Since 1927 the American magazine Time has printed an annual issue in which they designate a “Person of the Year”. In it they select a person, group of individuals, object, or idea that has had a significant impact on the previous year “for better or worse.” We looked at the power of this sort of profile and recap and decided it would be a worthwhile tradition to do the same specifically within the world of comics.
In 2016 there were many worthy contenders, people who impacted comics in a big, often positive, fashion. Yet there was no doubt as to who the Comics Person of the Year had to be: The creative team of March, Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.
March: Book Three, published in August 2016, completes the planned trilogy telling the story of the American Civil Rights Movement through the autobiographical perspective of John Lewis. Throughout its publication history, beginning with March: Book One in August 2013, the comic has received critical and commercial success. It has been regularly touted by comics critics, educators, and mainstream pundits as an engaging and revealing history of one of America’s most important struggles.
The release of the final installment in 2016 saw the team receive their greatest accolades and recognition to date. On November 16, 2016 March: Book Three was awarded the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It is the first time any comic has received a National Book Award in any of the four categories designated by the National Book Foundation. Not since Maus was awarded a Special Award in Letters by the Pulitzer Prize Committee in 1992 has any American comic gained such significant recognition from a mainstream literary institution.
This follows the assignment of an Eisner Award, the American comics industry’s most prestigious prize, for Best Reality-Based Work to March: Book Two this July in San Diego, as well as various other awards offered to March: Book One in 2013 and 2014. The award pedigree and mainstream acclaim of March is nothing short of impeccable.
The recognition offered by committees and shows should undercut the value of the work itself though. March: Book Three is notable both for its own unique achievements and the completion of a substantial work. The work itself is the greatest element of this story and the reason these three creators are the Comics Person of the Year.
March was partially inspired by Martin Luther King Jr and the Montgomery Story, a 10 cent comic that Lewis encountered when he was 15 years old. This comic told the story of King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, detailing the philosophy of nonviolence advocated by King and his followers and showing the potential for success in following it. That comic played a key role in Lewis’ life as he too became an advocate for nonviolent strategies during the Civil Rights Movement, as chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and one of the “Big Six” leaders who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
The connection between March and Martin Luther King Jr and the Montgomery Story, even with a 59 year gap between publications. They are true stories designed both to inform readers about history and present a set of unassailable moral imperatives along with the means with which to defend them. The original publication was much shorter in nature, a small pamphlet easily distributed on magazine racks. March represents a much more ambitious achievement.
Intertwining the story of the Civil Rights Movement with the framing device of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, March sets out to juxtapose past and present as well as individual images. It examines the multifaceted story of the struggle for Civil Rights in America, highlighting lesser known names and the difficulties in taking any given course of action. Lewis and his collaborators do not gloss over the ugly bits of history or exaggerate their own triumphs. Instead they offer a stark and honest recounting of events that were required to make progress possible.
Congressman John Lewis own life is a testament to the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and the significance of his choosing the comics form for his story. From his early involvement in SNCC to his long tenure as the Congressperson representing Georgia’s 5th District, his accomplishments are too long to list. In selecting comics as his medium of choice, Lewis makes his story and its lessons more accessible to everyone.
Andrew Aydin has shown himself to be a great talent as a comics writer, in addition to his political work with Lewis. The scripting choices and plotting of March distill complicated ideas and events in a manner that is clear without losing any nuance. His accomplishments as a collaborator on this project reveal a storyteller whose career, in comics and politics, is only just beginning.
Nate Powell was already a force within comics when he became a part of March, esteemed for his cartooning in Any Empire and Swallow Me Whole. His contributions to March, as both artist and letterer, have revealed new depths to his talent. The use of contrasting colors and reversals, carefully crafted portraits of historical figures, and the presentation of violence have made March a work of tremendous power. Powell has taken Lewis’ story and ensured that it looks as important as it truly is.
March: Book Three arrives at a moment in American history as fraught with issues of Civil Rights and race as when the original story takes place. Its story is not merely a lesson in history to be remembered, but a blueprint and reminder to be studied and utilized by current and future generations. There is a driving message contained within every page of March that freedom is a right, but one that cannot merely be given. Only through constant struggle can we ensure the promises of the Constitution and Bill of Rights are upheld for all people.
Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell have made that message clear and permanently recorded it within the three volumes of March. Their talent, experience, and perspective have both lifted comics into the public spotlight and provided people throughout the world with a significant text on Civil Rights. As historians, artists, scholars, and leaders, these three men have set an example to which we may all hope to aspire. That is why they are the 2016 Comics Person of the Year.