By John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Illustrated by L. Fury with Nate Powell
If this were a graphic book review it would start out with a drawing of me on a lounge chair holding Congressman John Lewis’s latest graphic memoir, “Run: Book One.” There would be a skeptical look on my face. “Voter suppression in comics?” I would ask while mulling how sketches and snippets of dialogue and made-up words like WHEEEOOOOWWWWWWWW could possibly capture such a sinister and complex period of our history.
By the end, you’d see me in the same spot, a chalice to my lips and a faraway look in my eyes. The skepticism would be gone. I might say something like MMHMM.
Anyone familiar with Lewis’s celebrated “March” trilogy (whose final book is still the only comic to win a National Book Award) knows that graphic novels can handle nuance quite adeptly. This work, most of which was completed by Lewis and his team of collaborators before he died in the summer of 2020, picks up where “March” left off, with the civil rights movement winning important legislative gains in the 1960s but still very much unfinished in its aims. There’s a timeliness to “Run,” a reminder that the efforts to keep prospective voters from casting their ballots that are so much in the headlines these days are nothing new.
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It turns out the animus that drives so much of our nation’s history is well suited to this form. One encounters in the arresting artwork of “Run” beady eyes, angry grimaces, looks of anguish and defiance. “Now git!” says the finger-pointing, scowling white man who emerges from a whites-only church in the opening pages to tell a young Lewis to end his protest of the segregated services inside. No need to go on and on about his disdain for those born with more melanin in their skin or his hypocrisy in praying to the Lord while acting devilish.
That free-form word cited above with all the W’s is the sound of a police siren as baton-wielding troopers race to the church protest in Americus, Ga., to cuff Lewis for the umpteenth time. We read the same word again when the police pull over a young Black man in Watts. And then a FFWACK as he is struck with an officer’s firearm and a KFFUD as a rock is hurled onto the hood of the police car. In no time, Watts is aflame. As one flips the pages, there are THUMPs, POWs, DINGs and, as Lewis is ousted as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by a more radical element of the movement led by Stokely Carmichael, cries on the streets of BLACK POWER!
Black Americans have never been a monolith, despite frequent efforts to portray us as such. Lewis offers a fair-minded account of how his turn-the-other-cheek philosophy clashed with the frustrations of the movement back then. At age 26, he found himself broke, jobless and no longer its chosen one.
Book One finishes before Lewis found his next act. But we know his trajectory well: how he was elected to Congress and over three decades turned into an icon again. Lewis lived long enough to witness the killing of George Floyd by an officer who knelt on his neck and ignored his cries of I CAN’T BREATHE! This is a story, lamentably, without an end.