Author: Luigi Novi

Luigi Novi is a writer, illustrator and photographer from New Jersey. His artwork was first published at age 13 in Toys R Us magazine. He majored in Media Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, studying cartooning and visual storytelling under Carmine Infantino, Joe Orlando, Klaus Janson, Walt Simonson, Sam Viviano, John Ostrander and Denny O'Neil. His writing and artwork have been published by Image Comics, The Hudson Reporter and the James Randi Educational Foundation. His photographs have been published by CBS News, Daily Kos, MTV, the SyFy Channel, The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes magazine, and the U.S. State Department. His photos of comics creators in particular have been published by Bleeding Cool magazine, Back Issue magazine, and Comic Book Resources, and across countless articles on Wikipedia. His photography has also been published in books such as Marie Severin: The Mirthful Mistress of Comics by Dewey Cassell and Marie Severin, Debunking Holocaust Denial Theories by James Morcan and Lance Morcan, and I Am Gandhi: A Graphic Biography of a Hero by Brad Meltzer; and by paid clients including the New York Empire tennis club.

It Tolls for King’s Landing, Innocent Civilians, and a Once Well-Written Show: A review of Game of Thrones episode 8.5, “The Bells”

As Drogon flies across King’s Landing, torching its buildings, caches of wildfire erupt into green flame.

Warning: There be dragons! But ye shall be burned even more by the SPOILERS that abound! 

So she finally went and did it.

Daenerys Targaryen, who over the course of eight seasons, went from an apparently innocent waif, traded like a piece of chattel, to an assertive and determined navigator of the Westeros chess board who freed entire cities of slaves, acquired two armies in a quest to reclaim her family’s throne from usurpers and tyrants, has snapped, and borne out her family’s penchant for insanity. Not content at conquering King’s Landing, and defeating Cersei, she threw morality and human decency to the winds, and torched entire sections of King’s Landing, turning scores of innocent men, woman and children into French fries for no justifiable reason.

In so doing, she adds The Mad Queen to her list of titles, becoming her father’s daughter, and the true heir to King Aerys II. 

And it’s not like this wasn’t pre-ordained, right? Both novelist George R.R. Martin and the producers who adapted his Song of Ice and Fire for the screen, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, made it clear early on, by establishing the Targaryen family’s propensity for insanity, and through the prophetic visions experienced by Bran and Daenerys herself, that she would eventually make it to King’s Landing, but that it would not necessarily be a happy ending, which have always been few and far between on a show that’s always been more about employing subversion to illustrate the horror of war and the dangers of absolute rule by narcissists who see themselves as the center of all things.

In this sense, setting us up to think that Varys deserved to be executed, and to feel joy at seeing the gates of King’s Landing disintegrated as Drogon flies through them on a giant torrent of flame, only to later be horrified when Dany refused to stop, and realize that Varys was “right” all along, is right in line with this modus operandi. Irrespective of her words and even her actions regarding tyrants, Dany has never indicated that hers is a war for egalitarianism or democracy, even if she freed some cities’ worth of slaves along the way.  Her actions have always centered upon what she wanted for herself, and her kindness and generosity always stopped at those who came between her and her goals.

So no, her rampage at King’s Landing wasn’t without setup. That isn’t the problem.

The problem is the same one that’s pervaded the entire season.

Lousy execution.

It’s the writing, stupid!

The last five episodes, especially the last three, have been marred by major established premises that have been ignored or dropped; a conclusion to the Night King storyline that while satisfying on an action level, did not tie into the status quo of Jon or Bran, the Cersei storyline, or even affect Dany’s ability to wage war on King’s Landing; unceremonious exits of important characters like Sam, Gilly, Tormund and Ghost; and plot holes bigger than that one Viserion blew through the Wall.

In “The Long Night”, we saw the Dothraki snuffed out by the horde of the dead, with only one or two horseriders coming back from that idiotic charge-with-no-dragonglass. In the next episode, “The Last of the Starks”, Grey Worm tells Daenerys that half their forces are gone, and takes some pieces off the map. The lone unnamed Dothraki in the room does the same. Yet in this episode, a large group of Dothraki charge King’s Landing in force. In “Starks,” Dany is flying toward Dragonstone, and all of a sudden neither she, nor Drogon nor Rhaegal can see eleven ships below them, allowing Euron’s ships to land not one, not two, but three arrows at Rhaegal in rapid succession, while missing Drogon entirely. According to Benioff, this his because Dany “kind of forgot” about Euron’s fleet. I’m not making that up. Read it yourself.

But now in “The Bells,” she has regained the sense to properly take advantage of her altitude in the very way she should have, and can destroy a fleet that now numbers at least 137 ships? (Yes, I counted.)

In “The Last of the Starks”, Drogon swoops down to Euron’s fleet, which numbers eleven ships (left), but in “The Bells” (right), its numbers have swelled to well over 100.

But what’s far worse than changed or ignored premises or plot holes is how this season has handled the show’s signature quality: Characterization.

The series has always been one of the best works in modern popular fiction when it comes to depicting the motivations that drive a large cast of characters’ actions, and how those motivations interact with the plot, theme and allegory. But this season, the character work has seemed so phoned-in that AT&T should’ve gotten an onscreen story credit. (Hey, it beats a Starbucks cup.)

Take Varys’ turn as traitor. In “The Last of the Starks”, Dany says she wants to rip Cersei out of King’s Landing “root and stem,” and Tyrion reminds her that the plan is to do that without destroying the entire city. Dany gives no indication that she disagrees with this. Quite the contrary, she adds that under her rule, all of the people of Westeros would live under her rightful rule “without fear or cruelty.” But then Varys starts talking to Tyrion about finding someone else to rule Westeros. This comes about not because Dany’s reaction to Missandei’s execution, because while they sail to Dragonstone before that happens, simply because Tyrion has just informed him of Jon’s true parentage. This appears to have been done to provoke our animus toward Varys for his disloyalty, so that when Dany does go postal, Benioff and Weiss can again go, “Gotcha!” with our expectations. But Varys wasn’t right, since his disloyalty was about being picky about prospective ruler pedigrees, and because Dany ever gave any inclination toward tyranny. In this way, Varys seems to have acted they way he did because he read the script. And I’ve come to expect better from this show.

Then take the Stark women’s soapy motivations. In “Starks,” Arya and Sansa say that even though they harbor respect and gratitude for Dany helping them fight the Night King, that they’ll never trust her because “She’s not one of us.” Really? Were the Wildlings “one of us”? How about that giant, Wun-Wun, who died fighting for the Starks in the Battle of the Bastards? For that matter, Robert Baratheon himself wasn’t from the North. Did the Stark women fail to observe loyalty among their people to King Robert, despite what an incompetent, cruel boor he was? By contrast, Dany loves Jon, and lost one of her dragons just saving Jon’s life (risking her own in the process) and lost half of her soldiers and one of her dearest friends fighting for Winterfell. Just what does she have to do to earn Arya and Sansa’s loyalty? Arya certainly feels loyalty to the Hound. Should Dany kill Arya’s best friend, kidnap her and then ride with her up and down Westeros while occasionally slapping her around?

Of course, this isn’t what lit up the Web following the episode’s premiere.

Daenerys: Portrait of a Tyrant

The real dragon in the living room is Daenerys’s decision to burn large sections of King’s Landing, along with civilians running for their lives. While this may be a fulfillment of the visions that Dany and Bran experienced earlier in the series, and illustrative of how even good people in positions of power can let power go to their heads, it doesn’t ring true on a character level, since characters’ behavior has to make sense in the context of their overall arcs. It’s not enough to point out that people “snap” in real life, or that Dany’s father was nuts. Hell, even he didn’t suddenly “snap”, but was a naturally erratic man who gradually declined due to a combination of age, political tension, and jealousy of his Hand, Tywin Lannister.1 Characterization isn’t about just using real life as a precedent. It’s something that has to be constructed as part of the writers’ craft, just as any other art form, and thus having a character turn arbitrarily to simply match an established prophecy breaks our suspension of disbelief.

Was Dany’s rampage really out of anger over Rhaegal and Missandei? That look of barely restrained rage on her face after Missandei was executed was certainly one we hadn’t seen before. But if that’s the case, her anger should’ve been directed at Cersei and Euron, and Benioff confirmed that this was the case. Instead, she torches peasants who had nothing to do with it. In a behind-the-scenes featurette, episode director Miguel Sapochnik said that Dany felt “empty” when the bells went off, and producer D.B. Weiss explained that at that moment, she decided to make it “personal”. The problem with this is that killing people who probably hated Cersei as much as Dany did, isn’t personal, because it’s been made clear by now Cersei didn’t care about those people.

Benioff also pointed out that before her execution at the end of “Starks,” Missandei’s last word, “Dracarys,” which was her way of telling Dany to burn them all. So what? Dany has spent eight seasons fighting against slavery, tyranny and cruelty towards the innocent, and now she’s grown so myopic over the death of her best friend that she decides to honor a condemned woman’s dying wish to murder innocent people—even though she repated her anti-tyranny platform to Tyrion after Missandei’s death? Sorry, but this is a poor rationalization any way you look it.

Some reviewers have attempted to argue the Dany has always been a mad queen, pointing to her past brutalities to people like Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Pyat Pree, Kraznys mo Nakloz, and the Tullys, but this ignores the fact that those people had actually transgressed against her. Like it or not, “The Bells” represents the first time she has committed acts of unambiguous murder upon innocent people who had done nothing to her.

I noticed that the episode seems to try to provide other excuses for Dany, but none are particularly convincing. Consider her statement to Tyrion in Dragonstone’s throne room that she would not allow Cersei to use her mercy as a weakness. This cannot explain her killing spree, since she embarked upon it after the Lannister army surrendered. And if her actions at King’s Landing was Dany’s way of merely making a point to Cersei about Cersei attempt to use people as a defensive tactic, then this means that Dany committed mass murder out of spite.

There’s also the scene where she tries snogging with Jon in front of the fireplace, and after he fails to return her affections in earnest, she resolves, “Alright, then. Let it be fear.” Seriously? She burned countless civilians to a crisp because Jon wouldn’t give her some sugar? In HBO’s “Inside the Episode” featurette, D.B. Weiss states that this was the moment when Dany resigned herself to the belief that she would need to resort to committing an atrocity in order to “get things done,” but this ignores the fact that she had already gotten it done without it.

I want to make clear: I don’t have a problem with the idea of sympathetic characters taking tragic descents into darkness, provided that it naturally follows what’s been established up to that point. I do not, for example, have a problem with Grey Worm’s actions, since they were not inconsistent with his character. Ditto for the Dothraki and Northmen committing atrocities, since even if Dany decreed to the former that their raping and pillaging days were over (much as she had done with Yara and Theon), they may have taken her lighting up the city as a sign that it had gone out the window.

Dany burning large numbers of citizens would be more believable if it was prompted in a way that made things at least a bit more fuzzy: Imagine this: Cersei ties random citizens up against the walls of the city, and the Red Keep, using them as personal human shields. Dany then makes the decision to burn them because those innocents’ deaths are unavoidable, and then during the smoke and ash, it becomes more difficult for her to clearly see the Lannisters surrender, and to discern who is a civilian and who is a soldier, a tragic iteration of what happens in the during the “fog of war”. But this didn’t happen, as there was no “fog.”

Just ash.

There is, however, one nagging detail I noticed in the episode that gives me cause to hold off on final judgment of her turn, one that leads me to hope that what we saw in “The Bells” is not all that there was to see, and will pay off in the finale, once again prompting us to reevaluate what we previously thought was true: After that shot of Dany after the bells tolled, we never got a close-up shot of her during her destruction of the city. Why is this? Wouldn’t showing her face twisted into a grimace of pure rage during her rampage be crucial to that scene? It makes no sense not to show her face during this. I got to thinking that maybe they plan on showing us her rampage again in the finale, only from Dany’s POV, revealing something similar to what I just described. Perhaps she was trying to destroy fortifications that looked like armories or barracks or assets that Cersei could use to hide or escape, and Drogon’s limited precision with fire killed some civilians near those buildings, and when Grey Worm saw this, he misunderstood this, and took it as justification for embarking on a vendetta on those who murdered his love, and everything just snowballed from there. Perhaps when Dany then saw the fighting resume, she then took this as a sign that Lannister soldiers were ignoring the bells, and justified doing so herself, a sequence of causality that neither Jon nor any other single player would understand at the time. All of this could render her actions in a more morally ambiguous light. It would also fit squarely in the wheelhouse of both Martin and the showrunners, who have relied heavily on contrasting POVs in this way throughout the series. Is that what they’re going to do here, in order to make Dany’s actions and her reasons for them more morally ambiguous, with their seemingly threadbare explanations in the behind-the-scenes material a cover for it?

In perusing the Web, it seems that I’m not alone in noticing the lack of a close-up, with another reviewer speculating that the reason for this is that Bran had warged into Drogon to burn the city. If Dany spent the rampage trying helplessly trying to regain control over her dragon, this would explain why they couldn’t show her in close-up.

Not with a bang, but a whimper. And falling bricks.

Even if this is borne out, the rest of the major characters’ arcs fair little better, and unlike Dany, theirs are finished.

To understand what’s wrong with what happens to the characters in this episode and others, you have to look at how their stories have been developed to date, and you’ll see why they’re called arcs. For example, Tyrion sees his father writing a letter in the third season premiere, “Valar Dohaeris,” that includes the phrase “ripe for the trap.” In that season’s finale, “Mhysa,” which is the episode that takes place after the Red Wedding, Bran tells a story of the Rat Cook, who cooks his guests into the food served as a feast, an act whose heinousness stems from the Westerosian view that killing a guest under one’s own roof is an unforgivable sin. This establishes a cultural viewpoint explaining how the Red Wedding is regarded by the people of Westeros, warring families or not. So when Arya bakes Walder Frey’s sons into the pie she serves to him in the sixth season finale, and then poses as him to oversee her murder of his soldiers in the seventh season premiere, these cease to be mere events in individual episodes, but pieces of a cohesive whole. A single tapestry, in which climaxes feel more satisfying because they come as the payoff that follows a long setup. That’s what separates an abrupt shocking plot twist from a carefully crafted one.

This is what’s missing from this season, and this episode.

I just assumed, for example, that when Arya set out from Winterfell for King’s Landing to kill Cersei, that it was as much a mission handed to her by Dany as it was a personal vendetta. But nothing here indicates that Dany thought to take advantage of the skills she knew Arya had. I also assumed that this arc would tied into Cleganebowl, and with Cersei’s ultimate fate. Maybe Arya made her play for the Queen, killing a bunch of her guards in the process, and just when she was about to strike the killing blow upon Cersei, it’s blocked by the Mountain, who suddenly appears and beats Arya nearly to death. And just when he’s about to deliver a fatal blow to her per Cersei’s order, that’s blocked in turn by the Hound, who then has the fight of his life with his brother for Arya. This might’ve been an even sweeter turn of events if Arya and the Hound hadn’t been shown leaving Winterfell together. If they had the Hound leaving to go find some quiet hillside to retire, failing to convince Arya to stay at Winterfell, his sudden appearance there would be a more satisfying and poignant surprise. Maybe during this brawl, Cersei could have ended up falling from a tower into the spot where Ned Stark was executed, making her end all the more poetic. Or something like that. Anything.

Instead what we got was two tall brothers who decided it was time to fight when they could’ve done when the confronted one another in the seventh season finale, a number of gratuitously implausible stab wounds inflicted upon Jamie, and a bunch of bricks falling on Cersei. Instead of layering these denouements in a way that tied them together along with the Night King arc and the Azor Ahai prophecy, in a way that echoed with the series’ overall mythology, what we got was thematically flat. A series of endings that were journalistic rather than resonant. We got the who, what, where, when and how, but not the heart. The Night King was done away with mid-season, and Cersei is killed not in the series finale, but its penultimate installment.

Are there some good moments? Sure. That moment when Arya addresses The Hound by his given name for the first time ever was a nice touch. And the FX were excellent. That one over-the-shoulder shot of a Lannister soldier as a split suddenly appears in his torso upon the swing of a Northman’s sword was extremely impressive. But the sum of these individual moments does not add up to a story that transcends them.

Speculation for the finale

So going into the finale, what are we left with?

We saw Arya mount a white horse, much like Death, one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation. Where she’s galloping off to is fairly obvious, as is the conflict that will drive the violence in the finale. The only question will be whether she will kill Dany, or be foiled be Grey Worm, leading to a duel between them, which I admit, would redeem the Cleganebowl somewhat.

Perhaps as they fight, Jon finds a still-intact scorpion, perhaps half-covered in debris, that Dany and Drogon missed and then use it on the Drogon? I noticed that contrary to what Qyburn said, we didn’t see Drogon destroy all of them, and one shot of Drogon showed him passing over a number of them on his way to destroying a corner tower at the city gates. And if this leads the Unsullied to attack Jon and the Northmen, seemingly to the point of near-defeat, and they are saved by the arrival of Tormund on the Wildlings, with Ghost biting off Grey Worm’s head, it would redeem their inelegant departure in “Starks.” If only.

And then there’s that little girl, the last of Varys’ little birds, allowing one last manipulation of his to survive his death and manifest itself in the series finale.

Benioff and Weiss have not played their last hand, and I haven’t lost my last ounce of faith. The season is what it is. But the show can still go out on a high note. When Sansa told Tyrion about Jon’s secret parentage in “Starks,” one reviewer took issue with what he perceived as irresponsibility on her part, not realizing that this move was deliberately written as a “master stroke” of manipulation, as Dany herself tells Jon a few scenes into this episode, so it’s not like they’ve completely lost the ability to write good character work, and even disguise it.

In spite of everything I’ve written here, the lower quality of this season’s writing has not soured me on the sprawling epic created by my fellow native of Hudson County.

In fact, I’ve just started reading the first novel in the series. I intend to read them all, perhaps putting my run through Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series on hold in order to keep the continuity of the story fresh in my mind from novel to novel, and who knows, maybe by the time I’m done, my fellow native of Hudson County, New Jersey will have finished writing the final two novels, or at least decided upon a firm release date.

Hope springs eternal. 


1. Martin, George R.R. (2014). The World of Ice and Fire. Bantam. pp. 113 – 129.

Review: Bumblebee

Review: Bumblebee

When I first saw the trailer for Bumblebee last June, I liked a lot of what I saw. The fact that the hero is a Volkswagen Beetle instead of a Camaro. The more faithful robot designs. I also liked the idea of the focus on a single character, since it suggested a stripped-down type of story, which after the cacophony of twisted metal that was the Michael Bay film series, was a welcome prospect. I had wanted to see this film earlier, but with all the holiday goings-on and other films to watch, it kinda got lost in the shuffle until now.

It was pretty good. Aside from the kid next to me that wouldn’t shut up because his typically discourteous parent wouldn’t do the right thing by instructing his child that you’re not supposed to talk during a movie (which are often found in theaters I frequent today), it was an enjoyable experience. It didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it was what the first Transformers movie should’ve been.

Storywise, the plot is a fairly straightforward prequel set in 1987, using the classic troubled-child-meets-alien framework, which evokes films of the era like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Reagan era pop culture references abound, and it’s clear that 1987 was chosen not just to establish the Transformers on Earth before they met Shia LaBeouf, but to call back to the era that saw that first wave of the Transformers franchise, when the first comics filled my back issue bins (actually an old white bureau that I still own), the action figures populated the shelves of a healthy company called Toys R Us, and Orson Welles was literally a planet. Songs from the 1980s fill the soundtrack, providing not just a sense of time, but some in-jokes for Transformers fans, and for that matter, current Internet culture. I imagine that the choice of time setting may also have made it easier to write some of the film’s scenes. Without the ubiquity of cell phones, a nighttime prank carried out by characters can plausibly be pulled off without it being filmed. And without the Web to instantly learn everything about Earth history and culture, the titular hero has to learn it through his interactions with his primary contact on Earth, a talented but troubled teen tomboy (say that three times really fast) named Charlie Watson, who is given a beat-up old 1967 Volkswagen Beetle on her 18th birthday. As a prequel, the film does a good job of establishing how the Cybertronians came to Earth and why Bumblebee doesn’t talk, and answers a number of other continuity-related questions.

Hailee Steinfeld does a good job of portraying Charlie’s angst, her conflict with family and peers, and her wide-eyed astonishment at her new friend. She’s a dedicated mechanic, but sullen and withdrawn, owing to unresolved bereavement, until meeting the eponymous robot whose damaged memory and voice synthesizer helps her to confront her demons. John Cena also goes a good job as Lt. Jack Burns, a U.S. Army Ranger who comes into conflict with the Cybertronians. While I surmised from the trailer and Cena’s interviews that his character was a typical one-dimensional hardass authority figure, Cena and screenwriter Christina Hodson dial down the jingoism that might normally be on display in one of the earlier films. Burns’ actions are understandable, given the circumstances, and he is at times overzealous, but is not the cartoonishly obtuse horror movie sheriff-type that often populate films like this. There are moments when he is depicted to be as skeptical of the Decepticons as he is of Autobots, and even genuinely sympathetic. Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux voice Shatter and Dropkick, the two main villains in the film, Decepticon triple-changers who follow Bumblebee to Earth, and who easily earn the label “evil” from their surprisingly grotesque treatment of humans, including innocent bystanders.

I mentioned my hopes for the Transformer designs from the trailer, and the film doesn’t disappoint. If you were a fan of the Transformers when you were a kid like me, then you’ll appreciate that right from the opening war scene on Cybertron, you can tell which character is which. Ratchet. Arcee. Brawn. Optimus Prime. Soundwave. Shockwave. And it’s not like they copied the animated series designs slavishly. The designers struck a nice balance between the simple designs of the animated Transformers, and the greater detail needed for a modern HD theater screens. If a character had a completely red arm in the comics or animation, for example, in this film their arm might consist of a red panel on top and maybe on the sides, and then an underside of detailed mechanics. The result is a gorgeous realization of what the Transformers should look like, a welcome change from the ugly mess of Erector Sets coughed up by a wood chipper that characterized the look of the Michael Bay Transformers. This isn’t just a question of aesthetics, mind you; these designs also exhibit a greater clarity, with the greater amount of color panels making it not only easier to identify characters at a glance, but to discern what’s happening during fight scenes. Instead of an incomprehensible tangle of twisted metal that typified robot-on-robot fights in the Bay films. I also especially liked the human-looking fight moves that Bumblebee displayed in one scene, which left me to wonder if there was a scene left on the cutting room floor of him watching martial arts movies and professional wrestling on Charlie’s television that had been intended to set this up.


I will say on the issue of clarity, however, that the film’s opening scene could’ve benefited from a more lucid layout of the geography of the battle. We open on an aerial shot of Cybertron, where tracer fire is blasting in half a dozen different directions from as many sources, making it difficult to discern any particular “front” between opposing forces. This wouldn’t be a big issue if it were the intention of director Travis Knight to convey a disorganized and decentralized collection of factions scattered across the Cybertroninan landscape (cyberscape?). But after we are introduced to the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons, Autobot leader Optimus Prime tells his forces to “fall back,” which is a bit confusing, since it wasn’t clearly established what was “forward” for them to begin with. Still, it’s a relatively minor point, since the story immediately moves to focus on Bumblebee, who is sent to Earth, where he’s the sole protector of humans against the two Decepticons who seek to use the planet’s satellite system to summon the entire Decepticon army to Earth. This provides a more intimate conflict, with greater breathing room for character work for both Charlie and Bumblebee, or simply Bee, as she comes to call him. The motivations are simple to understand, and action flows naturally from the conflict.

If you’ve been turned off by the last several Transformers films, and prefer a more accessible and likable story, try to catch this one before it’s gone completely from theaters.

Review: The “March” Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell

I recently finished reading Book Three of March, the graphic novel autobiography of Atlanta Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. I had never heard of Lewis prior to encountering March, but having now read it, I’ve gained a better picture of not only his life, but of the internal and external obstacles that the Civil Rights movement navigated in the 50s and 60s. Living today at a time when white supremacists have actually managed to gain an inexplicable foothold back into the mainstream—something I never thought I’d ever experience in my lifetime—reading March, isn’t just a gratifying reading experience. It’s a reminder of where our country has been, and the direction from which that pendulum has swung. As we reel from the horrors of Charlottesville, religious travel bans, mass child abuse inflicted upon brown children, and the continued practices of voter suppression, March serves as a warning of what it may look like if it swings back too far.

Lewis played many key roles in the civil rights movement, and the end of legalized racial segregation in the United States. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, and one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He was the fourth person to speak at the March (Dr. King was tenth). Only 23 at the time of his speech, he was the youngest of the speakers, and is the only one still living.

Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin, Rep. John Lewis
The author’s photo of the creative team, from left to right: Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin, and Congressman John Lewis.

I first became acquainted with March in 2013, when Book One was published by Top Shelf Comics, and I covered the signing held at Midtown Comics in Manhattan as a photographer for Wikipedia. Congressman Lewis was in attendance, along with his Digital Director and Policy Advisor Andrew Aydin, who conceived the idea for the book and co-wrote it with him, and artist Nate Powell, who illustrated and lettered the book. Book Two followed in 2015, and Book Three in 2016.

While March obviously isn’t the first work dealing with the history of the civil rights movement, and is not the first autobiography Lewis has written (his prose memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, was published in 1998), March is unique in that it is a graphic novel, a medium chosen for its ties to the history of the movement, and to Lewis’ role in it. Lewis first heard of Rosa Parks, Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott through his mentor, James Lawson, who worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.), an interfaith organization dedicated to promoting peace and justice. Lawson gave Lewis a copy of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 10-cent comic book published by F.O.R. that demonstrated in clear fashion the power of nonviolence. The Montgomery Story served as one of the guides used at student meetings that Lewis began attending, and influenced other civil rights activists, including the Greensboro Four. Aydin repeatedly suggested to Lewis that he write a comic book of his own, bringing him back full circle to the medium that got him involved in the movement.

And what a story it is.

The story opens in media res on March 7, 1965, as the young Lewis stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama with fellow civil rights activists during the Selma to Montgomery marches, which serves as a framing sequence that bookends the trilogy. The activists are confronted by Alabama state troopers, who order the protestors to turn around. When the protestors kneel to pray, the troopers attack them, before the narrative cuts away to Lewis’ beginnings.

Lewis grew up on his sharecropper father’s farm in rural Alabama, tending to the family’s chickens while entertaining dreams of becoming a preacher. Eventually, his eyes were opened to the state of race relations in the United States by his school studies, and by his maternal uncle Otis, who took Lewis on his first trip up North in June 1951. Lewis describes the careful planning that had to be made for such trips in order to avoid places where black people were not wanted, and the caution Otis observed as they drove through Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Their relief comes only when they make it to Ohio, which is accompanied by the image of their car driving across another bridge, a fitting recurring motif.

Although his parents had raised him to stay out of trouble, the experience of seeing whites and blacks living side and by side in the unsegregated North changed Lewis so much that home never felt the same to him. When he started school again, the segregated bus he rode to school was a daily reminder of what he had learned about the two worlds that existed in the United States. When Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka outlawed public school segregation, Lewis thought it would improve his schooling, but his parents continued to warn him, “Don’t get in trouble. Don’t you get in the way.” Lewis also noticed that the injustices against blacks were not mentioned by local church ministers, and that his minister drove a very nice automobile. Profoundly inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s social gospel and the Civil Rights movement that he heard in a Sunday sermon by King on the radio, Lewis preached his first public sermon just before his sixteenth birthday, garnering his first publicity. While attending American Baptist Theological Seminary Lewis sought to transfer student to Troy University, and when he was rejected because he was black, it led to his first meetings with civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy and Fred Gray, and then Dr. King. Lewis was told they would have to sue the state of Alabama to change this, but since Lewis was still a minor, he would have to get his parents permission for this. Lewis was heartbroken when his parents refused, but he would continue his work in Nashville, where his moral philosophy on racism, poverty and war was shaped by other activists there like Diane Nash and Jim Lawson, and those far away like Mohandas Gandhi. From here, Book One of the trilogy depicts Lewis and the Nashville Student Movement’s lunch counter sit-ins, and the tactics they learned to employ in response to racists who inflicted abuse and beatings upon them, and how they dealt with arrests.

Book Two depicts the expansion of the Nashville student movement’s respectful protests, Lewis’ involvement with the SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Freedom Riders; their confrontations with opponents like Bull Conner and George Wallace; and the resulting beatings, shootings, firebombed buses and imprisonment. Their activities caught the attention of the initially equivocal Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and that of others who decided to become Freedom Riders themselves—swelling the movement’s numbers so that even imprisonment wouldn’t be a feasible way for the white establishment to stop them. As Lewis put it, “The fare was paid in blood, but the Freedom Rides stirred the national consciousness and awoke the hearts and minds of a generation.” The SNCC also faced a schism between those who favor their effective direct action campaigns and those who favored Dr. King and Robert Kennedy’s urging to focus on registering blacks to vote. When Jim Bevel and the South Christian Leadership Conference organized Birmingham’s black children to protest, a thousand children were arrested, and the televised images of fire hoses and German shepherds being used against kids horrified the nation. As Lewis is elected chairman of the SNCC, he is moved by the surreal nature of being invited for a meeting with President John Kennedy and other black leaders at the White House, where the March on Washington is first announced.

Book Three opens with the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The SNCC continues its work amid the assassination of JFK; and continued violent resistance to the Civil Rights movement, which includes the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. President Lyndon Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it does not ban “literacy tests” and other voting restrictions. What remains to be achieved is a voting rights bill, but Johnson’s need to court Southern voters in the upcoming election spurs him and his supporters to put pressure on civil rights activists to stop the protests. This gives cause for conflict between Roy Wilkins, who favors ceasing the protests, King, who suggests a moratorium on them, and those like Lewis and James Farmer, who are adamant that protests must continue. The murder of activists like James Reeb and 26-year-old Army veteran Jimmie Lee Jackson seem to threaten to shatter Lewis, but also seem to steel his resolve for the Selma to Montgomery marches, which brings him to the Edmund Pettus bridge, and back to the scene that opened the trilogy. Chaos breaks out as state troopers brutally beat and tear gas activists, which becomes known as “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis’s skull is fractured, but amazingly, he escapes across the bridge to safety, and appears on television to call for Johnson to intervene before he even goes to the hospital, bearing scars from that beating to this day. The photo of the unconscious Amelia Boynton Robinson, pummeled nearly to death, so shocks the world that it raises the public’s consciousness on the need for lawmakers to act. It’s probably not for nothing that the crowd crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge is the cover image of the slipcased three-book set, beautifully silhouetted against the Sun.

What I appreciate about this story is the genuineness of the conflict among not just racists and civil rights activists but among the various individuals and groups of the movement. While multiple layers of conflict is part of writing fiction, this is often not possible when telling a non-fictional story authentically, and can result in writers either fabricating events and conflicts that never happened, or telling a story in a way that seems flat and boring. Neither occurs in March. Preparations for the March on Washington, for example, which one may think, with the auspiciousness granted to that event by the hindsight of history, was brought about by winds of inevitability, was anything but. Behind the scenes, arrangements are marked by tension over passages in Lewis’s speech that are seen as anti-Catholic, and possibly pro-Communist. This is a clash that I never knew took place prior to the reading this book, and its inclusion makes the read both entertaining and educational.

I also appreciate that Lewis does not make the movement about him, and gives space to discussing figures I had previously heard little or nothing of, like Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael, A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin. While evaluating a work of non-fiction is more difficult than a work of fiction, in part because one can’t be certain how much is accurate, the fact that Lewis explains who everyone else is goes a long way to conveying a feeling of authenticity, and the sense that I’m learning much I never learned in high school, or even during the boilerplate television programming we get every February. Lewis doesn’t skimp on the emotional moments either, and there are plenty in this book. Particularly powerful is a moment when Robert Kennedy cements Lewis’s respect for him when he pulls the young activist aside and says to him, “You, the young people of SNCC, have educated me. You have changed me. Now I understand.”

Nate Powell’s art is perfectly suited to this type of book. Using a combination of ink and ink wash, with an adeptly varied line weight, the greyscale art does a good job of evoking a sense of time and place. Powell knows when to apply his technique judiciously, making competent use of shadows, silhouettes and high-contrast black and white compositions during dramatic moments, and even rendering some panels in a light, all-pencil technique.

The power of Powell’s depiction of historical figures lies not in fealty to standards of photorealism, but from his ability to elicit feelings with his visuals: Characters set against completely black background, their figures rendered in the sparse areas illuminated by a lone light source, convey a feeling of their isolation, while a farmhouse drawn in one or two light tones of grey against an all white background transport the reader to the sun-drenched fields of the rural South. While I like color, even prefer it, one never feels cheated when looking at the art in this book.

Praise also needs to given to Powell’s excellent depiction of each character’s features. In an industry where artists often have one or two stock “faces” that they use on every character, to illustrate 445 pages of a story featuring dozens of real-life people, many of which have to be distinguishable to the reader page by page, is a considerable undertaking. Powell wisely chose not to go the photorealistic route by constantly referring to photos, which for some artists, can result in stiff, lifeless characters. Instead, he developed a visual shorthand “master drawing” for each character, one that emphasized their skull structure, to serve as a reference for their features. One need only look as far as any number of licensed comics, like some of the Star Trek books, which look like they’re drawn by artists who simply copy publicity photos, to see how well Powell avoided this problem. His characters are historically accurate yet vibrant and fluid.

The only criticisms I have is that in some instances, Powell’s designs deviate a bit too far from the person’s actual likeness, as with the portraits of FDR, JFK and Truman hanging above the stage at the 1964 Democratic convention, which look nothing like those men, and would not have been recognized out of context, or without the labels that Powell placed above each portrait (which were not at the actual convention). Kennedy seems to be a particular problem for Powell in other places in the trilogy. This required me to go back and re-read dialogue to verify who he was, and when that happens in a comic featuring one of the most beloved figures of the 20th century, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Powell also seems to have the same problem that some other artists have when rendering the human face at an angle, apparently not having mastered how the eye and eye socket looks in three-quarter view, or in perspective. There’s also that bizarre line Powell uses on Page 126 of Book Three to connect the ground seen in Panel 2 with the top of Lewis’ head in Panel 3. Nonetheless, these issues are few and far between, and overall, the book is a triumph for Powell.

Since comics are a visual medium, I should also talk about how the visuals are nicely balanced with the text. This book is an autobiography dealing with the various political and cultural conflicts of the civil rights movement, and by necessity, entails much discussion among characters.  This can be tricky for comics, and for that matter, any visual medium, including film, television, etc.. Do it right, and you have masterpieces like Sidney Lumet’s enthralling 1957 feature film adaptation of Twelve Angry Men, easily my favorite black and white film, which set almost entirely in a small jury room and driven entirely by dialogue. Do it poorly, and you get the last couple of historical dramas by Steven Spielberg, which I found flat and sleep-inducing. March, however, gets it right. Rather than publish a smaller book by omitting important details that explain what the challenges that Lewis and his colleagues faced, the book’s size allows space to be given to the important discussions and arguments that occurred among different groups in the movement, and does so in a way that does not come across as overly heavy with word balloons. Lewis, Aydin and Powell manage to do this in a way that the story and dialogue is seamlessly incorporated with the art, so that the amount of space given to each scene feels appropriate.  Six pages are devoted, for example, to Lewis’ speech at the March on Washington, and as a result, it both reads well and looks good.

The fact that Powell lettered the book too may also help explain its narrative success, and one gets a sense of how closely the three creators worked together to effect what seems like a genuine shared vision rather than an assembly line product. While lettering isn’t something I often notice, it’s an unsung hero of comics, and Powell’s unique approach to it, incorporating it into the book’s landscape stands out. A Bible verse being read by the prepubescent John sitting in silhouette on his porch is written out in the black area of his back, conveying out the words penetrated his very soul. An important announcement heard on a radio aren’t depicted so much as the typical floating clouds rendered above the device as it is jagged billows of electricity spit out by the radio, as if it is as much a character as those listening to it.

I can’t stress enough what an important work this is. If you love to read, buy it. If you want to expand your comics reading list with more non-superhero works, buy it. And if the re-emergence of David Duke and the murder of Heather Heyer horrify you, then buy several copies and give some to your friends.

And above all, VOTE.

Better than men than you and I have had their skulls cracked open for that right.