SAN DIEGO — The anticipation had been building for days.
But given the prodigious outpouring of effusive praise showered on Rep. John Lewis, one could argue that many here at Comic-Con had waited a lifetime to meet a genuine hero.
Legions braved Comic-Con’s wilds to hear the Georgia Democrat speak and later waited in snaking lines for personally signed copies of “March” — the graphic novel chronicling the civil rights icon’s unwavering commitment to nonviolent protest.
Exuberant fans — some, like he, who make it their mission to topple barriers to racial equality, others so young they’ve only known a black president — turned out en masse to welcome Lewis to the campy fantasy fest.
More than 100 people were already camped out for almost an hour before the panel discussion of the landmark project was scheduled to begin. The early-risers included gray-haired grandfathers, breast-feeding mothers, heavily tattooed couples and even a costumed tyke or two.
Seconds after walking through the door, Lewis was swarmed by supporters.
Activists pressed him about how to restore Voting Rights Act protections that the Supreme Court recently struck down. Frustrated parents fished for guidance about justice for Trayvon Martin, the African-American teen killed in Sanford, Fla., by acquitted gunman George Zimmerman. Admirers swooped in for chummy pictures, pumping the stoic politician’s hand while praising his “courage,” “determination” and “character.”
Order was briefly restored after Lewis slid behind the dais alongside the rest of Team “March” — artist Nate Powell and congressional aide and co-author Andrew Aydin.
Top Shelf Productions pitchman Leigh Walton, charged with shepherding Lewis’ life story from fevered dream to fully illustrated reality, had barely launched his intro before the crowd erupted anew.
“John Lewis is an American icon …” Walton led off.
“Yeah!” blurted an enthusiastic attendee, which spurred a standing ovation and thunderous applause.
That energy never diminished.
Lewis alternately charmed the audience with quirky tales of his sharecropping youth and horrified them with stomach-turning accounts of the evil bigots do. But he emphasized the ultimate goal of his experience has always been “to create a society where we can lay down the burden of race and move on.”
Aydin put on his wonk hat to connect the decades-long dots between the Martin Luther King Jr.-sanctioned booklet that inspired “March” and the graphic novel that brought them here. But by the end of his talk, emotions ran high.
“You have no idea what this means to me. I’m a fanboy,” he gushed. “There are few things I’ll be more grateful for. Maybe when I have a child.”
After the hourlong discussion wrapped, Lewis headed to the main convention center floor for the first of several, planned marathon signing sessions.