Step aside, superheroes. Here comes a real hero.
On Saturday at Comic-Con in downtown San Diego, Rep. John Lewis - an ally of Martin Luther King Jr. who has served 15 terms in Congress - led a march across the crowded exhibition hall. Trooping past Ghostbusters, Wonder Women and Batmen, the 76-year-old Lewis was greeted by applause.
Far from his Georgia district, Lewis was here to promote his memoir, a three-volume graphic novel. At Friday’s Eisner Awards gala, “March: Book Two” was named “best reality-based work.”
Lewis, who shared the honor with co-author Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, is the first member of Congress to win an Eisner, one of the comic book industry’s most coveted awards.
He also may be one of the few politicians who could wow this crowd, which is more accustomed to seeing fantastic beings than historic figures.
“John Lewis is one of the last living legends of the American civil-rights movement,” said Melissa Agudelo, assistant principal at San Diego’s KIPP Adelante Preparatory School. “It’s giving me goose bumps to walk down a hallway with him.”
“March: Book Three,” which debuted here, covers the campaign for the Voting Rights Act. It recounts the March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the subsequent march King led from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The first attempt, March 7, 1965, ended when police attacked marchers with clubs and dogs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, causing Lewis and more than a dozen others to be hospitalized.
Nationally broadcast scenes of this outrage put public opinion squarely behind the marchers. With federal protection, the journey resumed March 21. King, Lewis and the other protesters reached Montgomery on March 25. That fall, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
On Saturday, Lewis wore a trench coat and a backpack, just as he had 51 years ago in Selma. He carried a similar message, too.
“It doesn’t matter if you are African-American or Latino or white, if we are straight or gay. We are one people,” Lewis told the audience in a Comic-Con conference room.
The Democratic congressman still uses some of civil-rights era tactics.
Last month, he led a congressional sit-in after House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., blocked a vote on gun safety legislation after a terrorist fatally shot about 50 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
While Ryan and others denounced the sit-in as a “publicity stunt,” Lewis said sometimes Americans need to engage in civil disobedience.
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just,” he said, “you have to do something about it.”
His audience Saturday included more than 60 San Diego schoolchildren, plus dozens of teachers and administrators led by Cindy Marten, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District.
“It resonates today, his message, especially in our polarized society,” Marten said.
While fantasy is always in full flower at Comic-Con, reality had a strong presence, too. NASA scientists and astronauts appeared on two panels, one to discuss the potential for a mission to Mars and a second to praise “Star Trek” as a source of inspiration.
It was a big day as well for another form of reality: virtual. Murrieta’s Karen Rundle waited for two hours to be terrified by “American Horror Story Fearless VR,” a 10-minute immersion into FX’s television series.
“My daughter has already gone in and she said, ‘It’ll be scary for you, Mom,’” Rundle said. “But you don’t get to experience this kind of stuff every day.”
Just as you don’t always get to meet your heroes, super or otherwise. Halo Aparicio, an 8-year-old from San Marcos, was thrilled to have her photo taken with two men in blue: San Diego police Officers Tim McGarry and Tom Parrila.
“They help us,” she said. “And they have cool badges.”