by Mike Favila, Reporter
Recently, I was reading my neighborhood’s message board and our moderator Mike Rhode mentioned that he had written a story for a new comic anthology about Washington DC. I’m always interested in all things comic, so this piqued my interest. When I was offered the chance to review District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC a week later, it seemed like a great way to learn a little bit about the city I’ve been inhabiting for almost two decades.
District Comics is arranged as a collection of stories, with a little preamble before each story to set the time period and circumstances. The stories are arranged in an almost chronological order, with decades overlapping here and there from 1794 to 2009. Most of the comics are contributed by DC Conspiracy, a collective of comic artists and writers in and around the DC area. Matt Dembicki, a founder of DC Conspiracy, has edited a hodgepodge of compelling stories which aren’t related in and of itself, but paint a more complete human picture. DC can be a very complicated town. With centuries of history and a reservoir of overthinking, it’s easy to forget that there are a lot of fun and quirky moments too.
When I first started reading District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC, I wondered if anybody outside of the Beltway would even be interested in hearing these tales. To the credit of all the writers and illustrators, almost every story presented is easily digestible and connected me to the characters, even if I had nothing in common with the protagonists.
Walt Whitman is the star of With A Poet’s Heart, which recounted his experiences in the Union Army. He starts out simply trying to find his brother, but ends up joining the fight, trying to take care of the wounded through medicine or compassion. What could be dry biography is made whole by the first person account presented by the author Max Ink. Ego Shine, about the struggle of a local shoeshiner against City Hall, is a great human moment. Reading it made me feel like I was listening to a first person account in the Metro section of the Washington Post, one often overlooked on the way to the Redskins scores or more Democrat & Republican stonewalling. I loved reading about the history of Bad Brains, the innovative punk rock combo that kicked off harDCore (capitalization totally intentional).
By far, the most compelling story was Karat, the tragic story of former CIA officer Brian Kelley. In 1998, the CIA and FBI determined that there was a mole within one of their organizations. Eventually they figured out that spy was Robert Hanssen. Unfortunately, this arrest only after they spent years shaking down the wrong man. Kelley was given a bad assignment, bugged at his house, had his family and friends harassed and baited with a fake Russian mole. Through it all, he suspected nothing and acted as an upstanding citizen and officer. Appropriately, the boneheaded FBI agents are represented by x-ray’d skulls. Sadly, Kelley passed away before the book could be published, but it’s a scathing indictment of how myopic the people in charge can sometimes get when they don’t get the evidence for their foregone conclusions.
Living in DC, sometimes you feel like the city just rose out of the swamp intact, ready to legislate and confuse the rest of America. But it’s not just another set of buildings and cars. It’s got an interesting soul like any other major city. You can tell that the collection was put together like a labor of love, a desire to challenge the caricature of Washington DC. I read an interview with Mr. Dembicki where he stated that all the creators have either spent time here before or currently live here. That made sense. Maybe everybody feels this way about their city, but I personally feel people just don’t get DC unless they’ve lived here.
District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC is a great read, full of purposely smaller moments tied into the greater picture. It somehow managed to be emotional and educational at the same time, a difficult feat. And I love the DC pride!
ComicsOnline.com gives District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC 4.5 out of 5 bureaucrats!
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