Andrew Aydin listens back to old voicemails from John Lewis.
To Aydin, the congressman wasn’t 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 playful: “Andrew?” the voicemails play. “Where are you, young man?”
Aydin recorded phone calls as the two were at work on their historical non-fiction graphic novel series. Lewis would fall asleep talking, the recordings capturing his snores. The two would later joke about those snores during book talks for their work on the “March,” a trilogy covering the lead-up to the voting and civil rights acts.
“I guess the John Lewis I knew is not the John Lewis everyone else knew,” he told Mississippi Today.
Lewis died on July 17, 2020, from pancreatic cancer. He was 80. His latest graphic novel, “Run,” published 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, are faced with a new challenge: touring and speaking about their work without Lewis at 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 have given since the pandemic began – and since Lewis died.
“I’m excited to go to Mississippi,” Aydin said. “I’m excited to be back. I’m excited to get to talk to people about this work. These experiences that I’ve had to help keep John Lewis, the human being, alive for people. I don’t want him to become a mythic figure or something that seems unreachable.”
The two told Mississippi Today that continuing promoting and explaining the comics and their influence is vital. Especially now, when materials used to teach about the civil rights movement in schools are threatened under so-called critical race theory laws across the South and in Mississippi.
“We know we’re under attack,” Aydin said. “It’s why it’s so important that Nate and I get out on the road and go speak and tell this story. As the congressman would say: ‘Go preach the gospel.’ Because we have to keep these works in schools.”
The three “March” books follow a young John Lewis and organizers using nonviolent civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights and end to segregation. They chronicle a slew of events, from Lewis first meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Mississippi Freedom Summer and Bloody Sunday. “Run” shows the conflicts that arise in the aftermath of the movement’s victories.
They’re comic books – the same medium as classics such as “Amazing Spider-Man.” There are no super powers, but real-life high stakes. Aydin, Powell and Lewis went to great lengths to make the works historically accurate, 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 lauded as an incredible teaching tool.
In the lead-up to working on the graphic novels, Lewis recalled a comic book about King published in the late 1950s that covered the Montgomery bus boycotts. The comic was sold out of car trunks and passed out in churches. It inspired nonviolent protests across the South. Lewis saw the accessibility comics offered.
“Congressman Lewis’ context for the power of comics, in educating contextualized nonviolent movements, absolutely not only set the precedent for the book and the mandate for the book,” Powell said, “but it was, by itself already, kind of a proof of concept in John Lewis’ mind.”
Powell has used the books in his personal life to teach his own children history. They’ve also helped him re-examine the gaps in his own education and the sensitized version of the civil rights movements often delivered in classrooms.
The books have won several awards – the third “March,” a National Book Award – and spent six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
The last time Aydin was in Mississippi it was alongside Lewis. The two were part of a distribution program for “March” that gave the books to students in the Delta.
“When the congressman and I would tour places like Mississippi or Georgia, or North Carolina, he would often comment about how close we were – or drive by – many of these places that he was either beaten or arrested or where he staged protests,” Aydin said. “And it really drove the importance of what we were doing and being there.”
“Now doing it without the congressman,” he added, “it’s really hard.”
It might be a challenge emotionally, but Aydin said it’s not only the best way to protect Lewis’ legacy but also ensure he’s remembered as a full person not an untouchable historical figure.
“What is so powerful about his story and his life is that it is a model for any of us,” Aydin said.