, and whenever we find inconsistencies in other records, that’s when the three of us put our heads together to get to the bottom of it.
It’s been really weird to recognize that Book Two in particular actually rights a couple of historical errors that have slipped into other books that we’ve noticed along the way. We were like, what!? I guess March is going to iron this out. [laughs]
CA: From the sound of it, you guys are taking almost no artistic license here. You’re trying to be as factual as possible.
NP: That’s really the only way to do it and from my perspective as the artist. The challenge is trying to maintain, not only the level of accuracy, but the level of responsibility since you’re dealing with hundreds of recognizable historical figures, with many of them still alive.
Trying to balance that with the trippy, internal emotional storytelling is part of the skillset that I bring to the project. In Book One, I feel that’s what really drew me to John Lewis as a person as well as a character in his story. Feeling this kindred spirit with the way he perceived the world and the gravity in which he perceived it, even as a child. Drawing out those moments that don’t have to do with facts, places and movements of people, but what’s happening inside his head, his emotional state especially when he was just developing the language to interpret the world around him before he left home as a kid. It’s a balancing act all the time.
In Book Two, we’ve got Kennedys, President Obama and Aretha Franklin. The stakes are certainly increased from the side of erring for responsibility, for accuracy. And at the same time, there are certain things that we’re never be able to get a clear answer on, historically speaking. Speaking for myself, I feel like i’ve developed a little bit of a filter to be able to recognize when that’s going to happen, and take enough artistic license to convey the scene without really sweating some of the details. It’s weird, I could easily make a chart that would cover my entire wall just to make sure I know when which freedom riders on which buses on which days and what’s happening to them. I’ve almost done that a few times because it’s getting pretty complicated.
CA: You mentioned all the historical figures that appear. There were quite a few in Book One and I imagine even more in Book Two. How much do you have to fight the urge to do caricatures? Your characters are not exaggerated, but they’re recognizable. Did you have to pull yourself back a few times to make sure that were not doing caricature?
NP: Doing representations of real people is not my strongpoint as a visual artist and I know that. That’s a particular, challenging element of drawing this book.
The way I’ve been able to find a good balance that’ll enable me to move through the project and school myself along the way is when a new historical figure is introduced into the scene, and I need to develop a way to continue drawing them hundreds of times, I spend a little while drawing them based on photo references I have so I develop, not a shorthand, but a means by which I can represent them visually. Once I get that into something that’s consistent, and something I feel is representative of them, I usually will keep a photo of them on my wall of the drawing table. I try to refer to my sketches as the new master template for their likeness. So I don’t feel necessarily beholden to their photographic likeness as much.
CA: You make a model sheet.
NP: Yes. I feel it takes a lot of the pressure off and it allows you to utilize the fundamentals of caricature without actually making caricatures.
CA: You mentioned Obama appearing, and there’s a frame story in Book One where congressman Lewis is going to the inauguration. Having that frame story in there, it allowed us to see the then and the now and gave us more of a personal look into John Lewis. We saw him as he is now as an older man and then as a kid.
What personal stuff can we see about John Lewis here? The historical events are huge in this. but I’m interested in seeing more of the personal side, too.
NP: Of course. Book Two generally covers him from age 21 through age 23. So what is essential here is remembering and what’s so shocking and amazing about all of this is recognizing that when you’re dealing with freedom riders or these activists secretly and illegally imprisoned in a rural Mississippi for four weeks, when you see John Lewis, he’s a 23-year-old speaking at the march on Washington.
I’ll be 36 years old next week, so I’m like, “Wow. These people were two-thirds my age and they’re doing this with their lives since age 18, 19 or 20. This is the path that they set out for themselves.” What’s reassuring and refreshing is knowing that a lot of the stuff that you felt and that you experienced as a 20-year old-translates. People are going to be going through those same crises, even while they’re pushing themselves through something much more concrete, political, worldly and relevant.
In Book Two, a lot of it is to take a Star Wars/Joseph Campbell breakdown of it. This is a journey of John Lewis as a young man finding himself a little estranged from his family and pouring himself into Nashville and his peers as his new family of sorts, that’s the way I take it. That’s kind of the way he opens up Book Two.
He feels very passionately about what he’s doing but also feels very passionately about the people how he finds himself surrounded by. You get a very strong sense of a family relationship and a kindredness, a brotherhood/sisterhood. And as the plot thickens, as the stakes increase, any sense of betrayal or any political or personal compromises might come as a result of trying to navigate how to bring about this massive social change. I feel like, on the personal side, those senses of betrayal and challenge are magnified as well, especially when you’re near the center of a massive movement with millions of people it’s still these 20 or 50 people you find yourself most closely surrounded by, who are affecting you in the same way your closest friends are effecting you. I feel like the personal relationships near the center of John Lewis’ circle still remain the heart of the book.
CA: One thing Book Two has that Book One only had in a limited amount is some really stark, disturbing depictions of violence. There’s a massacre that occurs. Can you tell me about the experience of drawing those scenes and figuring out a way to depict those events without being salacious?
NP: It was tricky, because I’m a comics lover and a comics artist. So many of us, we grow up entrenched in comic book violence. Drawing this trilogy has certainly challenged and confronted my conceptions of violence and has kind of re-sensitized me to it.
Book Two is downright brutal. As a side note. I’m very interested to see how Book Two is going to be received or treated in institutional settings–libraries and schools–for that reason. It’s actually brutal. It seems stupid to say it takes its toll on me because i’m sitting here drawing it, but it’s unavoidable. I spent an entire week drawing the Montgomery Greyhound Station massacre and I was just messed up for about 10 days.
Particularly, people I know, a friend of mine and people i’ve had dinner with, I’m putting real faces to these characters from when they were my age. That’s disturbing in one light.
Also, recognizing that for not just the victims, the activists who are victims to this violence, but innocent bystanders recognizing the sheer injustice of this and feeling for them.
The most disturbing thing is recognizing that the perpetrators of the violence in some cases are your grandparents or your parents or your neighbors. That’s not an exaggeration. I’m saying this as an Arkansan with a Mississippian family. That’s just true in some cases. I’m not saying it’s true in my particular case, but it’s broadly applied. The most disturbing thing so far is an unconscious Jim Zwerg, one of the freedom riders, whose head is being held between the knees of a white supremacist assaulter as he is encouraging his toddler son to claw Jim Zwerg’s eyes out. This toddler. And the toddler’s mom is cheering him on, too. Not only getting into that mentality, but as a dad of a two year old, just having such complex and awful feelings about the conditions which enable a parent to encourage their child to do this and then having that kid live with that memory. Obviously, it’s hideous violence and abuse against the victim, but it’s a horrible abuse against an innocent child to have to possibly be a fuckup for the rest of their lives and grow up to be an asshole. But maybe not? And just be like, I did the worst thing in my life when I was two years old.
CA: At the very least, they’re going to have to deal with the guilt of having done that forever.
NP: How do you explain that to someone? We’re living in a very interesting time now, in that the pressure is on to tell this story with no punches pulled, because a lot of these people are passing away before our very eyes. But to reflect on the fact that yeah, a four year old is assaulting a man in broad daylight encouraged by his parents with no repercussions whatsoever. Knowing that person is an adult out there somewhere, living with that reality. I’m sure there are hundreds of people who are in that position. Yeah, theres a lot of weight and gravity to drawing each of these pages. But certainly not the gravity that compares with living it.
CA: To pivot from that dark note, occasionally you get a great Comic-Con story. Just before we started the interview you told me a great Comic-Con story that has nothing to do with March.
NP: After the Eisner awards, we were taking it easy and I was getting ready to go to bed. I’m a dad. It was already 10:30. It’s bed time. We got a message from one of our friends who told us about this secret show. I thought there was no way anyone could get in, but they didn’t check a list or anything. To cut to the chase, this is my life’s dream fulfilled.
Team March found ourselves in a very small, 200 person venue. It was an Exodus show, but we got there as Exodus was finishing and we got to see this supergroup that was Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo from Metallica, and the singer and guitar player from Exodus, the drummer from Jane’s Addiction and the bass player/singer from King’s X. They covered songs from the first two Metallica albums, Zeppelin, Ozzy, Sabbath, Hendrix, Priest and then at the end they were like, all right, fuck it you guys, we’re going to do a nine minute version of “Jungle Boogie.” It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. My 12 year old self met my 36 year old self and just high fived itself in a dingy club underneath San Diego. I’m a very happy fellow.
ComicsAlliance: March: Book Two really escalates things from Book One as far as the intensity, the amount of violence that happens. There are going to be some very dark scenes in this book. How did you, along with Congressman Lewis, strike a balance of not making the book too violent but also showing accurately what occurred?
Andrew Aydin: For all of us, when we went through his book, there was an emotional toll. When you consider the actions of the people you’re trying to depict, when it come down to how you represent that on the page, oftentimes your first thought has much more to do with honoring their legacy than the balance between violence and story. I think that’s what made Book One unique. This period of time we’re dealing with is extraordinarily shocking to the conscience. You saw it when we tweeted a couple of weeks ago, the mug shot from Jackson, where people we’re shocked he got arrested for going into a white restroom, then had to spend 37 days in a penitentiary.
As much as the violence is shocking, sometimes the actions themselves are more shocking. So when it comes to how we depict the violence, it’s lightened in a sense by the heroism of these individuals and the courage they demonstrated. It sort of finds its own natural balance.
53 yrs ago today I was released from Parchman Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson for using “white” restroom pic.twitter.com/9QAI4voo1M
— John Lewis (@repjohnlewis) July 7, 2014
CA: As you look at what happens in this book, it’s hard to not see the people who are perpetrating this violence or pushing back against the movement as purely evil and purely bad. I get the sense that Congressman Lewis doesn’t hate those people. In depicting it in a book, how do you show those characters and actions without making those people seem purely bad? For a lot of people, these are their parents and grandparents. How do you do that?
AA: I think you see a number of character developments over the course of the arc. First, part of the reason so many people behaved this way is because they were scared. They were scared of losing their way of life. They were scared of having competition for jobs, they were scared of just not having a secure place in their own society they once believed they had. And it’s something I think you see today. You see it with the immigration, even with President Obama in this multiracial coalition that exists in government in some places. So that fear is something that translates universally because it’s so present today.
Our job is not necessarily to make them look evil, but to show what they did and why they did it. Just tell the history. The judgements can be made later. Anybody looking at that period of time understands that you’re dealing with a century of societal baggage informing their decision making. I think in the long run, and part of reason we framed the entire trilogy from today’s perspective, is that it gives that arc. Because even Elwin Wilson, who will be shown beating congressmen Lewis in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1961 during the freedom rides, came to the congressman and March of 2009 and apologized to him for that. By casting it in that relief, showing inauguration day, by showing that change does happen, I think you’re giving a clear-cut path for understanding that people didn’t grow up hating anybody. They were taught to hate and that given time and the opportunity, they can let that hate go.
CA: I want to talk about pacing and how you paced this story. Book One covered roughly twenty years, from childhood to adulthood. Book Two slows things down. We still have the frame story in the present but as far as the parts that take place in the past, we’re covering maybe two years at most. Two very eventful years.
A lot of times when you’re talking about history, people have a tendency to rush through it. Certainly, having the person that lived that history helping to tell the story or giving you the building blocks for the story, helps with that. How did you determine that this is the period in which this book takes place, culminating with the march on Washington?
AA: I’ll use an example. There’s two shows about politics that most people have watched: The West Wing and House of Cards. House of Cards he moves up really fast. It throws people under the train, in that case. In The West Wing, there’s a tremendous respect for process. I grew up on The West Wing, and I have a tremendous respect for the process. So when we laid this out, we are trying to show how this change came about. So when we set about to pace it ,and decide what was going to take place or in what period of time these books would take place, it was very much with an eye towards respecting that process, so that each story has a lesson.
This one begins with a continuation of desegregation and efforts in Nashville. It’s very much a theme on how this struggle never quite stopped. Every time there was a victory, there was another battle that needed to take place. That’s why it then ends, not with the March on Washington, but three weeks later on September 15th, with the bombing of the church and the death of the four little school girls to remind people that you have these victories then within weeks, days in some cases, you suffer reprisals and setbacks and murder.
CA: That’s a tough lesson. You’ve got the hopeful frame story that we discussed that shows Congressman Lewis at the inauguration, how far things have come. It seems to me that the frame story is a part of making this not just a history textbook, but making it a personal story about a person. There’s a lot of that in Book One. I keep coming back to the story about him and the chickens. I love that little story. I hope that there’s more of that stuff in Book Two.
AA: You get to see, over and over again, John Lewis being a doer and his drive for action is essentially what pushes the storyline along in many cases. Whether it’s him fighting with Will Campbell in Nashville because they’re afraid the violence will erupt, and people will get hurt at their protests, and he says, “That’s all the more reason for us to do it,” or him fighting to have the strongest possible speech at the march on Washington. And coming head to head with Asa Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr, so they can put together a speech that reflects the truly strongest desires of the young people he represents. I think Book Two is very much our Empire Strikes Back. That grand victory at the end, that neat resolution, it doesn’t happen. War is messy. Non-violent war is just as messy. Revolution is particularly messy.
There is a consistent theme of enduring and how necessary that patience, that willing to continue to act, is. In Book One, we talk about how he would hide under the porch so he could go to school, it’s the same theme of him wanting to be in the mix. Don’t leave me out in the fields, I want to be a part of things. I want to do things. That part of his personality is very much alive in this next book.
CA: Did John Lewis say that this was going to be his Empire Strikes Back? Is John Lewis a big Star Wars fan [laughs]?
AA: I know he’s seen them. It’s funny. When we go to the conventions, he’s getting better at which characters in costumes are which ones. I know he definitely saw Chewbacca and he was like, “Is that Chewbacca?” He knew it. It’s pretty cool. I don’t think he ever said it was his Empire Strikes Back, that was more me and Nate. But it really stuck.
March: Book Two goes on sale in early 2015 from Top Shelf Productions.