BY ADAM KENT-ISAAC
When graphic novelist Nate Powell first learned that an illustrated memoir of congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis was in the works, he wouldn’t have guessed that it would rise to number one on The New York Times’ Graphic Books best-sellers list — or that he would be the illustrator.
Powell was busy with other work when his publisher, Top Shelf Productions, suggested he submit some demo drawings. He got the job and soon found himself collaborating with Lewis and co-author Andrew Aydin on the three-volume series, entitled March.
The name alludes to the 1963 March on Washington, which Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped organize alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
The first March book, released in August, covers Lewis’ childhood in Alabama and his first forays into the civil rights movement, including the lunch counter sit-ins, considered important milestones in the use of nonviolent civil disobedience.
“John is the genuine article,” says Powell. Beginning last June, the three men went on a six-month tour of book festivals and comic conventions to promote March. “It’s been a very transforming experience personally,” says Powell, noting that, “all three of us are on more or less exactly the same page politically.”
Powell, 35, was born in Little Rock, Ark., a city with its own chapter of civil rights notoriety. “I grew up in a military family during the Cold War, with a typical innocent young perspective,” he says. “The first thing that really gave me a social conscience was reading X-Men, when I was 11. And getting into punk music and the politics and social perspective that comes through that.”
While working as a visual artist, Powell also performed in punk rock groups throughout the 1990s and 2000s. His graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, won the Eisner Award for best graphic novel of 2008. He has also won two Ignatz Awards for outstanding achievement in cartooning and debut comic.
Powell and his family settled in Bloomington in 2004 after moving up and down the East Coast. “I’d been here several times and played shows, and knew it was a nice, cozy, not-expensive place to live.” He and wife, Rachel, have a 2-year-old daughter, Harper, who, he says, takes up most of his time when he’s not at the drawing table.
Book two of the March trilogy is due out in January 2015. For more information visit Powell’s website.