It was beer that made “District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC” possible.
The editor of the comic book anthology of Washington history, Matt Dembicki, works in Dupont Circle. His fascination with the Heurich House Museum, the castle built at the end of the 19th century at 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW, led to “The Brewmaster’s Castle,” which he created with artist Andrew Cohen and published in 2010.
It tells the story of Christian Heurich, a German immigrant who became one of the city’s biggest employers as founder of the Christian Heurich Brewing Co. Heurich recounts his life as he wanders from room to room in the castle.
The castle itself, which once served as home to the Historical Society of Washington, is now a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and one of Washington’s most elegant venues for weddings, holiday parties and the like.
“We did a cool little minicomic . . . and it was well received,” Dembicki said. “If we get this one story, not related to politics” out there, then there were more stories to tell.
Fast-forward two years, and Dembicki, Cohen and 38 others came together on “District Comics.”
The subjects are diverse, ranging from the founding of Washington’s first newspaper to the Army Medical Museum to the 1860s iteration of the Washington Nationals baseball club to religious-vision janitor James Hampton, the Bad Brains and Officer Darron Jackson, the designer of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 2009 commemorative inauguration badges.
“You have those same kind of roots that have national implications but are local stories,” Dembicki said. The tone varies from piece to piece, which usually run from eight to 12 pages per story.
“It’s a unique way to portray history in Washington,” Dembicki said, adding that the narrative’s contemporary voices give the stories “a unique slant” that distinguish the anthology from the scores of books on Washington and its history that come out every year.
“The challenge of doing an anthology is to present it in such a way that’s satisfying . . . and to tease [readers] to do reading on their own,” he said.
Some of the events, such as the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812, have plenty of secondary sources. Others, such as Hampton’s creation, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” which was made out of found objects, can be seen in the Smithsonian.
The stories vary radically in tone.
Some are wistful, such as “With a Poet’s Heart” by Max Ink, which tells the story of Walt Whitman’s days in Washington, as he attempts to minister to the wounded during the Civil War.
Others are tragic, such as “Skip Dillon, Son of the B.E.F.,” by Michael Cowgill and Rand Arrington, the tale of the World War I “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” veterans who set up camp in Washington during the Great Depression, clamoring for early payment of their service bonuses. Their occupation was suppressed by, among others, troops led by Douglas MacArthur.
Some are incongruously funny, such as “The Man in the Green Hat,” by Sean Fahey, Borja Pena and Evan Keeling, which is the story of the bootlegger who supplied Congress with its hooch during Prohibition. Ditto for “Karat,” by Peter S. Conrad, the story of the late FBI Agent Brian Kelley, who was wrongly implicated as a KGB mole before the feds caught Kelley’s guilty colleague, Robert Hanssen. The stumbling investigation of Kelley is handled with a deft, absurdist punch.
And some just tell forgotten stories, such as “101 Miles of Monument,” by Jim Ottaviani and Nick Sousanis, which recounts the connection between the Metro rail system’s design and Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Since the anthology came out in late summer, there has been chatter about a sequel or ongoing series about Washington. Asked whether he would be up for a Part II, Dembicki demurred.
“I’m not sure I have the energy for that,” he said. “Everyone’s got their own temperaments.” Corralling all those cartoonists and storytellers into one project was enough to convince him to give it a rest on being an editor, at least for a while.
“But I’m never going to say never. Maybe in a year, I’ll change my mind.”
In the meantime, he’s working with Jason Rodriguez — who wrote “National Pastime” for “District Comics” — on another project for Fulcrum Publishing that follows in the District anthology’s footsteps.
“It’s early, early colonial stuff in New England,” he said. “Jason Rodriguez is heading that up. I’ll enjoy handing over the reins and being just a contributor.”
And he’ll even get to return to his roots for it. Dembicki is a longtime resident of the Washington area, but he’s originally from Connecticut, and he will be working with the state’s historian on his contribution to what is tentatively called “Colonial Comics.”
“They’re very interested in making this a historically relevant book,” he said, in a way “that you can only convey in comics form.”
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