Considering the landscape of graphic novels, like some of the more popular ones such as “300,” the “Batman series,” or “V for Vendetta,” how does one shift people’s tastes from the narrative of violence that is sometimes present in graphic novels?
I think there have been graphic novels that have been socially conscious and focused on the experience of individuals dealing with oppression by society, government or even their parents. I think an example of that would be something like “Maus” or “Persepolis.” I also think the “memoir form” in graphic novels has grown to new heights. I think it has really become a successful way to tell a story. At the same time, “Maus” for example, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, but did it ever reach the heights of a fiction or nonfiction book on the New York Times bestseller list? It took years for it to reach into the public consciousness of the United States and now its so widely used in schools and in libraries because it really helps teach kids about the Holocaust. So I hope very much that we are in that vain, following in Spiegelman’s footsteps and others in telling a personal memoir and having it have a social conscience and reflecting on a brutal period in our society’s history.
Also, comics are known for the superhero. They are known for simple morality in some cases and I think that’s not a bad thing. When I read comics as a kid, I was very much attracted to this idea of these heroes doing justice when others wouldn’t. But growing up without a dad, you almost treat these characters as a sort of pseudo-role model. You look at them and say, “That’s what it looks like to do right, to be just?” And I think kids today—I know I would have loved to have had it—they need real role models, they need to see that there are real heroes out there. They need to see that there are also real heroes who can grow up poor, the children of sharecroppers—John Lewis’s father was a tenant farmer—and they can grow up in poor rural Alabama and still go to college, make a difference, have a huge impact on their society and make it more just and more fair and then go on to be a congressperson, go on to sit at the rarest of tables. I think I’m not the only one who wants to see that in comics and I think the unbelievable response we’ve received so far is just a reflection of that desire.
Who is the core audience for this book?
I do hope that this is something that schools and libraries latch on to, but I don’t think there is any person in America who wouldn’t benefit from reading this. Sometimes I worry about a really young child, someone who is 9 years old, reading this because of the use of the “n-word.” They might not be old enough to fully comprehend what it is, but if a parent is willing to take the responsibility to explain this to their child, I think whatever the parent is willing to do and is comfortable with I would encourage that.
I’ll never forget, when I was in the 4th grade, my mom gave me “The Client” to read and my teachers were outraged. They said no 4th grader should be reading this, it is too advanced because it is dealing with child abuse and all of these things that he doesn’t know how to emotionally process. But parents know their children better than anyone else, and they know what they need. And because of that moment of faith that my mother had in me, I read “The Client” all the way, cover to cover. I was in the 4th grade and it was one of those books that helped me love reading. And so I really hope that there is no pigeonhole for this, that this is a book that, as young as a parent is comfortable giving it to their child to as old as person can be and still be able to read it, even if the glasses are a little bit thicker, I hope everybody reads it.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, do you have a particular hope for what activism will become?
I think the only activism that is going to work is the type of activism that is deeply grounded in the philosophy of non-violence. It is a methodology that has very specific rules; I very much treated this like a non-violence campaign—the rollout of this book—because you can apply it to so many different things. One of the big things is that you have a concrete objective and you state that publicly. But you also state your reasons and you state the history behind the issue. When the Freedom Riders departed in 1961 they sent a letter to the attorney general and to the president informing them of their actions. You have to follow these rules. I think the Occupy Movement definitely suffered because they did not follow these rules. These are rules that Gandhi lived by and sometimes we try and think we are smarter than that and we know more, but the greatest educator is history. We need to look back to that history to figure out how we can get to where we want to go. As we look at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I think it is an unbelievable opportunity for people to take another look at nonviolence, to ask themselves what made the Civil Rights Movement more successful than other attempts at racial integration or other attempts at helping oppressed people. What made it so special? It was nonviolence.
From its earliest days, the Montgomery Improvement Association was fundamentally grounded in the idea that they were going to pursue integration on the buses through nonviolent means. It was taught and promoted by somebody who worked very closely with Dr. King, a Rev. Glenn Smiley who was associated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which is incidentally the same organization that made that comic book, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” And so, hopefully, activists today will go back and they will look at that history and they will see that connection. They will see that nonviolence is the key and maybe they’ll read Marx or they’ll read another book and they’ll learn more about how you practice nonviolence as a discipline and as a philosophy. Then I think their activism will be much more successful.
There is an intergenerational component of “March” with you and the illustrator Nate Powell representing one generation and Congressman Lewis representing another. What does it mean to you to do this work with someone of a generation that is passing out when you are part of the generation who is supposed to carry the torch?
It always kind of makes me sad to think about not being able to call the congressman so forgive me if I kind of run past that part of it. But there is something really special about Congressman Lewis who would be willing to undertake this project with a half-Turkish kid from Georgia and a white kid from Arkansas, to bring us all together because we’re so passionate about it and we want to do it because we want to tell his story. But I think, for what this is going to mean for us in the future, I think it’s a responsibility that Nate and I take very seriously. We are the caretakers of this story in some respects now and we have a duty to the people who lived this unbelievable story to honor it and cherish it and treat it with the respect and the dignity that it should be treated with. I can’t imagine a world without John Lewis, but if that day comes, it will be a worse world. So maybe this will be something that can help keep his fire burning after he’s gone.