Andrew Aydin listens to old John Lewis voicemails.
For Aydin, the congressman was not just a mentor and collaborator. He was the closest thing the former congressional aide had to a father.
Lewis’ voice was booming and deep, even when it was playful: “Andrew?” voice messages play. “Where are you, young man?
Aydin recorded phone calls as the two worked on their non-fiction historical graphic novel series. Lewis would fall asleep talking, the recordings capturing his snoring. The two would later joke about those snores during book discussions for their work on the “March,” a trilogy covering the drafting of voting and civil rights laws.
“I guess the John Lewis I knew isn’t the John Lewis everyone knew,” he told Mississippi Today.
Lewis died on July 17, 2020 from pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old. His final graphic novel, “Run,” was released the following year, picking up where the March trilogy left off.
Now Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell, who worked closely with Lewis on the books, face a new challenge: shooting and talking about their work without Lewis by their side. When the two come to speak at the Mississippi Book Festival on Aug. 20, it will likely be the first in-person talk they’ve given since the pandemic began — and since Lewis’s death.
“I’m excited to go to Mississippi,” Aydin said. “I’m delighted to be back. I’m excited to be able to tell people about this work. These experiences that I had to help keep John Lewis, the human being, alive for people. I don’t want him to become a mythical figure or something that seems unattainable.
The two told Mississippi Today that continuing to promote and explain comic books and their influence is vital. Especially now, when materials used to teach the civil rights movement in schools are threatened by so-called critical race theory laws in the South and Mississippi.
“We know we are under attack,” Aydin said. “That’s why it’s so important that Nate and I hit the road and talk and tell this story. As the congressman would say, ‘Go preach the gospel.’ Because we must keep these works in the schools.
The three March books follow a young John Lewis and organizers using nonviolent civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights and an end to segregation. They recount a series of events, from Lewis’s first meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Mississippi Freedom Summer and Bloody Sunday. “Run” shows the conflicts that arise in the aftermath of the movement’s victories.
It’s comics – the same medium as classics like “Amazing Spider-Man.” There are no superpowers, but real stakes. Aydin, Powell and Lewis went to great lengths to make the works historically accurate, right down to the dialogue. The panels move quickly and create something easy to digest despite the amount of historical context, which is why they’ve been hailed as an amazing teaching tool.
Before working on the graphic novels, Lewis recalled a comic about King published in the late 1950s that covered the Montgomery bus boycotts. The comic was sold out of car trunks and swooned in churches. He inspired nonviolent protests across the South. Lewis saw the proposed accessibility comics.
“Congressman Lewis’ background for the power of comics, in educating contextualized nonviolent movements, absolutely not only set the precedent for the book and the mandate of the book,” Powell said, “but c was already in itself a kind of proof of concept in the mind of John Lewis.
Powell used the books in his personal life to teach history to his own children. They also helped him reexamine the shortcomings of his own education and the sensitized version of the civil rights movements often taught in the classroom.
The books won several awards — the third “March,” a National Book Award — and spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
The last time Aydin was in Mississippi was alongside Lewis. Both were part of a distribution program for “Mars” which gave the books to students in the Delta.
“When the congressman and I visited places like Mississippi, Georgia or North Carolina, he often commented on how close we were – or by car – to many places where he was beaten or arrested or where he organized demonstrations,” says Aydine. “And that really reinforced the importance of what we were doing and being there.”
“Now to do it without the congressman,” he added, “is really difficult.”
It could be emotionally challenging, but Aydin said it was not only the best way to protect Lewis’ legacy, but also to ensure he was remembered as a whole person. and not an untouchable historical figure.
“What’s so powerful about her story and her life is that she’s a role model for all of us,” Aydin said.
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