Brainiac On Banjo #092: John Lewis – The Great American Warrior

Hound dogs on my trail / School children sitting in jail / Black cat cross my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last / Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We all gonna get it in due time / I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer — Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam,” 1964

The first time I was able to have a conversation with the late Representative and true American hero John Lewis was about six years ago at the Baltimore Comic-Con. It was during set-up so the room was comparatively open and, as I was attempting to locate my booth I saw Representative Lewis behind a table. His name was on the sign behind his table — “Congressman John Lewis.” I did one of those patented Tex Avery eyeball takes.

I previously had been at the Heroes Convention at the Charlotte North Carolina Convention Center. A bunch of older white guys were walking around wearing suits that, each, could feed a family of four for three months. In the midst of that gaggle was Sarah Palin. I looked around to make sure I was at the right place because I could not believe these folks were there to add to their Funko Pops collections.

I was right; the state Republican Convention was upstairs and the comic-con was downstairs. The white men in their expensive suits looked disgusted but, to be fair, they always look that way. Sarah saw the cosplayers and beamed a megawatt smile. So you can’t say I’ve never said anything nice about Sarah Palin.

But this time, the statesman at hand was there for a comic book show. Considering he worked in Congress, seeing a couple thousand people dressed up as The Joker (including babies) was just another day at work. I approached him, he offered me a seat, and we chatted about the relationship between comic books and political organizing. It was one of those “holy crap” moments that make life wonderful.

Rep. Lewis did say I was the first to recognize him at the show. I laughed and said “Oh, just wait until the show starts.” He looked skeptical, but my prediction quickly came to pass: that was just about the only time during the show that I could see him clearly from the aisle.

The Congressman was there to promote the first volume of his autobiographical graphic novel series March  – co-written by Andrew Aydin and drawn by Nate Powell – and I was completely amazed and overwhelmingly proud that he chose this medium to get his story across to a “new” audience. To this day, I remain amazed and proud.

And validated. Boomer comics people still look for that, I guess.

March has done quite well, both in sales and reception. It was number one on the New York Times and Washington Post bestseller lists, and March won (among others) an Eisner Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award, and is one of Reader’s Digest’s “Graphic Novels Every Grown-Up Should Read.” The trilogy is in a great, great many school libraries, and that’s right where it should be.

The next time I talked with the Congressman was when he was appearing at Columbia University for a speech/interview/book signing. The final volume of March had been released, and this appearance was quite the comics world event. Rep. Lewis gave a fire-and-brimstone speech that could inspire polar bears to march against global warming.

My daughter accompanied me to the event… or, perhaps, vice-versa. She had never experienced this type of event in person, and Adriane was moved to tears. This was the logical and appropriate response. Lots of comics folks were there; it was like a comic-con party, but nobody was wearing a licensed t-shirt.

Former DC Comics publisher/president Paul Levitz interviewed the Congressman on-stage, and you can take it to heart when I say that Paul did a magnificent job. Paul can be quite self-effacing, most certainly when he’s not on the clock, and his response to my compliment — the three of us had lunch afterwards — was that he was glad he could reach up to the occasion. All this was followed by a signing and a meet-the-fans sort of thing and the Congressman actually listened to those who approached him and engaged in conversation. Trust me, not a lot of politicians actually do that.

Nobody lives forever, but ideas can live beyond well after their creator leaves the room. John Lewis ennobled us all as human beings and he enabled those of us who take pride in being on the receiving end of the so-called epithet “social justice warrior.” He is directly responsible for enormous change for the better. I’d say we need him now more than ever, but, sadly, that is always so. The great American experiment is a science experiment, and those kind of things produce significant results, but the experiment itself is never-ending.

Good people rise to the occasion, as we have seen these past several months. I am proud that John Lewis chose to add our medium as a means for action.