March Book One

March, Book One,

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell,

Top Shelf

march book one cover lewis powell

A cold January day in 2009, Washington DC, and a venerable politician goes about his morning routine before heading to his congressional office, preparing for inauguration day – a new president is about to be sworn in. Always an important day, but this particular occasion is more remarkable than most – Obama is about to take the oath of office, the first black president of the United States of America. The veteran old politician we see preparing for the day is congressman John Lewis, not just a man who has served his constituents for decades, but a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, a campaigner who stood there during the famous March on Washington in 1963, giving an important speech alongside Doctor Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, surely one of the most moving and inspirational political speeches of the 20th century.

In a way I found this quite a daunting book to review – not, I hasten to add, because of anything wrong with the book. It’s beautifully put together, open, accessible. It was more a worry that anything I might say wouldn’t really do justice to the events recorded here, from eyewitness testimony of someone who was there, who stood up for rights for himself and others and had to struggle terribly for it against vile, brutal, racist thuggery that it is hard to credit was ever allowed to happen in a free and democratic society. And so I delayed it, kept rethinking it, rewriting it and eventually just had to decide to post it, warts and all. I’m not sure any review can do justice to someone’s memories of events like these that helped shape the world (and are still shaping it, Lewis is still fighting the good fight), but at the very least I can commend it as a book very worthy of your reading (and hopefully the sort of book you will want to pass around friends), and also one of those stand-out works which again emphasises how well the comics medium is suited to tackling any subject.

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But, as I said this first book of John Lewis’ memories of the long march for Civil Rights is, quite deliberately I would think, made as open and inviting as possible to the reader, regardless of prior knowledge on the part of that reader – if you’ve read the history of the period or if much of it is new to you, this will still welcome you in gently. In a way it reminds me of Walter Scott’s approach to retelling Scottish history, the “Tales of a Grandfather”, and it did feel like that to me, as if a much-loved, warm-hearted older relative, a grandfather or favourite uncle, were telling a tale. And what a tale it is…

Through the framing device of a lady bringing in her young boys to meet Lewis and learn a little about the history of the struggle for equality we are taken back to his earliest days, as a young boy on the family farm in Alabama, his love of the animals, especially the chickens (although, as he points out wryly, there is a bit of a pitfall to becoming emotionally attached to your animals on a farm, since eventually they end up in the pot…), an early desire to become a preacher prompted by the gift of a Bible which he read and re-read and then school – especially school: “But school was important to me, and it was ultimately the reason I got involved in the Civil Rights movement.” In a simple but moving scene he also highlights the roles of educators, librarians and books in creating awareness, an enthusiastic school librarian telling the children “read everything.”

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But how does a young lad in a rural county start to learn about the movement, much less get involved? Especially when much of the advice he is given is to keep his head down, not to attract the attention of “white folk”. A favourite uncle clearly sees something in the young boy, something he himself is probably not yet aware of, and he takes him on a road trip to expand his world a bit. This isn’t the usual road trip we’d think of today though, the freedom of the open road, seeing new places – as the book explains the trip took careful planning, such as carrying their own food because there are no roadside restaurants ‘coloured’ folk will be allowed in, some places they just can’t risk stopping in. It’s a simple part of the tale, but like many simple examples it illustrates a complex and distasteful truth, that a century after the end of the Civil War some citizens of a democratic country couldn’t fill up the tank or eat at a roadside diner in the Southern states simply because of the colour of their skin. And that was simply the accepted norm. Until some very brave people started to challenge it.

The early episodes where young Lewis is introduced to those creating the Civil Rights movement are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure – on the one hand to see a young man realising that he and others can make a difference, can work with others to make their society a better place, it is uplifting, inspiring, empowering, even; you feel, perhaps, just a little of that excitement he and his friends must have felt that they could make things better (and isn’t that something any of us in our societies should always aim to do?). And the determination to follow that model of Ghandi and remain resolutely non-violent is admirable in the extreme. Turning back on violence and hate with more violence and hate in response only fuels an endless cycle, trapping both parties. In some very upsetting, harrowing scenes we see activists (black and white) subjecting each other to harassment, derogatory remarks, pushing and more, to train themselves not to react with violence. I’m not sure I could bite my tongue or remain still in the face of that sort of provocation, and yet here are these young people disciplining themselves to do just that. To be better than those who want to ‘keep them in their place.’. It’s remarkable.

And it is at the same time horrifying in exposing the virulent face of unreasoning bigotry and pure hatred based on nothing more than seeing an entire group as ‘different’, and that difference justifying Jim Crow laws of discrimination, actually using institutions of state to repress and control black people, something you would have thought unthinkable in a free, democratic society, that it would do this against a section of it’s own citizens. And of course there is the raw hatred, indoctrinated into each generation to generation which justifies this control and repression, and which all too often leads to outright acts of sickening violence, with the perpetrators rarely held to account in any hall of justice, because those who are supposed to administer justice are as swollen with the same hatred – or indeed sometimes the acts of violence are perpetrated by those such a policemen who are supposed to ‘protect and serve’.

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Throughout Nate Powell, whose work I have admired greatly since his powerful  and atmospherically drawn Swallow Me Whole, brings this to life with quiet, un-showy monochrome artwork, clearly striving not to let the art become more important than the story here, but also still ensuring these moments of memory are brought vividly to life. It’s obviously quite an emotional story, and Nate’s art captures this essence and enhances it, most notably, for me anyway, in the expressions, from the haunted, worried look as some of the black characters traverse a mostly white area to the hideous, contorted expressions of unreasoning hate as police lay into peaceful protestors, or the opposite, the gentle, loving expression of friends helping one another, that simple expression on a friend or loved one’s face that can be enough to get us back up the floor and make us keep going because we know they’re lending us their strength.

This is a slice of recent history, but it is also a personal tale, a beautiful reminder that all historical events were enacted by people. Actual people, not remote historical figures, real people with families, loved ones, hopes, dreams and fears and that to make that history they had to embrace the dreams and overcome the fears. And this is history that remains painfully relevant to modern society – just a few days ago a UK politicians tried to claim that recent extreme winter storms were God’s wrath because of Parliament allowing gay marriage; there is always someone, for whatever reason, prepared to justify treating others in an unfair manner because they are ‘different’, and March reminds us how hard the road to equality for all is and that we’re not at the end of that road yet, but perhaps we can see it, and we can all keep marching towards it. March made it into my top three graphic novels from 2013 in my Best of the Year.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Live long and prosper…

Love this photo of the first lady of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols, with President Obama; nice to see he can do the Vulcan salute too, I suspect his predecessor Dubyah was still struggling with the notion of opposable thumbs too much to be able to do that. I wonder if he asked her about her encounter with Dr Martin Luther King Jr and how he told her to stay on the original show in the 60s even though she felt her character didn’t get many lines because just having a black face – and a woman too – on prime time TV in the US during that turbulent era, let alone one who was a senior bridge officer, was an important, viisble role model for young coloured Americans. And you didn’t say no to King. (via FP blog via Live for Films)

Hope?

This reworking of Obama’s iconic election campaign poster to show his utter hypocrisy in being a Democratic leader presiding over a country where young teenage student girls get pepper sprayed in the face on their own campus simply for peacefully exercising their right to free assembly and speech, or signing legislation (and very sneakily doing it over New Year when he hoped most wouldn’t notice) that will make it possible for the authorities to arrest and detain not only those pesky foreign radicals and terrorists without proper judicial oversight or charges, but also US citizens. The Land of the Free my fecking arse in parsley sauce…I thought back at election time that the euphoria over Obama’s election was foolish – sure it was better than having Bush there but I thought the hopes people piled on his administration were unrealistic, not to mention foolish and sure enough he has disappointed endlessly since then. Sad to think at the next US election I wouldn’t prefer to see him re-elected because he deserves to be but simply because he is a lesser evil (just) of the rampantly right-wing, Tea Party numpties in the Republican Reptile Party… Sigh…

Midway

Classic war film The Battle of Midway was on this weekend and as the feature film uses some genuine wartime footage (notably in the ariel combat scenes) it reminded me of the legendary Hollywood director John Ford, who shot some of the most famous American films of the mid 20th century (and is largely responsible for the visual look of the classic Western). Ford volunteered to take a documentary film crew to the tiny island of Midway ahead of the expected Japanese attack, to record it for the US Navy. He didn’t just make fictional tales of combat and heroism, he actually dodged bullets and bombs to record what would be a pivotal moment in the war in the Pacific, when the US fleet, so badly damaged after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbour the year before, struck back and seriously wounded the seemingly omnipotent Imperial Japanese Navy. The war in the Pacific would rage on for several more bloody years and cost both sides dearly, but this was one of those pivotal moments when the Americans showed their enemies that they weren’t the soft, decadent people they had assumed but a ferocious force determined to finish what the bad guys had started (ah, the days when we didn’t worry about the morality of US foreign policy because it was a clear cut us and them, good guys versus the bad guys war…). Checking the web I found you can actually watch Ford’s original short documentary footage online – no CGI and special effects here, no actors who have spent a few weeks in a mock boot camp to be trained, this is the real thing and recorded at enormous risk. Makes James Cameron going to the depths of the oceans in a submersible look kind of tame in directing derring-do terms, doesn’t it?

The Broken House

Just how buggered is the United States Senate? George Packer in the New Yorker offers up some depressing reading on an institution utterly ruined by its own labyrinthian structures – both the physical building and the arcane rules and customs – and the increasing ways Senators, rather than doing their actual job of representing the interest of the citizens, spend little time on actual legislation and more on fund raising, publicity or goodness knows what else in their various cubby holes secreted around the building. And when they do troop into the chamber they spend inordinate amounts of time and effort to utilise obscure rules to ruin their opponents’ bills. Democratic choice said your party doesn’t have the majority? No problem, just use arcane old rules to wreck possible legislation by procedural means. Meanwhile important matters simply do not get discussed and dealt with. And they wonder why so many people don’t bother to vote?

And before you think hey, you’re not American, what does it matter to you that they can’t actually deliver the Great Democracy that they like to tell us all they do better than everyone else? Because some of those possible acts that get screwed up affect other nations – financial reform, foreign policy and aide, environmental protection. And because this sort of nonsense goes on in pretty much every parliament and senate in the democratic world to a lesser extent – and there’s that old worry that it will only get worse both here and there. And it doesn’t help anyone who believe in democracy if the institutions meant to serve it turn out to be full of self serving arseholes with no interest in representing the people and doing a good job. And you thought Mr Smith had a hard time when he went to Washington? (via Nick Smale)

Bare faced lies with a you betcha smile

The Daily Dish has an interesting compilation of the many bare-faced lies told by Sarah Palin during her political career. It never ceases to amaze me how brazenly some politicians will simply lie even over pretty easily checkable claims, from relatively small ones about meetings right up to fabricated justifications for wars. And I’m always depressed how many supporters continue to believe in these duplicitous toads even when they have been caught out time after time lying to the public, a sad indicator of the fact that many voters are indeed just as stupid as these lying politicians obviously think they are. (via Boing Boing)

Palin lied when she claimed that Alaska has spent “millions of dollars” on litigation related to her ethics complaints; in fact, that figure is much, much lower, and she had initiated the most expensive inquiry.

Palin lied when she denied that the Alaska Independence Party supports secession and denied that her husband had been a member; in fact, even the McCain campaign noted that the party’s very existence is based on secession and that Todd was a member for seven years.”

Yes we will

My friend Dan Goldman, artist on Shooting War (my favourite graphic novel of 2007), 08: a Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail and the psychedelic online comic Kelly on webcomics collective Act-I-Vate, has delivered a special treat for the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States today (to be swiftly followed by the solving of all the world’s problems within a month), a short comic with President Obama set in 2012, riffing on his theme of change and using some of Dan’s very cool colouring effects that he lets rip with on Kelly, specially on Tor.com.

Palin crank call

With only days to go Sarah ‘pitbull with lipstick (very expensive lipstick) Palin has been fooled by Canadian comedian Marc Antoine Audette into thinking she was on a phone call with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, which went out on a Montreal radio station. The whole Palin thing – utter lack of a grasp of geopolitics, foreign relations, her dubious record (the library interference when she was a humble mayor, possible misuse of family connections in jobs, trying to avoid freedom of information requests on her work by using personal email accounts rather than official government ones), her hideously intolerant right wing stance, her love of shooting animals for leisure, the pretence at being an ordinary working mom while spending more on clothes and hairstyling than many families bring home in a year, her apparent lack of knowledge of what the duties of the VP actually are – would be funny, except even after all this there are still a lot of Americans who not only would vote for her, they are talking about how she should run for president in 4 or 8 years…

was declaring to the reporter he wouldn’t vote for Obama not on political grounds but because ‘he was a Muslim’.I can’t help but wonder at the sheer stupidity of some people, but then again a lot of those numpties are the ones who voted for a retarded chimp to let in Dubyah (well, second time, first time his brother and dad’s friends in the Supreme Court handed the election to him) and before that voted a dreadful B movie elderly actor who delighted on ratting out his fellows during the McCarthy era into the top job. Watching one news programme some ignorant redneck woman When the reporter pointed out he had been a regular church-goer for many years she said that didn’t count. No, she wasn’t a bigoted, racist cow at all… Although being someone who dislikes organised religions of all types I always find it quite disturbing how much relgion plays into American politics to begin with anyway, especially in a country which likes to boast how state and church are seperated by the Constitution.

Thankfully, despite idiots like Cardinal Winning constantly sticking his oar into Scottish politics (you have your own opinion, but stop trying to tell groups how they should be thinking and voting) its not the same here; in fact when Tony Blair started talking about his mate God we all got rather uncomfortable because its a private matter. And because we think a politician is meant to be answerable to the citizen, not some mythic deity.

Fry in America

Seems to be something of an American media theme this last few days, no doubt prompted by the presidential circus, but as it means we get the national treasure that is Stephen Fry with a new show, “Stephen Fry in America“, as he crosses the United States in a London taxi cab (not his own one which he so famously drives around here in Blighty though). I had no idea he was almost born in the US when his father was offered a job at Princeton but he turned it down. Hard to think of Fry as American, he seems to quintessentially British – I mean Twinnings got him to advertise their tea, he cooks on an Aga and gives a wedding present to Prince Charles. All of which might have made him annoying except he seems such a lovely bloke, fiercely intelligent and very funny and self depreacting with it. America’s loss was our gain.

American dreaming

BBC Radio 4 has been running a fascinating series entitled “America, Empire of Liberty“, presented by historian David Reynolds, which I’ve been listening to over the last weeks. The actual history, leading up to, through and just after the War of Independence and the actual establishment of a country out of a disparate groups of revolutionaries and often competing and arguing states is interesting enough, but the series has also done what any good history should do – present the links between the Then and the Now. History is not a static, dry study but something dynamic, events from decades and centuries before constantly bleeding into the present the the future yet to be born, which makes it a shame so many people tend to ignore it (and that escalates to tragedy when we see what our so called leaders do in ignorance of historical precedent).

Take for example on of last week’s episodes – some parts of the series have touched on US history I was familiar with, but this part I didn’t know: the Aliens and Seditions Act, passed by Alexaner Hamilton’s Federalist Party in the 1790s as debate raged over the newly independent US’s stance on the growing global conflict between France and the British Empire. This largely forgotten act delivered unheard of powers to central government (and at a time when US central government was very weak, by design, most power designed by Jefferson et al to be held more locally at state and county levels, not like today where the executive has steadily accumulated powers to itself). Basically a 1790s War on Terror (WOT?) it allowed the president to deport aliens without right of appeal and to silence criticism in the interests of the country. The parallels between the 18th century and the draconian changes to civil liberties in the laws of the US, UK and other countries in the post 9-11 world are disturbingly familiar.

Likewise debates over a newly minted land of so-called liberty happily ignoring the rights of women (even when President Adams wife implored him to remember that a land of democratic liberty which ignored one entire gender was pure hypocricy. She was, of course, ignored by the male leaders, many of whom, truth be told, for all their fine rhetoric, were not overly mad on giving all men the vote, let alone women, unless they were the right kind of men (well bred, well off, basically the New World’s aristocracy), thus again repeating old mistakes even back then. And then there was the odious issue of slavery, not to mention the way the native American Indians would be treated…

Meanwhile on the TV the BBC has just started a new series by Simon Schama, “The American Future: a History“. The first episode also linked the Then and Now, exploring the seemingly insatiable consumerism of the US and its almost unshakable belief that it can endlessly exploit natural resources throughout its history, noting how this belief is slowly (and perhaps a little too late) being shaken as drought in the West means constantly shriking water for more and more people, to say nothing of the over-dependence on oil driven not only by car culture but an over-sized (and extremely inefficent) car culture.

Schama brings us right up to date with both Obama and McCain’s campaign comments on climate change and resource management and comparing to a century or so before with one man telling the good and great of Westward Expansion that there simply was not enough water in the land for all the cities and the farms they planned (he was booed of stage, but he was right) and in more recent history replaying what Jimmy Carter told America during his presidency (but more Americans preferred to listen to a B movie actor at that election than a man who had been a farmer and actually knew what he was talking about in terms of managing the land).

Palin’s great grasp of geopolitics

When first announced as the Reptile Party’s Vice Presidential candidate one of the first criticisms about Palin – apart from most everyone outside Alaska (which is most everyone, not the most populous state) – was who the hell is she? The second was that she had bugger all foreign policy experience and has only been out of the country once and that was to a meet-the-troops special. Her spin doctors replied, unbelievably, by saying she was governor of Alaska, with Canada on one side and Russia across the sea on the other, so obviously she did know a lot about foreign relations. Understandably anyone with a brain found this hilarious and it did no end of harm to the perception of Americans abroad where most of the rest of the world assumes most Yanks no nothing about anything outside their own borders and are culturally ignorant. Which I know from personal experience isn’t the case, but it is a general stereotype which she just confirmed to many.

Even more unbelievably she is still spouting this crap line (and bear in mind the Reptiles have been sniping at Obama for his supposed lack of foreign policy experience, compared to McCain, who has experience dating back to a diplomatic mission during the Boer War). This was her on US TV last night – nice to see the Reptiles following up the Chimp’s presidency by continuing to draw on candidates who are sharp, intelligent, well informed and erudite…


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Gitmo is six

I missed noticing this until today, but Guantanamo Bay’s odious prison camp marked its sixth anniversary on Friday, an event marked by Amnesty International. Gee, I feel so much safer, hasn’t the world become a much better place as a result of this place and the rest of Bush’s foreign policy (not to mention their State Department announcing that under US law it is legal for them to go to another country, including Britain and kidnap someone they think is a suspect)? If only Gitmo made as much sense as most six year olds… (via Boing Boing)