Over the course of this semester in my Multicultural America Literature course, I have had conversations with various authors and scholars such as Kiku Hughes (Displacement), Lila Quintero Weaver (Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White), Eir-Anne Edgar and Michael Dando discussing Maus, Jennifer Morrison discussing Of Love and Dust, and more. We concluded the course by reading John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March Trilogy. For the final lecture of the semester, Aydin and Powell joined me for a conversation, and today I want to talk some about what we discussed, notably Powell’s comments on presenting lengthy sections or entire speeches in a sequential art format and Powell and Aydin’s discussions about what March includes and doesn’t include and how the text opens up an avenue for students and educators to dive further into understanding and studying the Civil Rights Movement and history.
Recently, I wrote about Fannie Lou Hamer’s sequence in March: Book Three where we see her giving her speech in front of the Democratic National Committee’s credential committee in Atlantic City in 1964. Powell and Aydin mention that they were able to incorporate this entire speech because it is in the public domain, from a public hearing; however, they would not be able to include full speeches from say Martin Luther King, Jr. without securing permission to reprint lengthy excerpts. The ability to print Hamer’s speech at length created a question of how to present it on the page. While some works such as David WF. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson’s The Black Panther Party have images and lengthy text, devoid of constant action, March works through movement and action, guiding the reader from moment to moment in a fluid motion.
Looking at Hamer’s speech in March, the panels focusing on the “mundane” — her purse, her hands, etc. — add to the power of the scene because, especially with her hands on the table, it shows her strength and resolve, a focus on the task at hand without wavering. If her hands were under the table and fidgeting, we would perceive her to be unsure of herself and her message. Powell points out, though, that the focus on Hamer’s purse, the man putting the microphone on her lapel, her hands, and more appear to break up the monotony instead of just focusing on a talking head with a wall of text.
Powell’s layouts work, in many ways, in the same way that our eyes work as audience members when someone speaks. Myself, I do not focus, entirely, on the speaker. Rather, my eyes drift around the room from my position, focusing on different things from body language (Hamer’s hands) to items (Hamer’s purse) to other audience members and more. Powell’s panels move our eyes to these different things, mirroring the ways that we would participate in the moment as audience members if we were in Atlantic City at that moment.
Connected with this, the sequence moves to the past events that Hamer references and ultimately to the White House, taking the focus of the television audience, specifically President Lyndon B. Johnson in this case. Here, the sequence shows the tensions between Hamer’s words and Johnson’s reaction, and it also serves, again, to break up the monotony of having a page, or two or three pages, with merely Hamer’s face speaking the words. As well, it works as a narrative structure to show the simultaneous speech and reaction to it, happening in real time not as separate events.
Along with panels and layouts, Aydin and Powell also talked the historical information included in March and the decisions surrounding what to incorporate and how. This part of the conversation really interested me, notably their comments about the depiction of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s and Johnny Robinson’s murders because of the lack of eyewitness and on the record, legal accounts of the incidents. In Robinson’s murder, Powell noted that we know the sequence of events; however, the survivor’s eyewitness testimony contains a grey area in relation to the number of times the officer shot: once or twice. To offshoot this, Powell altered the lettering of the second shotgun blast, and in this manner, it can be read as an echo or a second shot.
Aydin added to this the current challenges to books and discussions of history. “If we hadn’t essentially,” as he puts it, “walked that fine line and been so conscious of being as accurate as humanly possible, that’s what opens you up to these challenges in our space [comics].” Once the first book did so well, the level of scrutiny increased, and the historical accuracy had to be there. This comes up in Run, the follow up to the March Trilogy. There, Lewis, Aydin, Powell, and Fury have endnotes, adding to the book’s “clout” within academia and the broader public.
Aydin also noted how some academics still feel as if books such as March are not historically or literarily rigorous enough, and that pushback causes issues. Looking at books like March, Darkroom, Displacement, Wake, and more, they have, whether they are memoir or non-fiction, enormous amounts of historical information that comes from rigorous research into the topic and time period. Kiku Hughes noted this when people challenged her on depicting, even in the background, gay and lesbian relationships in Displacement. They called these depictions anachronistic; however, they are not anachronistic as Densho.org shows in their article about Jiro Onuma. Like any work of literature and art, graphic texts rely on research, and here I think about Frank Yerby’s extensive research in his novels.
There is more I could say about my conversation with Aydin and Powell, but I will leave it here. Next post, I’ll finish up my posts on March by looking at the ways that March can serve as a springboard for students looking into the Civil Rights History of their region and area. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.