*District Comics — Recommended

This anthology, edited by Matt Dembicki (Mr. Big), is accurately subtitled “An Unconventional History of Washington, DC”. District Comics is a collection of comic stories telling fact-based tales of little-known history of the area. Even beyond the subject matter, most pieces also have at least one creator living in DC.

This is a book full of fascinating discoveries, true stories you’ve never heard before. Some cover expected subjects, given the area, such as wars, politics, and baseball:

  • The human toll of the Civil War, as shown through excerpts from Walt Whitman’s journal, illustrated by Max Ink.
  • The Washington Nationals baseball team, on a travel tour, by Jason Rodriguez and Charles Fetherolf.
  • An attempted Presidential assassination by Art Haupt and Rafer Roberts (whose unique style oddly makes Truman and the other characters look like munchkins).
  • A spy meeting in a bar by Joe Carabeo and Carolyn Belefski.
  • Peter S. Conrad’s story of a wrongly accused mole is disturbing, all the more so because it doesn’t really end.
  • The pandas! Steve Loya draws cute bears.

Gregory Robison and Brooke A. Allen start the book off right with the story of Washington’s first newspaper, a wonderfully illustrated piece that also manages to capture the confusion of building a new city and the business scams and jockeying that go along with it.

I was also glad to see Chad Lambert and Kevin Czapiewski’s early take on Benjamin Banneker, a talented genius who recreated the city’s plans after L’Enfant departed with them. That he was a free black man in 1792 emphasizes that this book is going to depart from the usual histories by focusing on stories we don’t usually hear in the approved, school-taught versions.

Several of the stories left me wanting more. The tale of Stephen Decatur (by Kevin Rawlings and Dale Rawlings), for example, the naval commissioner who ultimately died in a duel with his former mentor, could have been a graphic novel on its own. Decatur couldn’t let go of an argument. He couldn’t let someone else rant without worry for his own reputation, an attitude I immediately understood from seeing the same thing happen on the internet — only without the deadly ending.

I was thrilled to learn about Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream, an eighteen-year-old who created the Capitol’s sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and was the first woman to be government-commissioned for such a project, as told by Tabitha Whissemore and Mike Freiheit with moody painted art. I’d also never heard of the Bonus Army, a group of veterans trying to collect on the government’s promises of support, although Michael Cowgill and Rand Arrington can’t provide a happy ending to an event that concluded in such fashion.

Rebecca Goldfield and Paul W. Zdepski’s piece on Keith Clark, the bugler who played “Taps” at John F. Kennedy’s funeral, illustrates how the stories we tell ourselves, revising history to meet our expectations of how things should work, can be more powerful than the reality, a collection of mistakes and bureaucratic bungles that don’t allow an artist to stand up for himself.

The story connecting the design of the DC subway with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Jim Ottaviani and Nick Sousanis was touching and unexpected. It’s a great piece that does some really creative work with the comic medium, showing designs arising around the characters, as well as elegantly capturing the story behind an essential piece of the city, its Metro. My favorite in the book.

There are editorial notes on each story that help put them in context and provide more background information that I found helpful and informative. District Comics is a wonderful journey through a uniquely American area. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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