You can thank a salamander for the two tales of D.C. history presented in this issue of Washington City Paper.
A cartoonist and editor who’s one of the ringleaders of the local comics collective D.C. Conspiracy, Matt Dembicki also has a day job, just south of Dupont Circle. He works across the street from the Brewmaster’s Castle, the imposing, Gilded-Age home of beer baron Christian Heurich. The District’s second biggest landowner during his lifetime, Heurich feared losing his property to fire, so he built his mansion out of steel and concrete—and placed a salamander gargoyle atop its central turret to ward off flames.
Dembicki found himself staring frequently at that salamander, so he toured the castle and began researching its eccentric builder. In 2010, Dembicki and cartoonist Andrew Cohen created a 20-page comic book about the mansion, a tender, economical tale that made this slice of local lore the stuff of art. For a nugget of D.C. history, it turned out, a comic book was the ideal medium.
In that spirit two years later, Dembicki has edited an anthology of similarly unusual stories. District Comics (Fulcrum Publishing) contains 22 eclectic tales of life in the District. Beginning in the 1790s and ending with the inauguration of Barack Obama, District Comics spans the burning of the city during the War of 1812, the first baseball team called the Washington Nationals (back in the 1860s!), the booze seller whose Prohibition-era client was the United States Congress, and the story of how hardcore pioneers Bad Brains were banned in D.C.
Some of the stories in District Comics take some creative liberties, filling in the historical record with realistic dialogue or narration. But each of the tales is steeped in fact, with its authors conducting serious research and reporting as part of their creative process.
The pieces from District Comics we’ve selected to run in our pages are two of the sweetest: One concerns a loner who crafted beauty in isolation, the other a minor but fascinating figure from one of the most symbolic moments in our country’s history.
They’re the kind of stories we love to tell each week anyway, though we usually use keyboards and cameras, not pencils and ink. —Jonathan L. Fischer
Contributors to District Comics will sign copies of the book at the Small Press Expo, Sept. 15 and 16 at the Bethesda North Marriott & Conference Center, 5701 Marinelli Road, Bethesda and on Oct. 27 at Big Planet Comics, 1520 U St. NW.
America at its best has always been America at its weirdest, and Washington, D.C., is no different. Janitor James Hampton worked for the General Services Administration, and died in 1964. He might have been forgotten—if not for the extraordinary secret contents of his rented garage.
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When Barack Obama was elected president, D.C. erupted like New Orleans during Mardi Gras. As the inauguration approached—and while the Metropolitan Police Department prepared for bomb threats, riots, DUIs, and terrorist scares—officer Darron Jackson was trying to protect something else from Obamamania: his artistic integrity.
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