A civil rights history lesson for Generation Comic-Con

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Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis (D-Ga.) meets a fan.

It’s not easy standing out among 125,000 costumed sci­-fi, fantasy and comics fans at San Diego Comic Con. But superheroes come in many guises.

This year, Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis (D-Ga.) came to last month’s Con to sign copies of his graphic novel, “March (Book One),” the first in a trilogy, that arrives August 13 from Top Shelf Productions.

At 73, Lewis is the last surviving keynote speaker of the 1963 March on Washington, the site of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.

Illustrated by Eisner Award-­winning graphic novel artist Nate Powell, “March (Book One)” tells the story of Lewis’ journey from sharecropper’s son to the battles for civil rights. Which seems like a long way from the San Diego Convention Center ­ but maybe not.

“This is my first ComicCon. It is unreal,” says Lewis. “Everybody’s so wonderful, so gracious. It’s almost like a happening. It reminds me of some of the great marches – from Selma to Montgomery, then the last days of the March on Washington – when people just came together under one banner, one idea.”

Except, the March probably had fewer people dressed as Batman.

“I kept asking, ‘Where’s my hat? My mask?’ I feel somewhat out of place going around with a suit and a tie on.”

But Lewis is one superhero who doesn’t need a costume. His panel was attended by more than 300 people and ended in a standing ovation. The fire marshals nearly shut down his book signings because of the lines.

“Comic­Con is the biggest pop culture event in the world. Anybody who dismisses it as these geeky people with comic books is an idiot,” says Michael Davis, who organizes the Con’s Black Panel, which discusses issues minorities face in the industry. “The fact that he’s here and embracing this audience is phenomenal. He’s not only a role model – he’s living history. And the fact that he would come here – Comic Con – has now jumped to another level.”

Lewis wrote his book with his former press secretary Andrew Aydin, 29, a comic lover who got the idea after Lewis told him about a 1957 comic called “Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story.” It chronicled the Alabama bus boycotts that inspired subsequent nonviolent civil rights sit­-ins.

The cover of “March (Book One)” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“I was completely enamored with the idea of a comic book having such a major impact of being responsible for social change and of being an inspiration to young people,” says Aydin. “I believe very strongly that comic books can be a force for good.”

Lewis knew he was on the right path even during his first arrest, at 20.

“I felt liberated. I grew up overnight,” he says. “When it was time to protest, I was ready. I became committed to the philosophy of non­violence. Not simply as a technique, or as a tactic, but as a way of life, as a way of living.”

At Comic­Con, you never know who you’ll to run into. This year, Lewis met another black icon ­ astrophysicist and media idol Neil deGrasse Tyson, there promoting his upcoming Fox show “Cosmos.” Tyson’s father had also been part of the civil rights movement in New York .

“I remember your father very well,” Lewis smiles.

Lewis hopes his message will empower a new generation towards inclusion.

“It’s our hope, that young people and people not so young will be inspired by March, and have the courage, the raw courage, to get in the way,” he says. “To get in trouble ­ good trouble ­ and to make some noise.”

A young Comic Con attendee checks out “March.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Excerpt from “March” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)