Mr. Lewis goes to Comic-Con

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) boldly went were no sitting lawmaker has gone to sell a book before.

The civil rights leader, longtime lawmaker and author of the forthcoming graphic novel March, made his first — but not his last, he says — pilgrimage to the annual convention known as “Geek Mecca” last weekend. 

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“A lot of the people were surprised that I would be there,” Lewis told The Hill of his trip to the San Diego gathering. “I felt like I was walking into something that I knew very little about, and I felt at the same time, very much at home.”

Comic-Con started as a gathering of sci-fi and comic book fans but morphed into a major three-day event that has become a must-stop for actors promoting movies, celebrities promoting projects and, now, lawmakers promoting graphic novels.

Guests this year ranged from actors on hit shows like “Dexter” and “How I Met Your Mother” to TV’s original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who both crossed paths with the congressman on the convention floor. Plus there were the thousands of fans, many of whom dress up as their favorite science fiction or comic book characters.

Lewis was surrounded by the full range of fan culture during his Saturday stop. The 73-year-old called the atmosphere “so much fun,” even as he struggled to describe some of the attendees he saw walking around in costume, eventually settling on the word “colorful.”

“Some people looked like their skin was their only costume, but you get up close, and it’s not just their skin, but it’s some material,” he explained. “People were so creative.”

Perhaps because of his past organizing a nonviolent movement, Lewis was also impressed with how “orderly” the crowds were. 

“He kept calling it ‘a happening,’ all these people coming together for one purpose, and yet nobody being judged for what their particular niche was,” Lewis staffer and March co-writer Andrew Aydin said of Lewis. “He really enjoyed the accepting nature of it; it was very much in line with his own philosophy.”

They might not seem like a natural fit for the same convention that featured a guard tower from “The Walking Dead” overlooking the convention hall, a 75th birthday party for Superman, and panels with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but Lewis, Aydin and March artist Nate Powell packed a room for their panel, drawing a standing ovation that cut off Lewis’s introduction.

“If you’re going to be the guy who brings a congressman to Comic-Con, much less John Lewis, you’re going to be a little nervous,” confessed Aydin, a self-proclaimed “hardcore” comics fan. “In the final analysis, this went better than I could have possibly hoped for.”

According to publisher Top Shelf Productions, more copies of March were sold at Comic-Con this weekend than any other graphic novel they’ve offered at the convention in the past, nearly selling out multiple editions packaged exclusively for the convention (the book’s official release date is Aug. 13). 

That means Lewis’s illustrated novel, which weaves his youth as the son of Alabama sharecroppers into his eventual role in the sit-in movements of 1960 and the Selma- to-Montgomery Marches of 1965, outsold (at least at Comic-Con) both the last volume of fanboy demigod Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the beloved Blankets by Craig Thompson.

“It was sort of a perfect storm of great content, historical relevance, great execution and good marketing,” according to Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. 

Salkowitz said Top Shelf has earned a reputation for high standards and quality content, and he also credited the publisher’s choice of Powell, who “is known within the comics community as kind of an artist’s artist.” 

“They made it very easy for everybody at Comic-Con to like that book,” he said. “Even in the context of Comic-Con, where there’s all kind of different celebrities, and we’ve become kind of accustomed to that, seeing somebody like [John Lewis] is still a novelty. It was still a very big deal.” 

The graphic novel was Aydin’s idea during Lewis’s 2008 campaign. Aydin wrote his Georgetown University graduate school thesis on the influence of the 1956 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a comic book Lewis remembers reading as a 17-year-old. Lewis credits it as an attention-getting package that taught him “a great deal about nonviolence and peace and love and how to organize.”

That made Lewis, who didn’t grow up reading many comics, open to the medium as a way to tell his story to a broader audience.

“It is almost a culture unto itself, but it’s a great medium to get a message over,” the lawmaker said.  “This medium makes it real, makes it simple; you can almost feel what is happening. You can almost smell what is happening.”

Jonathan W. Gray, comics scholar and author of Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination, believes “comics are becoming almost the default way to tell history.” 

One example he gave is the popular graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Report, and another is one Aydin cited as inspiration, Art Spiegelman’s critically acclaimed 1991 graphic novel Maus. Aydin hopes March will be received as “the civil rights version of Maus,” and both men aspire to see the book used in classrooms.

“I felt like I was educating people about the civil rights movement, especially young people,” Lewis said, describing parents who would bring kids to his Comic-Con booth and call him a “true superhero.” 

“I knew then I was at the right place, and it was good for me to be there,” he said.

Back in Washington on Monday, Lewis was already talking about his next trip to Comic-Con.

The final two volumes of March have already been written, but their release depends on Powell’s art, so Lewis isn’t sure whether he will return next year or 2014. Next time, he wants “to walk around, and spend time with other writers and illustrators and view the different booths.”

“I would go back in a minute,” he said.