Ask any comic-reading child to name his or her favorite superhero, and the answer may range from Spider-Man to Wonder Woman.
Someday, such a child might also name civil rights activist and now comic-book protagonist U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.).
The 76-year-old congressman recently released March: Book Three, the final installment of a graphic novel trilogy about his life working for civil rights. The saga takes us through Lewis' life, from growing up in the 1940s on 110 acres of farmland in Pike County, Ala., to his speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. Lewis is the last surviving speaker from that gathering.
Last month at Comic-Con in San Diego, March: Book Two won the comic-industry Eisner Award for best reality-based work. Lewis was on hand to receive the award, along with coauthor Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell. The series has already been introduced in New York Public school classrooms.
Lewis and co-author Aydin spent four years and four months writing the first book, released in 2013. "It was a very moving experience to relive my life from the time I was 4 years old," said Lewis.
But why a comic book? Lewis remembers reading Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a comic book he bought in 1957 that made an impact on him. He says the graphic form "is simple, and it's real." Thus far, he's found that young people and senior citizens prefer picking up graphic novels.
"Make it plain!" he says over the phone, quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s father.
Making it plain, that's what Lewis says the novels are doing.
"Young people today are digital natives. Everything is in words and pictures," said Aydin. "If we want to speak to them, it has to be in a different language."
Lewis' story has been told many times. He told it himself in his 1999 memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. Others have told it, too, including director Ava DuVernay in her 2014 Oscar-nominated film, Selma, in which the role of Lewis is played persuasively by the actor Stephan James.
But March: Book Three, with its climactic scenes of civil resistance and bloodshed, proved almost too much. At times, Lewis said, he had to put it down.
"Looking at the drawings and seeing people I knew who were beaten and left bloody . . . it all came alive," he said.
Powell, who has illustrated the entire series, said there's an immediacy about cartoons that causes people to "arrive at a place beyond judgment and walk in the skin of the characters depicted."
When Powell got the job in 2011, he knew there was "a responsibility to convey accurately the events depicted but also to remain true to an intimate, subjective depiction."
For the final book, Powell had to turn over 250 pages in less than a year, his most strenuous deadline ever. The process involved research in real time, scouring historical evidence and primary documents, such as minutes from meetings that helped confirm events depicted in the books.
Powell says that a few days before the book went to print, a fact-checker found confirmation of something they'd been waiting for - that Rosa Parks, she of the Birmingham bus boycott, had spoken at the Alabama state capitol on the day of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. It's a fact, Powell says, that often slips through the cracks. Once it was added, text and graphics had to be rearranged.
But every detail is important. The series, dedicated to "the past and future children of the movement," is especially crucial now, Lewis says. "Some of what (Black Lives Matter) is doing is very similar to what we did," said Lewis. He calls March "a road map, a blueprint. You can learn from what we did. Maybe you won't make the same mistakes."
Lewis and Aydin say the intricacies of the civil rights movement aren't taught enough. Lewis says the story of March is only the beginning. "If people can do what they did in the '50s and '60s with limited resources, we can do so much more," said Lewis. "We're not there yet."
In late June, Lewis waged the most recent skirmish in his lifelong battle when he led a daylong sit-in in Congress, trying unsuccessfully to spur the chamber into a vote on new gun-control measures after the Orlando nightclub shootings.
"I have not stopped and I will not stop," Lewis said, recalling the sit-in. "When I leave this little piece of real estate, I'm leaving with my [marching ]boots on."