This is a follow up to last week’s interview with Andrew Aydin where we talked about how to write a graphic novel. Today we talk about the use of comics in the Civil Right’s Movement. If you are a teacher, today’s bit will give you quite a lot to work with. And stay tuned for the conclusion on thursday when we talk about diversity in Indie Comics.
Me: You said that you had the idea for this because it was a comic book that inspired John Lewis and I know you wrote your Master’s Thesis on the history of comics in the Civil Right’s Movement, right?
Andrew: I actually wrote it on Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Story. I wrote the first long-form history of it. So we figured out that Dr. King helped edit Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Story. You never imagine Dr. King sitting down at a table pouring over a comic book script. And yet, that’s what he did in the fall of 1957. Just after his first child was born.
It was edited and largely written by Alfred Hassler. But one of the guys who was integral to its creation was a guy named Benton Resnick who was formerly employed by a publisher who went out of business because of the comic book hearings.
It was interesting for me to trace this whole lineage from congress being . . . Umm . . . I don’t know how to say this without getting in trouble . . . But congress not being good. And then the ramifications of their actions hurting people. Destroying jobs. Destroying careers. Vilifying a wonderful medium because they were looking for a scapegoat on the rise of juvenile delinquency. I mean, we were finishing WWII. Everyone was horrified by the casualties that were coming back. Modern medicine had advanced to a point where we could keep people alive who had suffered these horrible wounds and then people are shocked to see them when they come home. And we’ve got the fears of the atomic age. I mean there are so many reasons for juvenile delinquency to surge. First of all, you had more juveniles at home—I mean, more 18 and 19 year olds were enlisting in the army previously.
So, all that is to say that they used comics as a scapegoat and because of that demigogery it was more possible for an organization like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who created that comic, to secure good talent. To do something like that. In a sense to me it symbolized everything that was right about the Civil Right’s Movement because they were taking something that mainstream America had thrown to the curb and they were using the medium and working with the people who had been vilified to create something beautiful and useful and inspirational. And the comic went on to be used in South Africa where it was banned for being incindiary and it was used in Latin America and Vietnam and as recently as 2011 an Arabic translation was used in Cairo, Egypt during the Tahrir Square Revolution.
So it’s got this long history of really getting people to do stuff. Getting people to move. Act. It was totally contrary to everything that the comic book hearings said about it. The only thing that the hearing affirmed that was true was that comic books could be influential. And were influential when done well, but this whole notion that they somehow contributed to people behaving a certain way to the detriment of society was just totally false. So that was the comic book and that was the brief synopsis of its history.
Me: So I get why there was a rise in juvenile delinquency. That makes sense. I get why comic books were vilified. I get why there was a surplus of talent. But why do you think they can be so powerful? Why was that comic book written? Why is The March so powerful? Because that’s what I noticed immediately upon opening it was that I felt like I was there in the Civil Right’s Movement the way no other book has ever made me feel. Why do you think that is? Why do they work like that?
Andrew: Well, comic books have a dimension that no other printed material has. You can sort of trace the history of sequential storytelling all the way back to Rembrandt’s paintings of the deeds of hercules. There’s an ability to communicate on two levels that provides an immersive experience. It surpasses any other print form. I think at the time FOR was trying to reach the broadest possible audience, and they saw this as a way to reach people who were in communities where they didn’t have the education that many affluent communities had, so they couldn’t read as well. And here was a way to speak to those readers in an easy to digest format that was . . .
I think every generation has this moment where they talk about the next generation and their attention span and how short it is getting, and what it really is, I think, is that kids just have a short attention span. And a lot of people do. It’s a great art to hold someone’s attention. And this had that. It held peoples’ attention. And yet, you could still digest it in a short amount of time, which I think in particular helped it spread. You could read the comic and then hand it to the guy next to you and he could read the comic. The guy next to you read comic and then you’ve reached three, four, five people. Leave it on your dresser or table and see how many people come over.
I just think comics as a medium are so powerful. I think that’s why you see them being adapted so much as movies these days. Because it’s the closest thing in print form to a movie and yet it also allows for an added dimension of imagination. In a movie everything is spelled out for you but in a graphic novel or a comic page there are beats that you have to imagine. You read between the panels and that just engages your mind in an engrossing way. So that you get sucked in.