The Bloomington resident is the artist of the “March” comic book series, which tells the story of Congressman John Lewis’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
“I credit X-Men and thrash metal with giving me a social conscience,” Powell told teenagers at an author talk Thursday night at the Monroe County Public Library.
The transition from superheroes to civil rights leaders was not always a comfortable one for Powell, who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“In the early 80s, the specter of the Jim Crow South was separated from my life by a very thin veil,” Powell said.
When he drew historical black figures for “The Silence of Our Friends,” a comic book published before the “March” series, Powell initially struggled.
“At times, I was drawing African American figures a little too white, because at that point I was afraid of drawing features that might be perceived as being too much of a caricature,” Powell said.
He found a solution by telling himself just to relax and draw the characters.
At the library, Powell told the assembled teenagers one way he connected with the activists.
“As the artist, I tried to stress that these are people whose age I can understand, whose age you can understand,” Powell said. He told them many of the activists were in their late teens and asked, “What will you be doing when you are 18?”
Powell also emphasized the importance of discipline, which he said is more important than creativity and skill for making art. Powell said he works six or seven days a week for five hours a day. He is a full-time cartoonist.
In order to make sure his historical drawings are accurate, the cartoonist spends an hour daily on Google searches for period technology and hairstyles. He read Lewis’ “Walking with the Wind” and Raymond Arsenault’s “Freedom Riders,” and he studied photographs in Bob Adelman’s “Mine Eyes Have Seen.”
Powell and Andrew Aydin, “March” series writer, worked closely with Lewis.
In Powell’s original drawings, on view at the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, there’s a hat box beside a woman waiting in line at the bus station, and a bus employee wears a bow tie. Determination and passion fill the activists’ faces.
The first drawings Powell sent to Lewis depicted state troopers assaulting the marchers on Edmund Pettus Bridge.
They seemed to meet Lewis’ approval.
“Congressman Lewis teared up and felt like his memories were jumping off the page,” Aydin told Powell.