“DISTRICT COMICS” was an idea born of beer.
This wasn’t about sophomoric, six-pack inspiration, though. Rather, this comics anthology about the history of the District was as finely considered as the esteemed ale of an old D.C. brewmaster.
“The impetus came from the fun and feedback from ‘Brewmaster’s Castle,’ “ says Matt Dembicki, referring to a minicomic he made two years ago about legendary lager-king Christian Heurich, who lived near Dupont Circle. “I knew there were plenty of other stories like that in D.C. that could have a strong local interest, as well as a broader appeal.”
Dembicki is tapped into Washington’s cartoon community — he founded the D.C. Conspiracy, a collaborative of area comics creators — so he knew just where to turn to make such local stories come alive on the page.
“Regarding the participating creators, I wanted to make sure they had a strong familiarity with Washington, D.C.,” says Dembicki, editor of the Eisner-nominated “Trickster: Native American Tales (A Graphic Collection).” “I wanted folks who could convey a sense of the city — not how it’s perceived as the nation’s capitol outside the city — but the actual city, its landscape and its residents.
“Nearly all the writers and artists in this book live in D.C. or have lived in D.C.,” continues Dembicki (who also created the nature graphic novels “Mr. Big: A Tale of Pond Life” and “Xoc: The Journey of a Great White”), “and the ones who haven’t have a strong understanding of the city because they have spent time here visiting family or for work.”
So Dembicki recruited nearly three-dozen contributors for the recent release “District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, D.C.” — which today kicks off Comic Riffs’ picks for favorite reads of 2012.
The richly textured stories range from Gregory Robison and Brooke A. Allen’s account of Washington’s first colonial-era newspaper, to the Jason Rodriguez and Charles Fetherolf tale of Civil War-era D.C. baseball, ”National Pastime,” that especially resonates in the afterglow of the Nationals’ first winning season. And the book’s historic sweep ranges from the presidential (Lincoln to Obama) to the residential (real, little-known locals, from a falsely accused “spy” to a charismatic shoeshine man).
Comic Riffs caught up with Dembicki, who edited “District Comics,” to discuss the inspiration and curation behind this excellent book:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Care and craft ripple through this anthology. Can you take us through the birth of this book?
MATT DEMBICKI: Two years ago, I did a 20-page, black-and-white minicomic with local cartoonist Andrew Cohen called “The Brewmaster’s Castle.” It told the life of legendary D.C. brewmaster Christian Heurich as his walked through the rooms of his Victorian mansion near Dupont Circle. We had pretty good success with the book — local history buffs picked it up, beer connoisseurs, comic-book folks, etc. We even presented it to the Heurich family and the Huerich museum board of directors. They loved it. So much so that they invited Andrew and me to the board’s annual gala. I had so much fun with the book that I felt it would be fun to do a collection of these types of D.C.-centric stories.
MC: And what about process of curation?
MD: Once I decided to do this type of anthology, I thought about the kinds of stories I would want and who I would tap to participate. My goal was to have stories that weren’t completely mainstream. If a story were about a well-known figure or event, it would have to be approached from a unique angle. For example, the story “Vinne and Abe” featured Abraham Lincoln, but it was about sculptor Vinnie Reams. And the story about President Obama’s inauguration was told from the perspective of the D.C. police officer who designed the inauguration badges.
Although the stories were told from a personal perspective, they had to be factual. All the writers and artists researched their stories and, when possible, contacted the original sources. When it was not possible to get in touch with the sources, we did our best to get as close as we could to the source material. For example, Gregory Robison sought out copies of early D.C. newspapers at the Library of Congress for his story on Washington’s first newspaper. Rebecca Goldfield, who wrote about the trumpeter who botched a note in “Taps,” which he played at JFK’s funeral, talked to his family and looked through the letters he received.
MC: “District Comics” is striking in its wide diversity of styles and graphic/verbal storytelling — as well as the intriguing pairings of writer and artist in the non-solo work. Did you purposefully edit with that in mind, or was that a happy accident?
MD: I did intentionally pair writers and artists. A few writers wrote their stories with a particular artist in mind. For stories that were artist orphans, I looked for a style that would fit the story, but also with an eye toward adding artistic diversity to the book. Similar to my previous comics anthology, “Trickster: Native American Tales,” I didn’t want a dominant style in the book. The goal was diversity, but diversity that was approached smartly.
MC: How many of these contributors are DC Conspiracy folk, and can you tell us a bit about Conspiracy's history?
MD: Fifteen of the contributors are members of the D.C. Conspiracy, a local comic-book creators collective that was started in 2005. I was one of the founding members, and together as a group, we worked on various projects, from jam books to themed anthologies, and we even organized several annual shows that featured comics and other vendors, bands and performers — the D.C. Conspiracy’s Counter Cultural Festival, which is currently on hiatus.
Including some members of the Conspiracy in the book was a no-brainer; I knew they had the writing and drawing talent and they were familiar with and passionate about D.C.
MC: What was your goal in collecting and assigning these centuries of DC stories? What elements were you looking for? And were there any you rejected for any hard reasons?
MD: I was looking for a breadth of stories that covered all the major eras of the city. The first story captures the city from its swampy and prospective beginnings through the establishing of D.C.’s first newspaper. The last story is about Obama’s inauguration. In between, there are stories about the War of 1812, Civil War, Prohibition, the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin War, etc. You can see that many of these stories are linked to the significant national and international events. A few of the more contemporary stories have a more pop culture feel, such as the one about the punk band Bad Brains, and another one on the pandas in the National Zoo.
Surprisingly, several writers pitched stories about the Civil War. I would say about a half-dozen. Two Civil War stories made the cut — not because the other ideas were not good, but because I couldn’t have six Civil War stories in an anthology that was to broadly cover the history of Washington. There were a few other stories I didn’t go with. Two people pitched 9/11 stories. I just felt 9/11 was so thoroughly covered in media that there was nothing different or new that could be added in explaining or relating to it.
Another story I declined was one regarding John Allen Muhmmad and Lee Boyd Malvo, snipers who terrorized D.C. over a three-week span in 2002. I didn’t think it fit into the book — it wouldn’t mesh well with the other stories, and I didn’t want to glorify what they did.
MC: I have to say, as much as I love presidential and famed-figure history, I often was most moved by the personal stories of lesser-known people almost lost to history. Was that a conscious decision to strike a balance, and did any of these stories come as news to you?
MD: Yes, I wanted to show that the nation’s capital has real people — people who live in the city and make their living in jobs that often have nothing to do with national politics. Often, these people’s stories would touch issues that have a broader appeal, such as the Jim Crow /right-to-work laws in the story “Ego Shine,” or D.C. police officer Darron Jackson’s small part in President Obama’s inauguration in “Design and Detail.”
The story that really stunned me was that of Brian Kelley in “Karat.” Brian worked for the CIA and was accused of being a Soviet mole. Even after the real spy, FBI agent Robert Hanssen, was caught, Kelley never got a apology for what he and his family [were] put through. Peter Conrad, who wrote and illustrated “Karat,” and I spent hours interviewing and chatting with Kelley, who was lecturing on intelligence after he left the CIA. He unexpectedly passed away in September 2011. He was working on his autobiography at the time.
MC: Did you interview Ego Brown for your piece — are those his direct words we're "hearing"?
MD: Yes, Ego and I talked many times for the story. In fact, I passed his shoeshine stand for five years before I started chatting with him. What initially struck me was the way he dressed; He and his employees always wore suits and ties, and they gave off an old-school kind of vibe. It wasn’t until I started to chat with him and saw some old article postings and photos at his stand that I learned about his story.
Earlier this year, Ego lost his lease on his stand in the building where he had worked for some 25 years. The new landowner opted instead to let another shoeshine/shoe-repair shop open. Ego has had a tough time since then, doing mainly private appointments for firms. But he’s not angry or glum. I met up with him a few weeks again, and he still has that wonderful smile and cheerful personality. He’s quite an inspiration.
MC: Is there anything you learned about D.C. as a city and community in editing this?
MD: The people who live in D.C. are passionate about the city. I’m not talking about the politicians or pundits who come and go over the years, but the people who make their home here, the folks who have lived here for decades and can relate stories about their neighborhoods. There are many stories that I researched and did interviews for that didn’t make it into the book, but they all helped to shape the book by steering me toward the personal narrative style.
MC: What do you hope readers will most take from this?
MD: I hope readers find the stories interesting and entertaining, and that perhaps they will see D.C. in a different light — as a city comprising unique stories and residents, rather than just the center of national and international politics.
MC: Are you coordinating to have this book in schools and/or libraries? Any plans tied to education?
MD: I think Fulcrum Publishing is reaching out to schools and libraries. I know local library systems have already purchased copies of the book, and several schools have also bought the book. No formal plans to tie it into curriculum, but that could change with time. With “Trickster,” it took a while to get the word of mouth going but it has gradually made its way into the classroom.
MC: Will there be a "District Comics 2: The Sequel"?
MD: Not immediately, at least. I have a few other projects in the queue. But if this book has a good reception, I’ve already got a handful of great stories on hand to get the ball rolling.