Leaning back in his drawing chair, stroking his nearby napping cat, Nate Powell settles in for the longest interview of his career. Part punk rocker, part Southern gentleman, all Gen-Xer, this award-winning cartoonist explains that he’s happy to take a deep dive into the technical comics aspects of his acclaimed trilogy March (Top Shelf) – detailing the life and service of the late Congressman John Lewis and his fight for Civil Rights – and his spring debut Save it for Later (Abrams ComicArts) – detailing the political unrest following the 2016 presidential election, the rise of authoritarianism in American culture, and his family’s efforts to effect meaningful change through protest. In this interview, Powell shares how his collaboration with Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin came about, the visualization of sense memory and time travel that runs through all of his works (Swallow Me Whole, Come Again, Any Empire, Two Dead), the influence of comics on protest movements over time, and the sense of haunting that is connected to both place and history. Powell also discusses how his works revealed the incredible foresight of Congressman John Lewis in predicting the present moment and reflects on how his own works document and preserve moments in history that he may similarly come to be haunted by. Powell’s deep dive into comics considers how the affordances of the comics medium reveal hidden meanings and patterns, give us new insights into people past and present, and expand narratives that are, or are in danger of becoming, oversimplified. He also explains how making comics has been a therapeutic tool in processing his thoughts, observations, and feelings in these difficult and complicated times.
This interview has been edited and condensed from its original form for the purposes of clarity. - Irene Velentzas
Art by Nate Powell from March © John Lewis & Andrew Aydin.
ORIGIN STORIES: How the March Trilogy Came to Be
Irene Velentzas: You have probably answered this many times before, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask: How did even working with Congressman John Lewis to create March come about? What was that phone call like?!
Well, there’s a backstory to March, which involves two years of work before I came on board. Andrew Aydin, cowriter of March – the one who actually wrote the script – was a staffer to Congressman John Lewis from 2007 to 2020. During Congressman John Lewis’ campaign period in the summer of 2008, Andrew, and the staff in his office, [realized] the same questions kept coming up: How do we re-present the urgency and revitalize the necessity of civic engagement for people? How do we revitalize and introduce the history of the Civil Rights movement itself? How do we present a sense of continuity? How do we show the importance of young people being willing and able to take risks whenever possible, to push back?
Around the end of that summer, [the staffers] had a break coming up and people were going on vacation. Andrew was being gently made fun of around the office, because he was going to Dragon Con – which is fine, because you know comic book nerds, we all have to take our licks. But Congressman Lewis spoke up from the corner of the room and said: “Don’t make fun of him, there was a comic book when I was a teenager that was very influential on the movement.” Andrew was like, “Well, number one, Congressman, thank you for sticking up for me. But, number two, what is this comic? What are you talking about?” That comic was, of course, the 1957 comic Martin Luther King Junior and the Montgomery Story.
By 2008, that comic had fallen into obscurity. So, Congressman Lewis was telling everyone about this comic, recapping the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, framed around a fictionalized narrative of pushing back, finding outlets for rage and injustice, and moving through that with an understanding of the necessity of cooperation with other activists, but also presenting the overarching philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. What’s crazy about this comic is that Jim Lawson and Dr. King were selling and giving away the comic out of the trunks of their cars, and in church basements, and in community centers as part of nonviolence training workshops in ’58, ‘59, ‘60. I believe a quarter million copies were printed at first and then continued to be reprinted in the ‘60s. Then a Spanish translation came about which was used by Cesar Chavez, in the Western Workers Movement, then that Spanish translation moved south through Central and South America to a number of people’s movements in Latin America. [The comic] wound up being translated in all kinds of ways. [It was] translated and bootlegged into Arabic and Farsi, where copies were spotted and identified in 2010, 2011, in Egypt and in Northern Africa.
Anyway, this crazy history for this book had mass influence as a primer for nonviolent resistance. Andrew was fascinated, and his immediate response was, “Congressman, you need to do a comic about your role as a young person in the Civil Rights movement with nonviolence, with activism, risk, revolution.” Congressman Lewis brushed it off politely for months, and Andrew was pushy enough that he was like, “Alright, we’ll do it, but only if you do it with me.”
So, they spent the next two years interviewing, researching, working up a script, reviewing the script. That’s where I step in. I think it was like late 2010, I was finishing Any Empire and The Silence of Our Friends, and on my lunchbreak, I saw on Top Shelf’s website a press release about this book March. I read it, and [thought], “Oh! What a cool idea for a graphic novel, that’s awesome!” There was no artist listed, but I didn’t put two and two together that that meant there was no artist, yet. I[thought], ‘Awesome…well…back to work.’ It just never occurred to me.
So, a week or two later, I got a call from Chris Staros, my publisher at Top Shelf, with whom I had been working with for a good five or six years already. He was calling to personally recommend that I try out for the role of artist. Beyond his recommendation to Andrew and the Congressman, obviously, it was like any other collaboration in indie comics, it was up to the creators. But his reasoning had to do with [my] being a Southerner and having enough familiarity not only with Southern history, but with topography, with culture, with visual environmental details, and because so much of my books involve sense memory and ‘time travel’ – haha – working back-and-forth, reflecting and confronting things over time. He though a lot of that was a natural fit. I don’t miss my deadlines, I have a good balance between representational and expressive cartoony figures, and conveying emotions visually. I tried out for the role. I did a couple of demo pages and sent them to Congressman Lewis and Andrew. I got some notes back and redrew it. But after about two weeks, we just realized we clicked perfectly well, and we moved ahead. So, that would have been by late 2011, I had finally gotten on board.
And the story doesn’t end there – I hear we’re expecting another work from you about Congressman John Lewis this summer! Can you tell me about that project?
You bet. Run will be released in August (2021) and is our final collaboration with Congressman Lewis. It generally covers John Lewis' transition from direct action to public service. Book One spans from just two days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965 to the fallout from the contentious ousting of John Lewis as SNCC's chairman in Spring 1966. This story arc was something we all started working on even as March: Book Three was being drawn. I took on a range of duties from drawing the first 10-page chapter, a bunch of spot illustrations for extra resources in the book, lettering balloons, sound effects, and collaboration on the covers with the fantastic Lauren Fury, a Houston native who did an excellent job rising to the challenge of depicting Congressman Lewis' account. This book weathered a ton of challenges, both creative and logistical as well as John Lewis remaining involved through his battle with cancer. It's very personal, and I'm really proud we were able to shepherd this last fully-collaborative volume to the finish line.
COMICS THEN AND NOW: Handling Time, Other Media, and History in Comics
So, you mentioned the “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” comic book, which is referenced in March Book One (p. 76). Why do you think this was such an effective tool for the Civil Rights movement?
Well, one reason is simply because comics – beyond the [ability] of comics to span cultures, literacy levels, etcetera – it’s simply because comics are cheap, disposable materials. Their disposability makes them prime for being shared and redistributed amongst friends. You can always find another copy for ten cents in 1957 and 1958. The existence of floppy comics during the Silver Age as this widely distributed mass medium, distributed amongst fans to each other can’t be over-emphasized. So, it really was well-designed to be cheap enough, accessible enough, widely distributable enough. It was made for sharing. Beyond that […] regardless of comics familiarity, regardless of levels of literacy, regardless of language barriers, there’s a great degree of information within that book which is able to cross each of those barriers to an extent.
Also, one of my guiding issues at the drawing table with March, [is] the power of empathy in terms of comics forcing a reader to automatically put themselves in a character’s shoes. It allows you to arrive at a place beyond judgement more quickly. It allows you to understand the stakes, especially when we’re dealing with historical drama as the movement is captured. It allows using non-verbal methods. It sets you up to identify and empathize with the people involved. It humanizes them really without any extra effort beyond the fact of the choice of medium.
The comics medium has evolved dramatically from the publication of “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” to the publications of works like March and Save it for Later. In what ways do you think comics today operate differently in highlighting protest and political movements than they did 60 years ago? Or do they? Is it just based on the medium’s ability to create empathy like you just mentioned?
Comics and book-length comics have established that subject matter and topics of communication are virtually unlimited in comics. I’d say a lot of this has to do with the rise of graphic novels throughout the ‘90s, but specifically, the generational shift which occurred by the explosion of manga in bookstores throughout the ‘90s. That expanded the gender gap, the readership gap, [and] subject matter. The various storytelling methods spoke to a new generation of readers and those readers becoming cartoonists. That’s where, bringing it back to telling nonfiction stories, a lot of this still owes a debt to Raina Telgemeier and other cartoonists who were inspired thanks to that ‘90s manga explosion, going and telling stories about their lives. This is where I really lean into ‘the personal is the political.’ By cartoonists setting a stage for things like family dynamics, braces, social shame, anxiety, disorders – each one of these topics, which are tackled just by Raina in her work – have a profound impact on how readers view their own stories in their own lives. As that generation then becomes cartoonists, it makes a magnificent impact.
March, I think, played a role in that by taking that outward even further to a more concrete, historical subject matter choice and framework, but, on the other side of that, my social conscious was [also] profoundly shaped by Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. As a twelve-year-old, my ability to see my own world through a new understanding of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, xenophobia, thanks to X-Men, allowed me to interact with my own world in a different way. When I started making comics, it was dystopian superhero comics – like everyone else in the early ‘90s – but it was about an organized group of anti-authoritarian resistance who was tackling a totalitarian regime. In my thirteen-year-old way, that’s how I was trying to stick it to the man. They’re not mutually exclusive and they’re part of the same thread of expanding potential for comics.
One of the images that struck me in March, was one of the opening images of John Lewis’ first-person perspective as he’s falling down to the ground, with just the shadow of the trooper raising a baton about to strike (Book One, p. 9). Can you tell me more about that image and how the comics medium helps us understand protest experiences, especially historical ones, in ways that other media do not?
Now, it’s important to note that first scene in March Book One also marks the beginning of my working relationship on March. My camera choices and my storytelling choices in those first ten pages is also linked to my settling into my role as artist – settling into and acclimating to my responsibility to tell John Lewis’ story through his eyes in his words. So, in those first ten pages, I was figuring out the most powerful and effective, but also responsible, ways to take a huge leap into this great man’s memories and experiences. In a moment like that, a traumatic life-changing moment, there is a degree of anxiety that I had about navigating [the question], “When am I over-stepping my proximity to these memories?” As I moved on, especially by the end of March Book One, I felt very comfortable with the fact that Congressman Lewis has chosen me to do this job. That did require a kind of re-centering and reminding myself of that [fact]. A lot of times in that first part – I’m also relearning so much of this history of the movement – so there are even very practical blocking considerations in figuring out how the scene was staged ‘in real life.’ There are moments in those first ten pages, I don’t yet have as clear of a sense of space, of real space on and off the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge. Later, I revisited there before I continued with the trilogy and I became more comfortable with the blocking and framing.
You revisit that opening scene at the Edmund Pettus bridge in March Book Three. The second time, the scene feels more expansive and dynamic. Did your approach in Book Three and revisiting that scene shift?
Yes! The revisit in March Book Three, in a lot of ways is, “Finally, my chance to get it right!” But this is where comics are very much – especially collaborative comics –a living thing until you send it to the printer. So, once I finished that first sequence in March Book One, I sent it off to Andrew and Congressman Lewis. Andrew sent me a message back and was like, “Congratulations, buddy. The Congressman read that first scene, and it brought him to tears. He said you brought the memories alive again. You did it. Onward. Good work.” So, that was reassuring. But as time went by, I realized that I had a couple of anachronisms, whether it was framing and blocking or on a style and technology level – troopers’ uniforms or the precise weapons used – all kinds of little things didn’t line up completely. Fortunately, […] the very next sequence, goes into John Lewis being woken up on Inauguration Day, and we decided that [for] the components that didn’t line up perfectly, [that] this first scene is actually his dream sequence about Bloody Sunday.
One of the main reasons why March is structured as it is with this framing device of Inauguration Day, is because Congressman Lewis [had] a very powerful unique relationship to memory. [He] time-travelled and lived in his memories. I’ve always felt a strong kinship with him on that. So, there were days like this [Inauguration Day 2009], where Andrew said that Congressman Lewis would be walking all day saying: “I’m really feeling The Spirit of History,” “I’m not even here, I’m in 1961.” So, he was viewing that long arc of history in real time. That was the impetus for the framing, how the 2009 sequences would help structure the entire trilogy. But yes, in 1965, when John Lewis is blacked out from that blow to the skull by a state trooper, he did lose consciousness, but that [moment] brings him out of the dream, into 2009.
That seems to be one of the main advantages of comics, which your work particularly exploits, is the unique treatment of time and space. In both March and Save it for Later, you elide time in interesting ways. In March Book Two, the performance of Aretha Franklin singing at Inauguration coincides with images from a White mob attacking Freedom Riders in Montgomery Alabama on May 20th, 1961 (p. 80-81). In Save it for Later, you place memories side-by-side, noting that between the Anniston attacks on the Freedom Riders in 1961 (p.82) and the Klan people demonstrating in the town square in 1983 (p. 85), “22 years is nothing” (p. 84). Can you tell me more about eliding time in comics in these ways and its thematic importance to the protest narratives (past and present) you’re telling?
The relationship between people, and the way they hold and process memories, is central to everything I do, especially with my fiction work. That was a strong component in Any Empire and in Come Again, but also in collaborations I’ve done, like Two Dead – and in addition to nonfiction collaborations like March – [which are all] about reckoning with experiences and with changing relationships to your own memories. [This] is just one reasons I love making comics. So, I was well-suited for that kind of hopping and sliding through time throughout March.
A lot of these memoir-centered components in Save it for Later started out being focused in 2016-2017, and I just wanted to make those unassuming, plain, and raw. As the book expanded and different components started to come in – as time just raced forward into this authoritarian regime – our relationship to the very recent past changed. One reason I decided to start making comics for Save it for Later was the fact that even my own relationship to sadness, fear, rage, anxiety in 2016-2017 had already started to fade in intensity, in detail. So, a lot of that was the necessity for getting it down for me – of comics as therapy – as a way of working it out.
As the subject matter expanded – but to meet up with the way that our society was shifting and being threatened – it became necessary to inject these other highly-relevant memories that I had. There were things that I didn’t quite work out, or questions that I didn’t raise, while I was doing Any Empire. A lot of those [issues] were seeds that just hung around for a while until I realized, now is the time to work that out and bring up those questions again. I realized that any of those questions that I had from the 1980s or ‘90s or 2000s, could be used to back up the more contemporary experiences that I was communicating about in Save it for Later.
Let’s examine another double page spread in March Book Three (p. 22-23), the spread of Barack Obama leaving up the Capitol steps after being sworn in as President, with John following, and the pan back to the left-hand side of the page. Can you tell me more about designing such an intricate spread and your intention behind it?
This is where the semiotics of comics really come into play. Andrew, as writer, was taking in so much of Congressman Lewis’ perspective on that day – of “The Spirit of History” guiding him and this time-travel and reckoning with his path in life and where he’s been. For Andrew, and the way he was processing what he was seeing at the Capitol on Inauguration day, [John] was seeing that in physical space. [Congressman Lewis] was standing at the U.S. Capitol where you can look across from the Inaugural platform, across the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where the March on Washington took place. So, in a very real sense, John Lewis was traveling in his head through time across all this effort, all this social change, but in physical space, you can just look fifty years back in time or forty-four years back in time, at the Lincoln Memorial and see the path travelled.
So, when we recognized that the physical space at the National Mall had some significance in that sequence, we needed to build up to these two double page spreads in a row. The second spread [ends with] John Lewis looking back before he goes back into the Capitol, traveling through time and space across the Mall. Before that, it’s a Z-shaped shift. From a blocking-wise, […] directorial perspective, I knew that Barack Obama needed to walk up the steps from the Inaugural platform back into the Capitol – just like how in Book Two, we had all of the Congressional Membership down the steps out and back down again. So, there was a compositional challenge as we’re moving up the steps, knowing that it needed to end with John Lewis looking back. We move in a Z-style manner so that we’re able to have multiple rows that aren’t horizontal. But also, as Barack Obama ascends, he exchanges words with John Lewis, basically look[ing] back as he approaches the top of the platform and then moves back into the Capitol. I recognized, as we moved to John Lewis’ turn, he would need to look back as well. Andrew, obviously, intended that as well. It was one those things that could have been a really messy double-page spread with all the diagonals, but I just tried to conjure my inner Neal Adams as much as I could and just allow that diagonal to be read in an intuitive way.
My last note on this [is] that those sequences are especially haunting to me now that the context of steps into the Capitol, and the arched entryways, are completely different now. I cannot look at those sequences without thinking of them through 2021 eyes after January 6th. But every single person who reads March from now, for the next fifty years or more, is going to contextualize those sequences also with the attempted overthrow of the United States government on January 6th. The set of meanings for the Capitol doorways and steps, are forever transformed. “The Spirit of History,” as John Lewis would say, is going to keep moving through that space, forever onwards. We will keep seeing it through that lens.
There’s a sense throughout your work that when you return to a space, the only thing that has really changed is the time around you, and the people who were there. You coincide time in these spaces. For example, in your hometown, so much has happened, revolving around you in a way. How you felt about it in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s has changed, circumstances have changed.
That’s a good way to put it, because part of me is a stereotypical Southern Romantic who has this complicated Romanticized relationship with my hometown – and I haven’t lived in my hometown or home state in seventeen years – but when people ask me where I’m from, or where my home is, I always say its Arkansas. I’ll make an exception where I’ll say, “Well, yes, I’ve lived here in Bloomington, Indiana for seventeen years, but I’m from Arkansas.” So yes, that sense of haunting and reckoning.
Like the Gothic, that same kind of ideal?
Yes! It’s that over-arching relationship that I have with the spaces that have made me. Even being in punk bands touring and traveling for a long time, seeing different locations shift over time, seeing the people who make up a space – even a self-defined space, like an underground music community – and eventually seeing an almost unrecognizable make up of people involved but still for the same purpose with the same community. That’s a major theme throughout life and thus, it’s unavoidable in all my work.
For me, the uncanny times across the March trilogy are when the quoted dialogue and actions from politicians bear eerie resemblance to rhetoric heard in our contemporary news feeds. For example, the speech Dr. Matin Luther King Jr. gives about Governor Patterson in March Book Two (p. 88) seems like something that could have been said about the former president on January 6, 2021, but more broadly about extreme right-wing Republicans. Additionally, volunteers being unable to give food or water to individuals waiting in line all day to register their vote (March Book Three, p. 38) is frighteningly like the new electoral rules in Georgia preventing volunteers from giving people waiting in line to vote food and water. At the time you were drawing this you could not have known of the parallels that were unfolding, but what might it say about the larger patterns at play between history and contemporary society that your work is drawing on?
It’s really important to note here that Congressman Lewis knew what he was doing when he and Andrew were working out these components. One reason why he felt it was so urgent to reintroduce this history was because he had seen its resurgence even going back to 2008. The summer March was conceived, beef built up between John McCain and Congressman Lewis during that election cycle. Bridges between the two of them burned based on what now seem like moderate and innocuous comments made by John McCain that John Lewis publicly spoke out against, which reminded him of an uglier time. Then, just two years later in 2010, John Lewis, Emmanuel Cleaver, and Andre Carson, who were walking in to vote on the Health Care bill to Congress, were spit on and called the N-word by these racist, White nay-sayers who had waited for lawmakers to approach. There’s video of it. You can watch them walk by as they get spit on in 2010.
So, part of the urgency of March, before the publication of Book One, was a knowledge by Congressman Lewis, and by Andrew, that we were on the cusp of sheer darkness. It’s important to note that three weeks before March Book One came out, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the central heart of the Voting Rights Act. So, we entered from the starting point that this key achievement, which allowed the United States to move forward towards a more representational democracy – thanks to the courage or John Lewis and hundreds of thousands of activists – had just been stabbed in the heart.
This is where I had to catch up with that prescience and urgency. Understanding on one level that we are writing and drawing the present not the past, but really seeing how clearly Congressman Lewis saw that from the get-go is haunting. That relationship between past and present, as we were working in real time, kept collapsing. By March Book Three, we were having these regular conversations in 2015 and 2016 [asking]: “Do we need to get in the ring in the pages of the book and actually make commentary on the 2010s?” Our conclusion, each time, was if we did our jobs correctly, the reader will have no choice but to make those connections because they live in the same world that we live in. It had to do with trusting the reader’s experiences as being similar to ours and that guided how I executed Save it for Later.
One of the feelings I get from reading March, that I do not get from other media covering the Civil Rights movement, is this focus not on the gatherings or protest events themselves, but on the days, weeks, and months of preparation and training that went into undertaking the protests. Can you tell me more about incorporating these understated moments of the Civil Rights movement into the books?
In those first couple of years working on March, pre-publication, we asked ourselves what would prevent this from being a dry, nonfiction, historical account, or seem too politically motivated. One reason March was made was because of – well, what in the U.S. the Southern Poverty Law Centre calls – “the nine-word problem.” Most American kids graduate from high school knowing nine words about the Civil Rights Movement: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream. I was definitely one of those kids who grew up with the nine-word problem, so was Andrew.
There’s no way to have the kind of understanding of Civil Rights movement history that my generation grew up with and be able to make any sense of how such a massive positive social and political change was achieved. Especially when it’s viewed as hierarchical change – a handful of leaders who are disseminating change from the mountaintop. So, even though Congressman Lewis, as a young person, was one of those leaders, and he was telling the story from his perspective based on his experiences, he thought the most important thing was to highlight that [hierarchal change is] a false narrative of the movement. That the movement succeeded because of its dedication to decentralizing its leadership whenever possible – especially within SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), these youth led groups. Yes, he was a leader at the centre of the movement, but that the change was only possible thanks to hundreds of thousands of people.
That approach guided the entire trilogy, [making] it so that each of those moments would not only highlight these marginalized voices and historical figures. Those smaller decisions – whether it was the more boring unsexy meetings, typing up reports, the disappointment – [were made to] highlight the sheer youth of the people involved. That’s something I wish I could have done better, was show that yes, these are twenty-one-year-olds and they’re still over-sleeping, driving recklessly, getting wasted and grinding up on Shirley MacLaine. This is what shows you that these are twenty-three-year-olds changing the world as much as possible, because these are some of the missing components that makes the reality of revolutionary change seem possible and seem humanized.
There is this interesting push-pull between the individual and the collective in both March and Save it for Later. For me this comes across in John’s commitment to march even if it is “simply as [himself]” (March Book Three, p. 186) and your commitment to a solo protest to inform others of current injustices (Save, p. 148-149), but also moments in the text where protest movements become their own unstoppable forces, such as when the Civil Rights marches start without leadership (March Book Two, p. 158-161 and March Book Three, p. 193) and the spontaneous assembly that occurs on November 9, 2016 both in your own town (Save, p. 22) and nationally (Save, p. 30). Can you tell me more about the dynamic interplay between the power of the single individual and the power of the collective to make meaningful change as it presents in your work?
To start with Save it for Later, one of the most important things, goes back to one of my guiding mantras: “Who cares about me or my experiences or my feelings?” There was an overriding sense that there wasn’t enough bandwidth because there were so many urgent causes that needed fighting for or against, that space wasn’t being aired for these more subjective, private emotional moments. [Those moments] are very much a part of living through and working around this authoritarian power grab and the way that it had normalized itself in our brains as much as we would resist against it.
By the same token, the overwhelming majority of people are pretty concerned, and a good majority of people are looking for a way to contribute, to push back. But I think one of the most damaging things was this false binary between an “activist” who is “politically active,” “who protests,” and someone who is not doing that same thing. I wanted to establish that I don’t consider myself an activist, because I’m not the one doing the hard thankless work and running the risk that real organizers and activists throughout my community and throughout the country are doing. I am someone who shows up. I try to show up. That’s really what I’m saying.
I find other ways to put my energy out. One of those ways is through comics. I contribute to causes financially and with artwork. But the dichotomy here that is harmful is this notion that is disempowering people [who think]: “Well I can’t devote all that time and energy;” or “I’m not that smart, that competent, that organized;” or “It just seems overwhelming;” when all of this change [in the Civil Rights movement] was possible because millions of people [said]: “I just need to show up right now. Let’s just go show up. Oh, look there are 5000 of my neighbors who just also showed up.”
I think it’s important to encourage people to find creative ways to be active, but I wanted to cut down at [this] sense that if you’re not going to an extreme restructuring your life and devoting yourself to whole-heartedly what we recognize as organized activism, that you’re not doing anything. I wanted to make people feel assured that yes, don’t just vote, don’t just show up, but by God, showing up is something! Just show up!
Coming back to this idea of unseen preparation time – you say in Save it for Later, “Two hours to prepare,” that two hours is all you need: “Avengers Assemble” (p. 35). So, what happens in that two hours?
When you catch news of something that happens, that is an outrage, or that’s frightening, that’s terrible, that requires a public voice […] if you choose to show up [and think], “Okay, let’s put a little effort into this,” it simply requires mak[ing] plans with the people in your house. Spend half an hour, or ten minutes, making a sign. Get some cardboard, some paper, some ink, markers, paint. It’s a matter of dressing appropriately for the weather, going where you need to go, spending an hour, and then getting home.
That’s oversimplifying it, but each of these steps are not huge commitments of creativity or time. Each step is very attainable, it’s not something that requires some superhuman devotion to a cause. It requires recognizing all of this is made of little steps, that millions of people, who you don’t know, are also doing. A lot of that, is demystifying, but it’s also showing that I and my family are not necessarily doing anything special or spectacular, that you can do this too. That was the guiding concept behind Punk! To me, this is no different than that. The lessons I learned as a teenager through “do it yourself” apply everyday.
The other side of that question, in terms of individual versus collective in narrative, for March, a lot of that is told on the cover of March Book Two itself. The March trilogy is the story of John Lewis’ experience in the centre of the movement, but it’s also the story of the broader history of the movement. So, that history is also the story of the increasing documentation and scope of the movement. It’s thanks to this increasing media coverage and attention that the movement was able to swell to a critical mass. By the time of March Book Two, we have arrived at a point in history in which the movement itself has expanded, necessarily, beyond the ability of any one central figure to be present for everything.
So, the top half of the cover of March Book Two, depicts the attack and burning of the Freedom Riders’ Bus outside of Aniston, Alabama. That was John Lewis’ bus. On the Freedom Rides, he was gone for two days to interview for a Peace Corps position, and he went back to Nashville, and he was hopping a bus to join the Freedom Rides again when he caught news of this attack. So, I made the cover, we all looked at it, we approved it, we were good to go, but Congressman Lewis mulled it over, quietly, for a few months. [Finally], he [said]: “I don’t feel so sure about using this image on the cover of the book, because I wasn’t there. I don’t feel like I’m in the right spot to be front and center representing this moment – this traumatic moment – I wasn’t even there for, even though it was my bus.” So, I did another cover, and it was fine, they approved it, and it was good. But we continued talking about this [issue], that basically, the story of March at this point, part of it is the movement exploding beyond your ability to be there for everything. It’s not even a matter of wanting to represent that or not, you’re going to have to represent that escape velocity within the narrative, if we’re going to tell the story correctly. That was very convincing, and Congressman Lewis was like, “You’re right, okay, I’m all in.” That changed our perspective for the remainder of the trilogy.
We see some of this in March Book Three (p. 128) when John leaves the United States, and the thus far national struggles against systemic racial oppression, and starts seeing the global plight of the Black community in the 1960s. It seems throughout the March trilogy as we go from one book to the next, our view gets broadened incrementally. For example, in Book One we start with very local stories and small protests. In Book Two we move into national stories and national protests, while in Book Three, we see global stories and global protest. Was this broadening a conscious narrative structure or did you have a different structure in mind for the three-book narrative arc?
This is one of the unique positions March was in, that simply by telling the history of the movement encapsulated within that time frame, to tell the story accurately is to tell that shift, in scope, in scale, in perspective. That also helped undercut and destroy the nine-word problem that I talked about earlier. Also, to his last days, Congressman Lewis would emphasize when he would speak publicly, that: “We are one people. We are one house. And I don’t just mean the American house. I mean the world house.” His sort of transcendent humanism, I always appreciated, because it was inherently anti-nationalist. He was as influenced by pan-Africanism throughout the 1960s as Malcom X. That’s where they found this incredible common ground in [Malcom’s] final year. But [John Lewis is] a lot more soft-spoken about that component and he sees it through a moral and religious framework – so he approaches it and speaks about it in a different way. So yes, those things could not be left out because they radically shaped his concept of the moment of liberation, and of revolution. But yes, it affected the way the American people see those things, these are some of the details of popular conceptions or popular shared memory of the movement that sort of fall to the wayside. So, a lot of it is making sure that that sense was brought back to life for March.
Following up on some of our conversations around what is seen and unseen, in March Book Two (p. 120), you include a sketch of Danny Lyon’s image of the protesters praying outside of a segregated swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois, 1962. But more than that, you include the sequence of events following that moment, which went largely unknown: a young girl almost getting run down by a truck that was barreling towards these protesters. Can you tell me about how you use the comics form to expand our understanding of these kinds of famous but decontextualized historical images?
Strictly from a comics perspective, [regarding] that moment in Cairo, Illinois, 1962, there’s the difference between what I received in the script in text – describing the moment with historical accuracy from a first-person perspective laid out on paper by Andrew – and reading between the lines of that script. The real meat of that scene is: the revving engine; the foot of space between this girl and this racist dude with the pick-up truck revving his engine in her face; [the internal debate] whether he’s just intimidating or whether he’s willing to run her over. It has to do with whether that was five seconds or twenty seconds. It has to do with the tension in that moment before he wussed out and peeled off in the opposite direction. It has to do with the absolute clarity, her moral clarity, and the courage in her face as she stood there motionless. These are the moments, by using comics, that we get to the truth of that moment in a way that can’t be described in other historical representations of a moment like that. That this goes back to the inherent strengths of using comics to tell the story of the movement.
Now, stepping into the last five years of our lives with the increasing regularity of weaponizing vehicles against nonviolent protesters both by White supremacists and general a-holes – and also by law enforcement – and the change in legislation to legalize weaponized vehicles as we’ve seen in the Dakotas against the Dakota Access Pipeline [against] protesters, water protectors. Those are the moments, when we were doing that scene in 2014, recognizing one powerful component about the scene, but not having any idea how relevant those moments of tension would be, how those moments of tension would become part of the fabric of our everyday lives in years to come. There are some moments where, as storytellers, we were lucky in horrible ways, that the relevance of these details could not be predicted in some ways.
Like the contextualization of photos in the text, in March Book Two, (p. 162-165), you show the alteration of John Lewis’ original August 28, 1963 speech by various stakeholders. In the endnotes to March Book Two, you include the original speech written for the March on Washington. Can you discuss the interplay of showing events as they happened and including documents such as the unrevised speech draft in the text? I mean, who even had that? How did a copy even survive history? Did John just pull it out as you were working?!
The answer is yes! For one, John Lewis kept it, because he is a collector nerd! We work together to tell his experience about these massive, important, social-political moments, but John Lewis was a collector nerd. He loved collecting art, he loved collecting memorabilia. The first time I ever met him and stepped into his office, it’s just like the beginning of March Book One, where there are these piles and stacks of ephemera and memorabilia, that are staggering. And Andrew is always like: “You don’t even know, man. You haven’t even seen the closets!” So yes! John Lewis keeps things like programs, brochures, rough drafts. In March Book Three, when President Obama signs, “Because of you, John,” that is John Lewis, the collector nerd. He’s the only one who brought his little program for President Obama to sign, and then he kept it because he’s a nerd.
So yes, so much of the material, the primary source material that we had was from Congressman Lewis’ stash. It is [also] important to note that a huge, a monolithic moment, a huge very contentious moment like the March on Washington, over time is quickly boiled down to a monolithic one-dimensional moment. So, we wanted to destroy that monolithic perception of the events. For John Lewis in particular, it’s very easy to fall into a trap of seeing him as somebody who’s been a lawmaker for decades and to lose the sense of not only progressivism but lose those threads of radicalism. So, recognizing that of the Big Six leaders of the movement, he was the young radical of those six, recognizing that he was spitting fire, and that there was this inter-generational dynamic. Pushing back and forth, even physically, in the same space at the time that these historic speeches were made. It is a story of conflict, opposition, and difference of opinions – and learning to work together despite those. And for us, that is March, it’s the story of that push back within the movement.
This three-tier generational connection throughout your work is so interesting. You have the more conservatives, Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins, you have John in the middle as the younger more radical member, but then as we see SNCC devolve, we have even more radicalized individuals like Malcom X. In Save it for Later, you also explore a similar three generation dynamic. You are in the middle as a father right now, but you are discussing some your parents’ views, how you were a bit radicalized against that, but also recognize that when your kids get even older, they will start pushing back on your views. Can you tell me about incorporating these generational shifts in these texts?
Yes, and that’s one of those things that moves in a rolling real time way, so [it’s about] recognizing that those kinds of generational shifts rearrange themselves over time – especially [in] public perception. Thankfully, throughout the 2010s and 2020s we have seen kind of a leveling of public opinion and understanding of Malcom X. I think, to a degree, we have successfully whittled down that false dichotomy between King and X – that Professor Xavier and Magneto reference people just want to make so badly. I understand, but [it’s important to] recogniz[e] not just the radicalism within Dr. King, but the cooperative, supportive spirit of X, particularly the last year of his life being notable different once he left the Nation of Islam. These are as important for understanding shifts across the political spectrum as inter-generational dynamics. So, Dr. King becomes less conservative or less moderate as you recognize his understanding of the intersection of race and class in a way that was never given enough lip service by his previous generation of activists – by the Thurgood Marshalls, by the Roy Wilkins – that would be a real big conservative within the Big Six there, Roy Wilkins.
Within Save it for Later, that’s one of the most central dynamics in the book and one where there’s so much focus on my narrative with my kids that I always want to make sure that people are seeing clearly that there is a whole lot of denial, assumption, and baggage that Baby Boomers have carried with them to this point. A lot of Baby Boomers have never been in the position where they need to unpack and reassess a lot of that baggage. Particularly Southern White Baby Boomers. But the older I get, it’s recognizing that Generation X has more in common in terms of those erroneous assumptions and some of that baggage that seems so urgent. We share more of that with Baby Boomers than with Millennials. It seems like Millennials are better equipped with certain kinds of bullshit than Generation X is. I’m right on the cusp there, I was born in the late-seventies, but this is where I feel more like a Generation Xer in terms of the shortcomings of the framework by which I learned about the world, and really seeing how that extends into my kids’ generation.
Really, it's about bullshit detectors, and recognizing your place in the world [and] the interconnectivity of people, but each generation is going to be immune to certain kinds of BS assumptions that the previous generations will not. But that also means, for each of us, our time will come on the chopping block. So, I thought it was important [to include that dynamic]. The older my kids get – and one consequence of equipping your kids to have the tools they need to see the world clearly means that – they are going to recognize when you have fallen short, or when your ideas are old fashioned. As parents, we always want to think: “I’m the parent, and I’m going to teach them, and I’m right.” But when your kids call you out about something, they’re probably right. It’s your turn to shut up and listen to what they have to say. My older kid is nine-and-a-half now, and that moment is already on the cusp of emerging in some ways.
Is there a benefit to revisiting the individuals in these historical protest movements in a new light from a modern-day perspective? For example, in March Book Two (p. 90), you show Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. refusing to ride with the Freedom Riders on the basis that he is on probation, but the visuals signal that this is a flimsy excuse. Can you tell me about your ability to, or the challenges of, building more robust portrayals of historical figures in March?
This is where history is a living thing. Our documentational processing of what happened and turning it into a historical account is not static. So, this is where we are fortunate that we have had an evolving concept, for example, of Dr. King. One of the issues with the nine-word problem is the lionization flattens complex humans, like Dr. King, taking away the blemishes and the contradictions. It’s easy enough for my parents’ generation of Southern White Baby Boomers to grow up pointing out highly specific contradictions. I can’t tell you how many times in the ‘80s, when getting my Civil Rights education, that the only side note about Dr. King was [imitates Southern lady] “Well, he cheated on his wife!” It would take until I was twenty years old before I learned about COINTELPRO (The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, c. 1965), surveillance, death threats, the suicide urges, the spy-cams and recordings which made that information available. But the only take away was to do with a moral dethroning of Dr. King, and that served a purpose, I think, for my miseducation in the ‘80s but [also] for the Baby Boomers who were teaching that. So, a lot of it is simply embracing that a lot of new information becomes available, declassified, digitized. March benefitted a lot from the time in which we did it. There was simply information that was not available to the public ten years prior, or even five years prior. So, a lot of it was keeping an eye out for that, trusting our editor, Leigh Walton – who’s incredibly detail-oriented, but really goes down those rabbit holes.
But also, Congressman Lewis – being a very open person, but also a very gracious, respectful person – [was] able to tell the plain, first-person truth about massive personality conflicts and personal shortcomings about the people he was involved with, including himself. To tell this story accurately is to humanize people and to load them up with their contradictions. I tried to bring that forward in Save it for Later by telling the story of my family’s experiences. For consent issues and other issues, a lot of the stuff required me to make my character the idiot, or the person falling short, or the person who was being over-reactionary. [I would] undercut something I really care about by undercutting my response to something or my approach. I learned, I think from the reassessing of the history of the Civil Rights movement, how important it is to show our flaws, our shortcomings, our contradictions, as a way to [show]: “No, these are people, these are complex human beings involved in this history, which has been smoothed over.” It is by understanding those bumps in the road of our lives that we understand how this kind of change is attainable.
I thought the attention paid to individuals like Bayard Rustin – a black and gay organizer within the Civil Rights movement – in March (Book Two p. 151) and to groups like Black, female activists who felt oppressed under the male leadership of the Civil Rights movement (Book Three, p. 140), was very interesting because the Civil Rights movement unwittingly masked other marginalized communities within the Black community. Can you tell me about showing those complexities and perhaps the often-overlooked limitations of the Civil Rights movements by spotlighting certain figures like Rustin or other concerns within the movement like female empowerment?
Now, in the pages of March, there were a lot of these moments in which Congressman Lewis had first person experiences with some of these conversations. The dividing line that he always had to walk – and we had to walk as a part of his voice – [was] recognizing that in moments in which he had a subjective personal experience surrounding something, he as a storyteller had much more free reign to expand in a much more personal way what it meant for him [or] what it signaled.
There were other moments, like the infamous Stokely Carmichael sexist joke at the SNCC Waveland conference in 1964, which [were more difficult to navigate.] I admit, early on in March, and especially before I had read Stokely Carmichael’s biography, that was one of the few bits of information I had about Stokely Carmichael, his relationship to SNCC, [and] his relationship to the movement. It took a while before I recognized that there were considerable philosophical and tactical differences between Lewis and Stokely Carmichael, but above all of that, there was this massive personality clash.
Learning to compartmentalize as we went on, as I got to know Congressman Lewis better, [I] recognized to what degree something was guided by beef in a personal account. And Congressman Lewis was mindful of that in choosing what to include about Stokely Carmichael in particular, especially in ’61 through ’64 before things really hit the fan.
Moments like at that Waveland Conference in ’64, John Lewis was not there for that conversation, so [the] exchange amongst us and our editor had to do with where we, and Congressman Lewis in particular, felt we had the bandwidth to actually lay something out, or where we wanted to just plant enough seeds [for] someone with the curiosity [to] get more intimate information and resources about that. So, that was one of those moments we knew that we had one page to describe Stokely’s sexist joke and the multiple different interpretations at the time and afterwards. Actually, the more Andrew and Leigh looked into it, the messier and muddier it got, in terms of reactions at the time and reactions later by the same people who there at the moment.
So, a lot of it is recognizing the limitations when doing historical nonfiction. Especially [with] March being in history classes, as a history book, and already having a “weak spot” by being a comic, [it was a matter of] increasingly recogniz[ing] that we were vulnerable to having March removed from classrooms. As March became the primary source of a whole new generation learning about the movement, any attack on March, especially as we moved into the previous administration, was necessarily an attack on Civil Rights movement history. That was the goal [those attacks were] achieving. By taking March out, you’re doing a lot of work removing Civil Rights movement history from classrooms. So, there were moments where we were like: “Okay, we have a limit here, and we need to operate within this limit so that we’re not exposing ourselves to a weakness that will result in a precedent removing March from classrooms.”
Even sixty years later, as you mentioned, you don’t always have all the resources needed to give a complete depiction: things are being declassified, being taken out of context, are coming to light. I wanted to ask you about that in Save it for Later, where you’re writing something very personal in this moment, but ultimately, in 20, 30, 40, 50 years, a different light will be shed on this moment. How do you think this moment is going to change for you, or be decontextualized for you at a later time.
I knew that I didn’t want to do a monster of a book. I knew that I wanted to keep this book to around 150 pages. [So,] from the beginning, I recognized, in terms of scope – where the content stepped more into objective, historical, factual, journalistic components – [that] I didn’t want to bite off a bigger bite than I could chew. But there are people who I read, people who I follow up on, whose research and information has been informative to me, which informed the making of Save it for Later. So, [recognizing] people are already doing that work, much better than I could do it, [and] allow[ing] them to do that work
By the limitations of page count and scope, that helped set up what my approach was going to be for these more objective inclusions of history into the moment. It allowed me to feel more comfortable with the amount of focus I put on my and my family’s smaller and more subjective experiences. But it required balancing that with including enough material and context, while trusting that everyone else was going through the same stuff that my family has.
Even nonverbally, you can use panels as a visual shorthand. [Nonverbal cues like panels] allow you to conjure August 12th, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, to conjure January 2017, to conjure May 30th, 2020 – an explosion of protests across the United States. Readers are going to recognize that because they were there too. My philosophy about executing that kind of context in Save it for Later, was that I’m not going to do as good of a job as someone else with the inclusion of certain kinds of very recent history. We barely have any information aside from what we have seen and heard with our own eyes on camera. That’s one reason it’s kept subjective and letting history tell the tale as we move forward.
Can you tell me about balancing the personal with the political or the personal with the global in March and Save it for Later? How do you address the big picture while still making the reader feel the individual impact of these struggles and events?
I guess, linking the perspectives between March and Save it for Later, is the fact that I immediately had a strong kinship with John Lewis, even in starting to read his memoir Walking with the Wind in early 2012. The way that he described the intensity and gravity through which he saw the world, even as a six-year-old, and the kind of overarching moral framework, and his stubbornness – in terms of his ideals and his perspective – is something that I identify with a lot. It’s weird. It’s something that made me like a self-righteous, twenty-something punk, and it’s what makes me work against that as much as I can as a forty-two-year-old dad.
Also, still a little bit of a punk.
Oh, for sure! That is for life! But that is where I have some of that same kind of dismissive judgmental self-righteousness still inside of me all the time – [but] it’s recognizing what it is and what to do with it. Which is not to say that Congressman Lewis was at any point being self-righteous, but it’s recognizing the difference between his position or my position due to moral clarity, or the urgency of the moment. When you’re intersecting personal narratives and memoir style, with social and political realities, I don’t think anybody would be interested in knowing my opinion or perspective on a lot of this stuff. I don’t think I’m particularly, if you want to get down to the nuts and bolts of it, I’m not the prime source of information. However, I am informed and guided by people who do that, very well! A lot of that is really knowing your place and knowing that readers have the same kinds of concerns and curiosities, and really not trying to assert myself as a moral or political authority on anything.
This is the kind of thing where, I wouldn’t have done Save it for Later if I were a twenty-five-year-old, but I did do nonfiction/memoir/essay hybrid comics at that time. Like, I put out a book called Please Release, which is my first Top Shelf book that addresses things like disability, privilege, mobility, punk, change. It was done through the perspective of a very different small-world view of my daily life. I think that book was the process of my learning to be comfortable putting opinions and observations in a plain, unadorned way on a comics page. But even though I was pretty self-righteous by that point, I think there was still a line where I [recognized]: “Nobody wants to read this shit!” A lot of it is the process of realizing the moment in which I put a comic down because I’m not particularly interested in having things shoved down my throat. The line between shoving something down somebody’s throat and laying out experiences in a way that conveys how much you care about something.
At times you manage to negotiate the complexities of our socio-political and historical landscape with humor. How did you manage to navigate that? Or why decide to turn that conversation into a comical moment?
Well, this is where in Save it for Later, one of the most important things is, even as a parent you learn everyday what the balance is between too much and too little information. There are always other details and other sides of things that you really feel like you just gotta get out. Even if you are right, [and think]: “No, no, no, I’ve got this!” It becomes about you. It becomes about mom or dad getting to have their say. You can watch your kids check out at a certain point, even when it's something that really matters, and a lot of that is not even that they don’t care, it’s a matter that their brain is full.
I’m very fortunate that my wife is a social worker who is a child development and parent expert, and she is very important in my life, in particular for being like: “That’s good, don’t give the kids too much, snip it right there.” A lot of that is a learning processes, know that all of this is important, but accept the reality that your kid is going to have a ceiling of what they’re able to process at a time, and every kid is different. So, a lot of it is, once you open one can of worms, there are like seven cans of worms in that can of worms. Sometimes you just have to wait for your kid to come back with questions, because they will. It took me a long time to understand that between 2016 and 2019. [If you] give your kid one or two things, they’re going to come back with five questions later. Then, just wait until the questions come back. There will always be time to get to the other sides of things.
You also suggest in your work that there is a disconnect between televised entertainment and current political injustices. For example, in March Book Three (p. 208) the special news bulletin on ‘Bloody Sunday’ that cuts into a broadcast of Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremburg. In Save it for Later, you highlight the disconnect between the far-right’s widespread use of Marvel’s Punisher Logo because of the simple mass appeal of buying cool stuff (p. 107-109). Can you tell me more about this existing disconnection between entertainment media and social justice issues, and how your books work to draw attention to the disconnect between these ideologies?
I think that one of our major problems, here on a society-wide level, [is that] we’re getting very segmented information, streams and sources. Obviously, I’m not the first person to say this, but we’re living in increasingly different subjective realities, in terms of sets of information that we work with and the loss of a shared baseline of facts, which allow us to function as a society. But, in terms of the disruption between our reality and the mediation of our reality and how it’s presented to us, I’d say that one way in which 45 and his authoritarian regime used this very effectively to their advantage – they did not invent the wheel here, but this is where they practically perfected it – had to do with constantly putting people into a reactive state.
So, to push back as to whether it’s misinformation or disinformation, or the loss of a sense of linear time when we’re dealing with social media platforms, or receiving media from any source, it requires extra steps of effort to re-establish a baseline of truth or the relationship between media and the world around us. But it also puts us at a disadvantage as the people, by always having us in a reactionary relationship to what is happening around us, what is happening to us, and what we’re a part of. It’s hard to do things in a proactive way when so much energy is spent reacting to news as it comes in, to disinformation and handling it. I mean this is part of what Steven Bannon referred to as “flooding the zone with shit.” By removing the ability of people to approach things from a proactive way, we’re always reacting to things, and I think that’s going to require the most work – on a level I can’t even comprehend – over the next decade, if we are going to survive as a democracy.
Do you think that’s one of the places that comics is a bit punk rock? Many media outlets, whether it be social media or broadcast media, are very passive viewing, whereas comics, just by their need of closure between the juxtaposition of all of the elements create a really active type of reading. Do you see that being a part of the media that is going against this kind of passivity in our messaging?
In general, yes. I would say that the word to describe that is that comics are inherently engaging for the reader. As like, lifelong comic book nerds or whatever, [we] grow up steeped in the language of comics and the kind of driver’s seat it puts you in as a reader. What that driver’s seat is, is a place of engagement with characters, with a story arc, but also engagement with how you’re navigating your physical source of information, the pages of the book you’re holding. I feel like comics readership is inherently steeped in a more engaged relationship with the media that you’re involved with. On some level that has to do with being immediately able to cross-reference things that are on other pages, that are even out of chronological order. We are allowed to do that in comics, and good cartoonists, do that. Even, just going back to superhero big two comics. Growing up with ‘70s and ‘80s Marvel comics always put me in a perspective, even when I didn’t have vocabulary for it, in which being attuned to the internal lives and the soap opera like problems and contradictions of Marvel superheroes in the ‘80s, naturally set me up for looking for a human component that was underlying a plotline. It set me up to be a mindful reader. It set me up to be a person who hopefully was concerned with humanizing people around me, but also humanizing strangers whenever I could. Yes, this is a prime strength of comics, but yeah, I think engagement is the word I would [use].
There is one type of media that seems to be positively related and deeply intertwined with both protest movements and your comics, which is music. For example, in March, we begin with John Lewis getting ready in the morning and singing the words “You can take my freedom, oh yes, but you cannot take my dignity” (Book One, p. 14-15), we see the Freedom Riders singing in protest while in jail (Book Two, p. 102-107), we see a woman stand up and sing in church after the news that Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, and James Chaney have gone missing (Book Three, p. 73). In Save it for Later you preface the book with lyrics from Tiny Hawks’ “Tornado Children” from the People Without End LP (2005). Can you touch on the inclusion of music throughout your work and perhaps its specific importance to shaping protest narratives?
Music and visual and art, music and comics, are inseparable to me, because of underground punk. As a thirteen/fourteen-year-old, seeing in my community, discovering slowly, that people who were in punk bands just a few years older than me, that some of them were making comics, some of them were making zines. They were making flyers. That’s how I first found out Jamie Hernandez’s art as like a thirteen-year-old on a couple of local flyers in my town, before I was even aware that comics existed that weren’t superhero comics. A lot of it has to do with the sheer accessibility of pen and ink, especially for teenagers, the accessibility of photocopying your ideas whether as a zine or a comic. That’s inseparable from being in a garage or a living room with your friends, making a song with ideas and then playing that song a week later to a bunch of other teenagers.
So, the ways that music in particular, the emotional, and social, and political content within underground punk, affected me. Once I started making comics, which were not self-published, that was already deeply engrained as part of my storytelling and as part of my associations between experiences. So even, far, far before March, Please Release, Swallow Me Whole, Any Empire, and Come Again – which I did simultaneous with March – The Silence of Our Friends, all of these books had increasing presence of the relevance of music and lyrical content, not only with the story, but especially [in] Swallow Me Whole, the ways in which music as a sonic force could impact the visuals of storytelling within the book.
You mentioned in another interview during TCAF 2021, that when you received the initial script for March, you began working through it by marking the “beats” within the story. Can you tell me more about your process of interpreting comics in terms of beats?
My kind of musical relationship to a comics page or to a scene, like my personal preferences are to have panels that operate in a way that visually moves from, cascades from top left to bottom right, but to allow a moment of stress or the end of a scene to usually happen on the first panel of the next page. I feel like there is a notable difference in cartoonists’ approaches as to where to put the stress panel on the page. There are some people who like to end a scene, or end a moment, at the bottom of a page. I like the compulsion as a reader, when I feel like I need to flip the page to get the end beat of a scene. I think that helps encapsulate my concept of tempo with my storytelling. By turning the page, you’re already maintaining momentum. A lot of my books like Come Again or Any Empire, which are pushing 300 pages of comics, each of those can be read in under two hours. A lot of those moments are wordless, but a lot of it has to do with keeping a sense of heightened reader awareness so that they’re staying within the confines of the story, but there are also resting moments where time stops completely.
I like to make books with the idea that people are going to read them in one sitting and are going to have unanswered questions, and things that don’t add up, [so] they [will] read it again. I like movies and books that compel me to read and view these things over and over again. For comics, it’s unique because the cartoonist gets to control so much of the readers’ relationship with to time, but the reader can always just put a book down. So, recognizing the reader’s ultimate power and trying to titillate them into this kind of desired state, where they’re continuing moving through page, scene, chapter, book. That’s what I aim for. There are only a few moments where I really like to stop and give breathing room.
In March, it was a more practical consideration. Especially, March Book Three gets very dense, and we had a limited page count, and so we knew we had like four or five moments where we could actually have a breather. Basically, we would call ‘dibs’ on those pages as needing to be minimal splash pages that would allow the reader to catch a breath, especially with some of the gravity and brutality of the history presented. Then, there are other moments, where the depiction of music, but also the musicality of the panels, allows you to move through brutal moments within the March trilogy, where these moments should be horrifying and disturbing if I’ve done my job correctly, but a reader should also be able to get through those moments. Those moments will haunt a reader, but I want to deliver them safely to the next scene as well.
SOMETIMES, A CHICKEN IS JUST A CHICKEN: Symbolism and Metaphor in Protest Comics
I find your thoughts around this page-turning, and keeping that sense of urgency for the reader, to match up with idea of the image of the ringing telephone throughout March. For example, there’s the exploded receiver with broken cord (March Book Two p. 178-181); the tangled-up telephone cord lines (March Book Three p. 121); and the ringing cell phone (March Book Three, p. 247). Can you tell me more about this visual symbolism and its development throughout the text?
This is something where the key ingredients were there all along, and then over our collaborat[ion] process, we realized that it was a strong thematic element – a visual thematic element. So, for Congressman Lewis, first off, in the moment in which the phone is ringing, or the phone is present in March, for example, historically that phone was ringing. So, these were details that Andrew was conveying to me through the script, but, then over that course I got to understand that for Congressman Lewis, his belief in what he called “The Spirit of History” – which he would sometimes say was his way of understanding his concept of God – was [that] “The Spirit of History” [was] this guiding force of connection and life which transcended space and time.
So, [in] March Book One, we had all of these individual moments with phones. By the time we got to the end, where John Lewis and Andrew leave the office for the Presidential Inauguration, and miss this phone call coming in, That was the moment at which, we together recognized that it was “The Spirit of History” calling in the same way that it was in my mind also Ted Kennedy calling at the beginning of the book, and the message that John checks at the end of Book Three. In fact, in that moment, when we decided that [the phone symbol] was “The Spirit of History” calling, we were like: “Oh! This is everywhere!” So, that’s when I started using these chapter breaks and these spot illustrations.
They’re not just phones but also vehicles as symbols of connection. So, the second layer is not only the electrifying sense of connection in protest and in social movements, with strangers, with people you don’t know, all working together towards something. But also that we are guided by being connected and that this technology allows us to do so.
Then that third layer is, importantly, because this is history – especially for generations of people who do not know a world where the internet and cell phones didn’t exist – recognizing that to tell this history is also to tell it within the context of technology. So, if you need to get in touch with someone, if someone’s house got burned and bombed, if people got attacked, you need to find a telephone. You need to know the telephone number and someone needs to be there in the moment the call is made to pick it up.
So, in March Book Two, when the Freedom Riders get dumped in a terrifying middle of the night situation, [going] through the woods in Klan country to find a sympathetic elderly couple who helped them in, recognizing that they have a turn of the century telephone in their house, but the brick and mortar, wire-based technology is still going to get that call through (p. 64). We like showing the differences between having these flip phones in 2008 and having these crank phones from the 1920s in use. Also, recognizing that the technological limitations of phones as devices for connection were also very central to the ways in which organizing and communicating and aiding each other came into play during the movement. This is the kind of stuff that just sets itself up. It’s one of those moments, where you don’t realize it’s such an over-arching thematic element until we’re writing and drawing it long enough, and we’re like: “Oh! This is something, we need to push this, or we’re messing up.”
It’s just building and building throughout the trilogy. I was thinking while I was reading, “Is this a call to action?”
Yes! That is another component, it is the call to action. The phone ringing at the end of March Book Three is “The Spirit of History” calling us to action.
Before, we get into deconstructing symbolism in a moment, which both March and Save it for Later do, I want to ask about the chickens! In March Book One, you show a young John Lewis taking care of chickens on his family’s farm in the South, but I’m curious, are the chickens also a metaphor for perceptions of race in this text?
The answer is, to my knowledge, no. The chickens were in fact chickens. However, Congressman Lewis would keep things pretty close to his chest sometimes, it would take circling back around four or five times to get extra details and maybe he’d open up a little bit about other things. For me, and for Andrew, as far as I know, Congressman Lewis never revealed or not if he had any other concept for the role played by the chickens in his sixty years of telling the chicken story. The first time that Andrew was able to find that John Lewis told that story was in 1961. So, John Lewis may well have had that foresight, but he never communicated that to us. So, I’m going to have to take that at face value. I mean, his chickens were his babies, and those chickens were just chickens. It is a good observation though.
Haha. Sometimes, a chicken is just a chicken, but as soon as you draw a chicken, it becomes so much more!
So, let’s get into the work of dismantling visual symbolism through storytelling. While you use a lot of visual symbolism in your storytelling, in Save it for Later, you also dismantle many of the symbols swirling around social consciousness today, everything from the swastika to the Punisher logo, to the confederate flag, and the American Flag. One of the sections that impacted me the most was seeing the differentiations between the images of the American Flag which were also, in a sense, graffitied with the words of your narrative overtop of them. Can you tell me more about the process of deconstructing these symbols in a visual text and literally re-writing the narrative of these symbols in Save it for Later?
A lot of this book is really focused and crystalized in the chapter, “About Face,” which prior to the publication of Save it for Later, was a comics essay that I published through Popula (24 Feb 2019). The reason why I made that essay in the first place, was simply because in 2016 and 2017 I personally noticed in my community, day by day, an incremental shift in style, aesthetic choices – whether bumper sticker culture, or late model car purchases, detailing choices – and it seemed like an obvious sense of observations that something was happening. There was a shift in consumer preference. By the end of 2017, I recognized that no one else was writing their piece about these observations and what they meant. To me, it seemed so clear, that I felt compelled to organize my thoughts. Something’s happening here, I need to figure out what it is. I need to bring out my sketch book and make sense of what I’m seeing.
A lot of that ties into my observations going back in life for decades, growing up as a GI Joe kid, in a military family, in the Regan era, and already having a set of questions and observations about the realities of military life, style, aesthetic, performance – getting a lot of that information from my dad – but especially since the mid-2000s, recognizing certain aesthetic shifts in real time. So, there was the emergence of the Punisher skull in the Seal team that featured sniper Chris Kyle and the impact that that had over the decade.
Or, at the same time, [in] 2006, quietly seeing the re-emergence of the mohawk as a masculinized kind of mainstream militarized style choice. There’s the era where the faux-hawk re-emerged around 2004-2005 and that re-established itself as an altered present mohawk that was shorter [and] blunter. I immediately read [that hairstyle] as being more palatable to mainstream style because, not only was it a little bit more convenient to maintain, but it definitely was playing into this kind of masculinized notion of what that hairstyle could be.
That was coupled with the mainstreaming of fatigues as a style choice, and this is inseparable with the United States’ involvement with the endless “War on Terror.” I could see how people like Kelly Clarkson or will.i.am, how pop stars were playing a part in normalizing this military aesthetic. None of that’s in the comic, but all of this kind of accumulates.
Because of my GI Joe child past, I was already aware how the black and white, monochromatic flag emerged, which was desert warfare “War on Terror” fatigues and the new technology of having Velcro stick-ons for insignia and flags, for name tags on people’s fatigues. That’s where the black and white flag emerged first, to my knowledge, as an olive and black monochromatic flag to be placed on fatigues, on your shoulder. Because of the environment and the normalization of that monochromatic unit [it] trickled down [to] post-active duty.
But this is where there are practical business considerations that seem so obvious to me, that no one had laid out in words before, like: “Why did the black and white flags’ use explode in popularity from 2014 on, on consumer goods even outside of the authoritarian ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag?” One reason why is because it’s a one-color silk screen. If you want to have a shirt that has an American flag on it, you can have a red, white, and blue flag, or you can just use white ink on a color shirt and you automatically have an American flag. It sort of becomes a separate thing as this authoritarian shift, most palpably voiced through the Punisher skull, and the “Blue Lives Matter” flag, and this rising paramilitary fascism. You see companies like Under Armour jump on the bandwagon, to sort of milk some of that money from people who want to buy their “cool flag stuff” or “cool gun and skull stuff.” For them, it’s not a political decision at first, it’s: “Oh! People want this monochromatic flag. So, we’re going to have red shirts, and black shirts, and navy shirts, with our kind of fascist, one-color silk screen of the flag on the sleeve” … which is so sketchy… “and ring it by thirteen stars, which is the three percenters framing logo.”
[Companies] don’t deserve total, total guilt for this flippant business choice, but nobody gets off the hook for this. The normalization of this fascist symbology really does hinge not on the adoption by paramilitary, and fascist, and law enforcement [groups], it has to do with when that gets kicked down to t-shirts and bumper stickers. A lot of those little decisions change the aesthetic of authoritarianism.
It’s like ordinary, everyday authoritarianism that you’re buying into, but ignorantly because of consumerism?
Yes! That’s exactly it. And for people who have an interest in actually pushing fascism and authoritarianism it works to their advantage because all of that is plausibly deniable. When we’re talking about – “but yeah, this is just an Under Armour shirt” – Under Armour is like the new bottom. You go to Wal-mart and buy a shirt, there are like four brands, and one of them is Under Armour. Who’s going to blame someone for buying an Under Armour shirt at Wal-mart? And yet, at the same time, it’s that precise level of plausible deniability, that allows these symbols to explode in popularity and puts us in the place we’re in.
You bring this idea of symbols meaning different things to different people into the book, and I want to talk a little bit about one of the most provoking symbols in these works, which is the symbolic image of the KKK. You have this image of a group of Klansmen in March from John’s perspective while locked in the Greyhound station overnight (Book Two, p. 69). This image struck me with a visceral fear. This same feeling is recalled in Save it for Later, where you first see Klan members in the Town Square outside of Aniston, Alabama even though you were “five, and had no idea what [you were] looking at, / no way to process it – [you were] struck with a primal, occult fear” (p. 82). Throughout Save it for Later, you discuss both historical and modern-day adoptions of different symbols and their intension to evoke fear, but you also deconstruct this process, as well as replace fear with knowledge when teaching your daughter about these symbols. Can you tell me a little bit about both creating images that are meant to evoke fear in the reader and the challenges of demystifying visuals that are meant to instill fear in us?
That’s a great set of questions. In terms of working at the drawing table to rightly produce fear or horror, that March Book Two panel, with that sort of back lit, rim lit, costumed Klansmen outside the bus station, on one level that was me forcing myself into John Lewis’ perspective at that moment – what it would actually look like, especially if there were torches involved or headlights. But a lot of it is, just on a pure cartooning level, recognizing [that] the pointy hat on top of a Klansman’s outfit is the iconographic element of the costume. By obscuring a lot of the rest of the forms of these White supremacists – and by only rim lighting the inverted ‘V’ of the tip of their shitty little hood – that’s all a reader needs to identify who they are. We just need that inverted ‘V,’ and if they have eyes, you know exactly what you’re looking at.
The next level, and this is what informed a lot about my perceptions of authoritarianism and White supremacy today, as put through “About Face” especially, is the lack of accountability. These are cowards, these are people – these are like the rat creatures in Bone – who are really easy to take down when they’re by themselves and they’re big weenies. It’s about having recognition and accountability removed from their physical presence. So, not only are these fascists together, but just like with these tough guys – with their big, blacked-out trucks, with their hats, and their beards, and their glasses – it works in the same way as putting on a sheet and putting on a mask. When you’re not recognizable or accountable, you get this inflated sense of courage and purpose. So, having all experienced that in some form to a degree, we know what we are dealing with as readers – or as people in the world – when we see someone who will not be attached to some evil that is about to transpire. It’s feeling that injection of courage at the hands of evil doers when they know they will not be held accountable for their crimes.
That’s the kind of thing that has increased since finishing the March trilogy. That has become an everyday reality, recognizing not just these organized fascists, but recognizing lousy tough guys, who drive around with their stupid trucks being loud. It’s the same overarching sense of entitlement and grievance mixed with not being recognized or held accountable.
This anonymity is in real contrast to people like John Lewis, who put their body and their face on the line, taking the risk of showing their identity in order to change systemic oppression. The image representing your memory of the first time you saw a Klansman at five years old seems so cartoonish (Save p. 82). How do you create something that’s terrifying and yet simultaneously a comical version of the thing it portrays?
When I was five, I saw a costumed Klan circle for the first time. [It was a vivid memory because] I had never seen a person, outside of Halloween, dressed up in a costume in public. But also seeing that they’re around this giant cross, that they’re doing something with some kind of seriousness. So, it brought this weird kind of tension, that something much more serious is going on, that I didn’t know was possible. Having never seen someone who’s face is completely invisible except for these little eyeholes, that’s what I remember. I remember the two circles for eyes and I remember that inverted ‘V.’ So when it comes to those moments [for] a panel, that’s the takeaway. That is what haunted me – that I couldn’t make sense of. We all see these moments. We all feel that visceral fear, hopefully, when we see these White supremacists in the streets of our town or on the news.
When it comes to that next step of demystifying those visuals that conjure so much fear and terror and anxiety, a lot of it is like trusting that the reader is already coming from a place where, unfortunately, this is re-normalized as a part of the fabric of our every day lives. So, the feelings that I, or that a reader, is carrying around with them about these symbols are very similar. Or that people are representing themselves in this way, that people are projecting this kind of power. So, a lot of it is, trying not to milk that feeling. Instead of trying to milk that [feeling] for all I can – which would border on being exploitative – asking myself the question, about what role [these symbols are playing]. It’s the fact that this is re-injected into our everyday lives [that] is the real terror.
So, kind of going with the reader’s shared experience with my own, that this is a part of their everyday life, allows me to approach other facets of those visuals. Besides, once I set up [that] as a five-year-old that was my big introduction to these visuals, I don’t need to revisit that initial shock anymore. It becomes much more about: “Okay, as a parent, where do I see where this intersects with my kids’ lives? Do I need to get in the ring yet? Do I need to not worry about it, until she asks something?” So, that then opens up the incremental set of observations: “What do I need to tell my kids about and at what level?”
CHILD’S PLAY: Examining Childhood, Power, and Protest Movements
Speaking of which, I would like to move into a focus on children in each of these books. Much of March Book One is devoted to the impact of politics in John Lewis’ life as a child, except he is told to ‘stay out of the way.’ In Save it for Later, you also look at how your own children are involved in protest movements and how you guide them in understanding the current political situation. How do you think children experience their political surroundings? Why is it important in today’s world to empower them to ‘get in the way’ in a safe way? (March Book One, p. 54).
I think that whether it’s my kids’ generation, mine, or my parents’ and John Lewis’ generation, the difference is how much a parent presents context for what a kid is going to notice anyway. So, in young John Lewis’ case, that is a different and more complex relationship of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations being at a more disempowered state, living up and growing through Jim Crow segregation and the immediate spectre of enslavement within two generations of their family. From a very early age, showing him not getting context from his parents, “Don’t get in trouble,” “Don’t get in White people’s way,” and then recognizing that, at a certain point, he was too stubborn to follow through with that advice. That became a real point of division as he entered adolescence and as his view began to expand.
For my own childhood, my childhood was very much an implicit call not to get in the way. I got a very standard education that other kids got, but it was definitely devoid of a lot of the context of people getting in the way changed the shape of society. When local activists would get on the news to push for certain things in my town [when I was] an adolescent, my parents were of the generation of moderate liberal White Baby Boomers who still had a lot of baggage about people who were getting on camera talking about causes that were important to them, and focused on how those people just wanted to be on camera. More or less [they thought that] people were getting in the way by bringing up problems and issues that needed to be addressed. That, sure, we need to take care of these things, nothing’s perfect, but – dot dot dot – this is where the argument kind of trails off and where a kid is left with many more questions than answers
So, to me, as a parent now, the main difference is, I recognize that where I’m trying to do better is simply by providing more context in a given moment and doing it in a way that’s more mindful of what my kids’ worldview looks like, not what my own world view looks like. So, a lot of that starts early with seeing how they see justice, and unfairness, and power, and bullies. How they see police, how they see protesters, how they see tough guys. How they see the passive kind of stuff, like boys in the neighborhood, little White boys, who never get taught to respect people’s space by their own parents. Getting to see how frustrating that is, especially for my daughter, who is so patient and has really been guided and transformed by John Lewis and by March, and trying to provide her the context as she grows. [Helping her understand], “You know, you’ve done a great job standing up for yourself and being patient and being forgiving, you don’t have to be patient and forgiving anymore,” like on this very small-world interacting with little White boys with no respect for space or consent, or just the generational difference of “boys being boys,” even as pre-adolescent children. [Navigating] the consequences of raising your kids to keep an eye out and not give slack to boys who are taught that everything is theirs.
A lot of that really just means parents often just don’t want to have an uncomfortable exchange, or one that isn’t clear-cut in the space of thirty seconds, so they avoid talking about things altogether. Seeing the ways in which I was thrown off as a kid and trying to do better than my parents. Then knowing my kids, if either of them has kids of their own, knowing that they will do the same and see where I fell short as well of all that context.
Images in Save it for Later like the mother with the carload of children at the outset of the text (p. 14-16) and the father son in the matching Punisher shirts (p. 111) make me wonder if these conflicts and injustices will just be perpetuated forever because there will inevitably be some people who will continue to pass their feelings of racial superiority to their children and similarly continue to instill fear and hate. Or perhaps, just as you say, ‘entitlement’ and a disregard for people’s space. So, in as much as Save it for Later “is not a parenting book or an activist guide” (6), how do we work to break that cycle?
For me, a lot of that is centered around recognizing that, previous generations – and that includes my generation now being a previous generation – is people holding on to vanishing small bubbles of comfort. Really, this is talking about White America [as] being the conservative and authoritarian strains in America [that] are part of what many people recognize is a vanishing perspective of default White supremacy in society. A lot of it is that people have problems giving that up. If you have problems giving that up – even if you’re not explicit and hardcore about it – a lot of baseline, moderate conservatism in White America is simply being told and believing this kind of “zero sum exchange in society.” That bringing other people up means that you’re being brought down, a lot of kids aren’t being taught that. The strain of conservatism in raising what would become entitled little White kids has to do [more] with maintaining that bubble as the default perspective of their lives in America – which becomes an increasingly rare thing.
The thing is, kids do not experience the world the way that their parents do and that their parents are teaching them. So, one reason that I wanted to put all of this stuff in Save it for Later was – recognizing that when I talk about “look around and see what your kids’ worldview is” – that even when they’re four, their concept of the people they spend time around is a lot more diverse, fair, even-minded, non-judgmental, than anything that anyone’s parents are going to put on them, including me. This is me being judgmental and dismissive in a totally different way than some conservative set of parents might be. This is me being like: “The kids are alright; this is a parenting problem.”
This stuff gets ingrained in early. Kids have to be taught – even if it's implicit, even if it’s by omission – they have to be set up, to be taught that the world is theirs, or that it’s right and good to have their purpose-driven life that is self-centered. In general, I am very unforgiving about parents, people my age and older, who haven’t gotten with the program yet, on a very basic level, […] when you’re old enough, that you’re getting a little out of touch. You have to recognize when you’re putting so much of your own perspective into trying to teach your kid how to deal with a world that has changed. There’s a lot of me that, I am very quick to write people off, for life, in terms of just like acquaintances [and] neighbors. I don’t have time for that shit.
I’m thankful that I’m surrounded by people who are less [unforgiving] than I am, but I also try to moderate that because I realize that my kids don’t have the same baggage that I have. I have a lot of faith in young people to not wind up like their parents, just by having to be around all different kinds of kids as a parent. Nobody likes to go to their kids’ friend’s birthday parties, but when you go, then it’s nice because then you realize that you’re wrong about their friends’ parents and what their lives are like, but then you also realize that the kids themselves are generally fine. The problems before a certain age are basically parenting problems, they’re not at the fault of kids dealing with their world in a different way.
One of the social ironies highlighted by both March and Save it for Later is that children are deeply affected by their contemporary political environment, with comparatively very little control over it. In March this is especially highlighted through the reference to the many children who were the victims of racialized violence – for example four young girls die in the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham bombing: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robinson, Denise McNair, and Cynthia Wesley (March Book Three, p. 9); Virigil Lamar, a thirteen-year-old boy was fatally shot by eagle scouts (March Book Three, p. 12); and sixteen-year-old Johnny Robinson killed by an officer (March Book Three, p. 14-16). This is also highlighted through images of children marching against these injustices and being arrested for it (March Book Two, p. 131-135). This social injustice is just as prevalent today as young adult minorities still disproportionately experience police violence in the United States, such as Daunte Wright (20), Breonna Taylor (26), Stephon Clark (22), Tamir Rice (12), Michael Brown (18) and more. Where is there space for children and young adults to be involved, heard, and counted in their political environment? What actions can they take to enact meaningful change within a movement that can be fatally violent to children.
Children have the same potential space to be shared with adults. Why we wanted to present March framed as we did was to emphasize that these are 18- to 24-year-olds who are at the center of focus in March. This is where it’s the adults’ responsibility to protect the space for kids to have their say and to be a part. We are actually the ones who have the power – the legal power and whatever adult authority we have – to carve out and keep a space safe for kids to have a voice and voice it publicly. It’s not inappropriate. The historical precedent is so strong.
This is where I’ve turned over the last decade: I think it's too late for the idea that social media is this mass-democratizing thing – which did and does push a lot of political change and is a huge democratizing moment – [but] it’s clearly, primarily a weapon of consumption, control, and disinformation. But this is where the power of youth was able to utilize social media for positive change in ways adults did not understand yet. That’s going back to 2010 in early social media and that’s as late as TikTok teens sabotaging these fascist rallies during the election in ways that adults could not pick up on. The space is there. It’s a matter of – when we’re talking about children, children – it’s a matter of adults [working] to protect the space opened up for kids.
Another thing that’s important is that a lot of the mass social change, which was made possible throughout the Civil Rights movement, was because of this very public and publicized mass arrest, particularly of young people. This is something that, thankfully, Andrew got really serious about, and maybe the first person who spoke out publicly about cancelling student debt. We did a speech at the Federal Reserve in NYC in early 2015 to the board of the Reserve, where he [set] out to answer the question: “Why aren’t people protesting in a certain way and taking certain kids of risks that face all this jail time?” He was pointing out the difference in the sheer amount of freedom of time and risk that young people have. A lot of that has already been removed because of student loan debt burdening college aged people, and young adults, with the inability to take a risk to wind up in jail for a month. Trillions of dollars of student loans really does make a significant impact on the amount of risk a young person, or even a middle-aged person, is willing to take, when not only do they have rent to pay [and] kids to take care of, but when you add hundreds of dollars a month of student loan debt that never stops. That’s going to shut down your risk-taking considerations right off the bat. So, that’s where, increasingly, student loan debt cancellation became a strategic imperative and a moral imperative for all of us on the March team. Recognizing how interconnected that was to the precedent of people being able to go to college with much less debt in previous generations, and how that opened them up to take the kinds of risks that changed our society.
One of the images that I kept revisiting in Save it for Later was that of your five-year-old daughter dressed as Wonder Woman and your five-year-old self dressed as an army cadet walking towards each other (p. 60). Can you unpack the different levels of meaning in this image for me?
A lot of this is my daughter versus me at the same age. Those were my dad’s military fatigues. He was in the Air Force. When I was having imaginative fantasy play – living in my own world running around in the swamps and the woods of Alabama, dressed head to toe in military gear every day of my life – there’s a part of me that’s embodying my dad and his military service, but a large part of it is pure fantasy. Like, I have my own storylines and characters even as a five- and six-year-old, or eight-year-old, that’s informed by reading GI Joe comics and watching the cartoon and playing with toys. But already, I’m starting stories in my head as a child and instead of making them comics, I’m playing them out
The same applies for my daughter, in that panel, dressed as Wonder Woman. It’s significant to me, because Wonder Woman was my first favorite superhero also, and the first complete run of comics I read was a Wonder Woman run. I guess I had a Spider-Man costume, but I never really had a lot of superhero costumes or anything. There isn’t a heavy ‘gendering thing’ happening there from my personal perspective, but I’m obviously conveying the gendering of fantasy and power by putting myself in these military fatigues compared with Wonder Woman approaching from the other side. The important point is that they meet, a generation apart, and that they are different fantasy applications of power and empowerment. That’s really without value judgement, because we’re talking of my limited understanding and perception on military power and identity. The point is that they meet and that we’re coming from the same place but living in very different worlds.
Also, I love that there is this time-slippage that we’ve been talking about at work in this image. What if your five-year-old self as a child could meet your five-year-old child, what would be that divide?
There are these moments of reckoning. Where I first decided to push my inner-dimensional kind of wormhole situation in comics [was] in Any Empire. The climax of Any Empire actually involves this collapsing of time, as a wormhole in which the adult versions of the main characters accidentally encounter their childhood counterparts. They’re confused, but it forces a reckoning of the bigger issues that have been talked about throughout the book. There’s a fantasy sequence, where basically the villain of the story, as a child, encounters this alternate adult version of himself, who shows him another path forward besides a path of obedience and power.
This is where that part of my storytelling is guided more by the time-hopping and reckoning that’s in Ursula K. Le Guin stories [and] Ray Bradbury stories. But also the way Joan Didion, in some of her books that are less journalistic and more memoir. Even Patty Smith’s Year of the Monkey in particular. The kind of dreamy, Murakami-like, time-slippage that’s happening – where you’re not sure exactly to which degree you’re in the past and the present, and how much you’re being impacted by storytelling versus how much is an account of something that really occurred. I love that grey area and the ways in which it can tip back and forth.
That image also encompasses this idea of “childhood innocence,” which you unpack in Save it for Later (p. 81-82). You suggest it a false assumption that people in positions of privilege can perpetuate. When I was growing up, my parents tried to protect me by hiding things away and not telling me what was really going on. You attempt to protect your children by informing them, talking to them, mediating the news for them, and including them. How do you think we can reframe the types of conversation we have with children around contemporary social issues and work towards including them in the social politics of the contemporary moment? How do we burst that bubble of false privilege while also maintaining that childhood is a special time and special place of fantasy?
Well one part of this is I also hide things. Every parent hides things. That’s part of what parenthood is. You are in fact the gate-keeper of the world to your child. So, a lot of it is recognizing that you’re in it for the long-haul with your child, so the time will come. The most important thing is slowly learning that it is inevitable that your kid is going to notice things – regardless of whether or not you hide it, or obscure it, or distract them – they are going to ask questions. So, be ready to answer their questions when they ask them. There are moments where you don’t want to get into too many side issues at once, so you choose to focus on what’s relevant. There’s also this balance of: “What can my kid do with this?” The rest then, is excess. Or, “At which point am I just scaring my kid with this information, which is something they can’t do anything with, other than be afraid?
There are times, as you’ll see, in the “Good Trouble, Bad Flags” chapter of the book, where I’m telling my kids not to interact with someone – defying this sense of common trust: “If you need help, ask somebody for help.” There are moments where I’m like, “Even if you need help, don’t ask somebody who has a confederate flag. Just don’t ask them for help.” On one level, it seems like a wild statement for me to make as advice for my child if they need help, and on another: “No, for real! This person is broadcasting loud and clear where they’re coming from, don’t trust this person!” A lot of that is unpacking my own baggage of my parents being of a generation where people with White supremacist symbols could be allowed to be assumed to be fundamentally good but misguided people – that it was a matter of ignorance and ed-u-ca-tion. I whole-heartedly reject that now, understanding that people have been waiting for decades, under their little rocks, to come out and be encouraged in their White supremacy.
So, that’s where I draw the line. I will face the consequences of that as a parent. Along the way, whether [you’re] reading stories together that are really awesome, but as you’re curating a reading experience with your kid – if your kid is six, or even eight, and you have a daughter – and sexual assault comes up textually in the narrative, recognizing, “How do you navigate that as the curator of the reading experience?” It involves knowing that you’re going to be talking about assault – and you’re going to be talking about it here in the next couple of years – but [it’s about] trusting that that question and that conversation is going to come up. [It’s recognizing] that I’m making my decision as a parent, to gate-keep on a detail that opens up a much larger conversation – that opens up a window, a terrifying window – into the relationship of power and people in the world that might not fit into our thirty-minute bedtime window. But [also recognizing that] I’m going to spend the rest of my life with my kids – it’s recognizing that conversation might be coming up in a matter of weeks, or month, or a year. So, a lot of these things sound problematic from outside the perspective of parenthood, but the overarching thing is that the conversations never go away. It’s just a matter [of] wait[ing] for your kid to notice things, and that’s your inroad. When they are looking for an answer, you’re like, “There is my opportunity to talk about it” instead of peeling off into these huge dark conversations that actually derail the first thing you were wanting to talk about.
You’re already managing really difficult conversations as a parent, but after November 9th, 2016 these conversations are so much more acute. In Save it for Later you show how you felt after the 2016 presidential election was declared for Donald Trump, but how did you feel when the 2020 presidential election was declared for Joe Biden? What might that image look like if you were creating it today?
Well, if I were creating it today, it’s important to notice the way in that the events of that day and that week played out were very similar in terms of the minutia. My kids went with me to drop off my ballot with an election official, just in the way that my kids have gone with me to vote in the past. Each time, I recognize the urgency of normaliz[ing] voting in every election. You have to take your kid with you, just like you take your kid to a protest, whenever it’s safe to do so. When it came to election day, just like how I depict in Save it for Later, I made a map of the United Sates that we color-coded and as the votes came in. I let my kids stay up late, we started filling in the states. A lot of that was deja-vu because then it was bedtime, all that the same stuff applied, and Rachel and I stayed up late and we kept filling in the map. But this time, the map stayed up for days, so throughout the workday, I would bring my kids home from school and they would ask for updates on the map. “Yeah, check out these states that we filled in!” and trying to keep an electoral count, but keeping it on paper to have this sense of consistency.
In the long term, I’m not the most optimistic individual. I think we are in a sustained fight for the survival, the actual survival, of democracy in a way that will last for the rest of our lives. This is maybe where we’re entering the dystopian space age totalitarianism. Our lifetime is going to be defined by fighting for the survival of democracy at every step. So, a lot of that is countering the sense of false inevitability of ‘things just working out,’ that happened in 2016, and the sense of shock. I cannot be shocked about that anymore, because I was already predicting this mass increase in violence, in White supremacist presence. I was anticipating an attempt to overturn the United States government. I was expecting these things. I had such an unpromising view of the future that it was just a wash of relief, that was already temporary and fleeting, when the announcement of electoral victory occurred. Not even like the small moments of comedy that occurred like Four Seasons Total Landscaping – like it was really hard for me to even get – I wanted so badly to get the laugh out of it and I just knew that I needed to celebrate that moment, but it was too dire. I was already thinking ahead to December, to January, to 2021, and the violence which would follow.
By knowing that nothing was certain, by the rules not applying, the electoral victory simply meant that the fight had now shifted to uphold the fact of the victory. It didn’t have anything to do with a problem being solved, it was now just a new set of problems coming to the forefront. So, a lot of that stuff, my kids didn’t need to know it, but I did need to establish: “Okay this happened. This is a fact. This is true. The next thing that’s going to happen is that YouKnowWho is going to do everything he can to stay in office forever.” This is actually where I decreased keeping my kids informed on a day-to-day level. I told them about January 6th (2021) when it happened. But it was these big moments [where] I would tell them about things because they had never happened with precedent before. Where I was like, “It’s important for you to know this has never happened before. This is completely outside the norm of any political reality in the United States, and you need to know that this is crazy! Crazy shit!”
Early in Save it for Later, you recreate this wonderful image of your daughter jubilantly throwing leaves around in a cemetery in the days before the 2016 presidential election. You explain that you almost want to erase this image of your daughter being so jubilant while you were experiencing the crash of November 9th, 2016. Why did you ultimately decide to include this image of your daughter in the text?
The reality of parenthood is getting to just have these joyful experiences, and this is a cliché but it’s true, getting to live in that kid space again. So, a lot of that, in that sunny moment, was getting to just feel that [joy] with the false assurance that things would ultimately be alright. The way that that image was taken in the moment of joy and relief is turned into a haunting image – which I will show you now:
So, this is the actual photo that I took on that day. I recently just uploaded [it] back to my phone, because I don’t like looking at it. But part of the healing process is you’ve made it out of the clearing just enough that it kind of helps to review these moments. Part of this is just that reckoning process which allows you to be like: Yes, I remember what this was like two days before election day in 2016, and the experience of a four-year-old just having the gosh-darn time of their lives. All of this is just as real as the darkness and the doom and a lot of it is making sure you’re carving out the space. But, yes, I will always be haunted by this image, but the hope is that eventually I can in fact remember this as that necessary reason why we fight, the reason why we equip our kids to be able to tackle a very foreboding future for them.
(RE)PRESENTATION: Drawing Private and Public Experiences
Throughout Save it for Later, you portray your daughters as these equestrian type figures. At first, I thought it might have been because of privacy issues, or consent issues, or even because childhood can be considered this other space apart from the adult world. But at the end of the text, you chose to include a photograph of yourself and your daughter at a protest. Can you tell me why you chose to represent your children as anthropomorphic characters even though you included a photograph of your daughter at the end of the book?
Well, all of that’s true, like all of that co-exists. But the primary two issues were, number one, just a basic consent issue. If I’m telling this story about my experiences, that is inseparable from my family’s experiences in this context, for the most part. My kids are just too young to consent. But also, my wife and I, we’ve collaborated and made a couple of comics as well, but she keeps to herself more, and she is not a huge social media presence. I’m only present there for professional and news-reading reasons. So, basically trying to navigate that on a family level, one of the easiest things I could do [was] obscure[e] my kids’ individual likenesses. It made me feel better, it conveyed their true sense of spirit, and they liked seeing it too. Keep in mind, my kids have seen most things I’ve drawn in the last ten years as I’ve been drawing them. So, it was fun to do. Initially, I actually made couple of covers and illustrations and started work on the book with kids all as humans, [but] it just seemed a little too specific.
So, the second point was, in making my kids anthropomorphic – because [the story] is not about me and my kids – hopefully, it allows a reader to project their experiences more easily, to see their own kids, or the young people in their life, in the reading without having to go through that one extra step. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I sympathize with this,” or “I share a common experience,” they are feeling that first. That was the main reason.
You’re the only person who’s ever asked about the fact that I just go ahead and undercut the idea by including the photo. And a lot of that, is originally, I wanted that [photo] to be my author photo, instead of whatever picture I have of me [with my fist under my chin] being like, “Hello!” […] I didn’t realize that [it] was a layout issue, that there was an extra page involved. But to me, I just wanted to include it.
When I read it now, to end the book – as the final note, as the coda – to actually have a photograph encapsulating one moment of this experience [is nice]. But also, this is a moment that took place a few towns over, [which] is not covered in the book itself. I like that it’s showing that it’s not a matter of your kid going to one protest with you, it’s a matter of being like, “Oh, we need to show up for this. We need to take a little road trip to show up at this Congressperson’s office etcetera.” As far as including one photo, I wasn’t so much concerned with including my older daughter’s likeness, it was simply helping kind of tie the whole room together – in the parlance of The Dude – to be like, “Here is a moment from the world that we share, now that you’ve read through my comics version of reality.”
As much as we talked about this idea of ‘graffitiing the flag’ in Save it for Later, I really love the way you represent John Lewis as a boy in silhouette with scripture written upon him. Can you tell me more about representing John Lewis in this way?
In March Book One, that is our first instance of using script quoted from a different source and is the first time in which we’re introducing [John Lewis’] relationship to his faith. This is where from a lettering perspective, in the panel prior to that, John Lewis opens up the transition by quoting the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” (March Book One, p. 26). So, by trying to represent him simply as being embodied by the words of the Bible, and from his perspective, by the words of God. In the script, it reads pretty plainly. We have the caption text, and then in quotes we would have this Bible quote: “Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (March Book One, p. 27). So, for me, it was a very simple thing of not wanting to just do a block of quoted text, if he himself is going to be transformed by the words, then the words needed to embody and fill his form. From there, I made a shift so that biblical quotes, which typically were coming from the storyteller for God or from Jesus, were usually done in cursive to denote that these are not words coming from John Lewis, but that John Lewis, as a preacher, is becoming a conduit for the voice of God, or for the voice of Jesus. So, the precedent for that was, “How do I find a concrete way to show his person being transformed by those words?”
You recently redrew a high-contrast image of John Lewis from March Book One (p. 78) because you didn’t feel you had correctly captured him and posted the redrawn image on social media (“In Memory of John Lewis” 2020). Why did you decide to re-depict John Lewis after he passed away and publicly share the redrawn image?
On one level, on a cartooning level, it took me until about halfway through March Book Two until I got my own visual shorthand of John Lewis, the character, down. Once that really crystalized, I was able to draw John Lewis in my sleep with a certain level of success. But it’s important to know that this [trilogy] is drawn over four and a half years. So, March Book One, part of this story is me learning how to depict John Lewis and his likeness. Also, John Lewis was my friend, but at first, as we started as collaborators, we were not friends yet. So, a lot of it is over the course of these years and beyond, our friendship establishing and growing and strengthening. I get to know him better, I love and respect him in new complex ways, [and] that affects how I represent him visually, how I draw him.
So, being less familiar with him, there is a lot in March Book One that I wish I could redraw. That’s always the cartoonist’s dilemma: if you start to redraw something, you’re just going to redraw the whole book. So, my general approach is, you just leave it alone and let it serve as a document. But that one splash page always got to me, because it’s so powerful, it’s the cover of the French translation of the book, and yet, to me, it doesn’t look like John Lewis, because it was one of the first things I drew in this book, and I had not yet figured out my own shorthand – and I didn’t know him, on a personal level enough, to get a sense of him.
So, you know, I can’t redraw everything, but also on a kind of therapy level, I just wanted to sometimes draw my friend, who is no longer here. So, I was like, “If I could pick one thing, I’m going to redraw that profile.” It helped my heart and my soul, but it also just gave me that sense of satisfaction that stood in for redrawing the whole book. It’s really nice to revisit one solid page and be like that is John Lewis, that is the person I know and knew.
In Save it for Later, you take a moment to reflect on the personal impact that John Lewis’ passing had on you. Why did you decide to include such a private experience in this text?
That was the last chapter that I ever drew in the book. In fact, that was the last section of the book I ever drew, those six pages. I learned about Congressman Lewis’ cancer diagnosis when everyone else did, when it was announced publicly in late December. I had seen him about a month prior and we had kept our relationship up on the phone. Just like everyone else losing access to the people around them, this is where his passing and the loss of contact is also intertwined with the pandemic.
However, the kind of celebrity aspect of losing my friend always threatened to overshadow my personal experience, or even our relationship as collaborators. It was such a profoundly impactful moment, but it was so wrapped up with the pandemic, and isolation, and speaking to media about his passing, that it never felt right to talk about, or to put into comics form, what that experience was like. However, this is where time gets weird in 2020, it took about a month, and I still had not really wrapped my brain around a lot of the reality of the loss of Congressman Lewis by mid-August. A lot of things helped, but a lot of it was just me being in my house all the time, just laying around and trying to keep work going and to get normal life going.
This is where a lot of it comes back to the one thing comics do for me is they help me work stuff out. As soon as I realized that maybe I wasn’t going to publish it, but I needed to just put the thoughts down in my sketchbook and put them on a page – as soon as I let myself put my feelings on there to help work it out – I wrote the entire thing in a day, thumbnailed it in a day. That whole section, I drew in like five days. That was the last thing I did in the book besides corrections.
It’s important to note that his death was so fresh, but it was the very last thing put into the book. It was something I was afraid of being exploitative, or really just speaking out of my place, even though it was about my subjective experience. I wasn’t going to have any part of that. But I realized that I was communicating about something that hopefully could speak to our weird solipsistic isolation in 2020, hopefully communicate this mass shared social sense of grief that did not have anything to do with me. If you’re talking about 2020, we’re all living by ourselves, it’s like you can’t separate that. It oddly lends a little bit of validation to these more self-centered approaches to storytelling, because that itself is this larger social issue, specific to the pandemic.
Anyway, making those six pages is what allowed me to come to a sense of peace with losing Congressman Lewis, and begin to understand it in a deeper way that let me kind of move on. It still took a couple more months, even as I’ve spoken to you today, I lose sense of past and present tense, and I still am not good about referring to him in the past tense. So, there’s a lot of this that I haven’t adjusted to with losing him and not getting to communicate with him in the last couple of months of his life helped with sense that disconnect. But that’s no different than what millions of people have had to put up with this past year. To me, yes, it’s about losing my friend and finding a way forward – but it’s not really about that – it’s about the people who have also lost family members and loved ones and haven’t had a space to work through that, haven’t had the chance to go to a funeral, haven’t had a chance to just sit and have a drink with their friends and talk about loss in the same way.
Some of us have lost loved ones during the pandemic. Others live in a continual fear that we might lose a loved one. This fear has been a driving force during the pandemic and has created a perpetual state of grief. Unlike yourself, I just can’t express it by structuring it in writing, or drawing it, or putting it in a song. I can share that grief with somebody else sharing that personal grief. Those pages really impacted me, and I was, in a strange way, very grateful that you added them in, because that for me is the missing human connection that I feel and connect with and can have that catharsis with, because somebody like you, can and does – that’s its own act of courage – put it somewhere I can see it and can connect to it and feel my own pain through it. So, it’s wonderful that you did, even though it was difficult – thank you for that.
That’s the power of art. That’s the power of music. That’s why we make these things. We need them.