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.
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.
Having already opened their hearts and minds to him, well-wishers now opened their wallets, eagerly snatching up every available hardcover edition — including the commemorative $25 text and a $40 limited edition version — the publisher had stocked for the show.
“My mom’s a teacher and my sister’s a teacher … so it’s going to be in the right hands,” one collector informed Lewis.
“This is a real life superhero,” a beaming mother explained to her inquisitive boy as he propped up on tippy toes to steal a glance at Lewis over the neatly stacked comics.
One professorial type handed Lewis a copy of his dissertation covering the Selma-to-Montgomery march for Lewis to sign.
An awestruck family man was less scholarly but just as wily, offering his dog-eared copy of Lewis’ memoir, “Walking with the Wind,” for the lawmaker to inscribe.
“It looks well-read,” a pleasantly surprised Lewis commented as he gingerly leafed through the loosely bound tome.
Aaron Haaland, a comic bookstore owner from Orlando, Fla., predicted “March” might free young minds from the shackles of digitized distractions.
Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-Calif., visited Lewis during the show. Per Aydin, even though it’s in her home district, Davis had never attended Comic-Con before. She made her way this year to see Lewis amid the cosplay-dominated chaos.
“She was just smiling and enjoying every bit of it,” Lewis said of her trip down the rabbit hole.
Lewis seemed to take all the fawning attention in stride, saying he felt a definite connection with this new-found constituency.
“It’s almost like being in church. The people, through their actions, just the way they look at you, the way they greet you, they don’t even have to verbalize it. But in a sense they’re saying ‘Amen,’” Lewis said.
More importantly, he hoped exploring this new medium might propel the message forward a few more generations.
“I think you will have people reading ‘March,’ not just book one … they’ll be waiting for book two and book three. And then passing it on to other members of their family or to their students,” he said.
Those next volumes are expected to roll off the presses in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Does that mean the septuagenarian Lewis, who voiced a desire to peruse a vintage issue of “Batman” or “Superman” (time permitting), might become a fixture at this cartooniest of conventions?
“Oh yeah, I plan to come back,” Lewis vowed.
And, as we all know, heroes never lie.