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Matt Dembicki can hardly move around in his minivan. It’s packed, floor to ceiling, with stacks upon stacks of freshly printed newspapers. “I have to use every single crevice,” he says. Loading the van is hard work, and Dembicki spends about 20 minutes cramming the papers in with the help of his oldest son, Adam.
“It’s a great feeling to walk in with a stack of newspapers and people immediately know what it is and are excited about it,” Dembicki says with a smile.
But Dembicki, 44, isn’t a newspaper deliveryman, at least not in the traditional sense. And the newspapers he’s delivering aren’t full of words—they’re full of pictures. Dembicki is hauling copies of Magic Bullet, D.C.’s only free semi-annual newsprint comic. Since its creation in 2010, Magic Bullet has served as the main indie publisher for the hundreds of local cartoonists in the growing D.C. comic-making scene.
Magic Bullet is the child of DC Conspiracy, a small-press cartoonist collective formed by Dembicki and other local comic creators in the beginning of 2005 (an excerpt of Dembicki’s District Comics ran in Washington City Paper in September 2012). Back then, the group would meet on Sunday afternoons at Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse in Arlington. The meetings were usually non-linear and informal, equal parts discussing comics and drinking beer. Members drifted in and out of the organization. Some people came to produce serious work. Others were just comic fans who wanted friends.
“We didn’t want to have dues or membership,” Dembicki says. “If you want to participate, that’s great.”
To pass the time, the group broke ground on some just-for-fun projects. In the fall after the group came together, DC Conspiracy hosted the first Counter Culture Festival, a free art show that packed the house at Dr. Dremo’s. The atmosphere was similar to a miniature comic convention: tables of T-shirts and comics, local artists, “some kind of a freakshow act,” and performances by local bands.
The members also started working on an exquisite corpse-style mini-comic based on their hangout’s Doctor Dremo mascot. Dembicki describes the process: “We’d do four pages and pass it onto the next guy, and they’d do four pages and pass it off to the next person.” Doctor Dremo, a blue-faced wizard with snowy white hair, was a spoof of Marvel’s famous sorcerer superhero, Doctor Strange.
After its first few meetings, the group doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size. Naturally, this meant more people who wanted a shot at cartooning. So Dembicki, co-founder Evan Keeling, and others decided to collaborate on a printed graphic anthology: Doctor Dremo’s Taphouse of Tall Tales & Short Stories, a book of short, illustrated stories centered around themes like the Wild West and the horrors of war.
Unlike the earlier Dremo “jambooks,” these were paperbacks meant for retail sale. The rule for contributing was simple: Pay your share of the publishing cost (usually $60 per contributor), write and draw your comic within the the chosen theme, and help sell the book when it was printed.
But there were some smudgy details that caused problems.
Printing was expensive, and divvying up the book among nearly 20 contributors was complicated. “We’d try to keep it so that one person didn’t have a lot more pages than another one,” says Keeling, 38, who edited the first few Taphouse books. Dembicki recalls that the process sometimes “felt like we were competing for the same book sometimes.”
It was also risky, since there was no guarantee the books would even sell. “We’d have to front a lot of money,” says Dembicki. After the fourth issue of Dremo, the group called that series quits and took a radical new approach to publishing their stories: a cheap, disposable, mass-produced newspaper supported by ads, not member contributions.
In 2010, the group launched its first Magic Bullet Kickstarter with a goal of $600. Word got out. Money was raised. The goal was met. One thousand copies were printed. At first, Dembicki and the others had to really hustle to distribute the paper. They’d pass copies out at Metro stops, leave them at local businesses, take them to comic book conventions—anything to get a new reader.
“There was a time when we’d show up with a bundle of newspapers, and people would look at us skeptically,” says Dembicki. Slowly but surely, people started to recognize the comic and its artists. In 2011, after three issues, the comic newspaper was accepted into the holdings at the Library of Congress. By the fourth Magic Bullet, there were enough advertisers to pay for each print run without a crowdfunding campaign. “Now, it’s not even a conversation,” Dembicki says. “When I put it on the counter, [people] start reading it. The newspaper has given us a lot of recognition.”
Today’s Magic Bullet is a lot like the original Dremo books, but longer, and without the exquisite corpse hand-offs. A typical issue runs about 48 or 50 pages long, with about 42 pages of comics; the rest are taken up by ads. Between 55 and 60 comics usually get submitted per issue, so not everyone makes it in. Artists have just one page to work with, and only one rule to obey: No swearing, nudity, or graphic violence. That’s not for reasons of prurience, but rather because it might make it harder to distribute all 5,000 copies. Other than that, anything’s fair game.
Andrew Cohen, 33, Magic Bullet’s current editor, says picking the cartoons can be a long, agonizing process. “It’s really hard to make decisions about what has to get cut,” he says. “Everybody’s always going to be interested in something different as a reader, so you want a broad base.”
“I definitely see Magic Bullet as having the purpose of promoting artists, giving them an alternative outlet, giving them their first outlet, or bringing them some level of exposure,” says Cohen. For some artists, the paper is the only place their work will be seen in a mass-produced physical form. For others, it’s a place where they can get creative or just plain weird.
When Teresa Logan, a 54-year-old local cartoonist and comedian, first submitted to Magic Bullet two years ago, she had little experience with drawing in comic-book form. “I had drawn cartoons, but I’d never really gotten into comic books or graphic novels,” she says. When her very first submission was accepted into the paper, she was elated. Today, she’s an avid comic drawer and one of DC Conspiracy’s most active members.
“We want people to feel like their skill level doesn’t matter,” says Cohen. “We want them to develop. I know my skill from 10 years ago until now has drastically changed, and it’s been largely because of interacting within [DC Conspiracy] and having it foster my growth.”
“It’s nice to think about how many members of DC Conspiracy have over the years put out great work,” says Dembicki. “Art Hondros started working with us, and now he gets stuff published in the Washington Post. Carolyn Belefski had four or five cartoons the White House commissioned on the health care deadline.”
And Magic Bullet isn’t only for up-and-comers. Brooke Allen, 26, illustrator for the popular nationally distributed comic Lumberjanes, says submitting to Magic Bullet can help her get outside her own head. “I remember illustrating one piece got me out of a funk I was in,” she says. “Just being able to work in a new format and do something for fun was very helpful.” And the comic has had contributions from other big-name artists, too: Nick Galifianakis, Jim Rugg, and Duckberg Times creator and DC Comics artist John K. Snyder.
On his lunch break, Dembicki drops a big bundle of papers off at Fantom Comics in Dupont Circle. Store manager Esther Kim practically forces the paper onto newcomers—when she has a few extra copies, that is. It’s hard to come by these days, and the stack of papers is gone within a few weeks. “We just keep increasing the amount we ask them for,” she says. “We pass it onto our customers and tell everyone.”
This Saturday, Feb. 21, DC Conspiracy will turn 10. To celebrate, Dembicki and some of the other old hat Conspiracy members plan to host a big party at Fantom Comics, with plenty of copies of Magic Bullet’s 10th issue on hand. Dembicki has some lofty goals for the next decade of DC Conspiracy and Magic Bullet. “I would love to have D.C. recognized as its own kind of comic scene,” says Dembicki. “New York has its own recognition. Portland has its own recognition. Columbus has it. It’d be kind of cool if D.C. had it.”
To achieve that, Dembicki says he’d like to snag more local authors and have a larger presence in local conventions like Awesome Con and the Small Press Expo. He’s even entertaining the idea of pursuing nonprofit status for the organization and applying for a local or national arts grant to start paying contributors and ramping up Magic Bullet’s production schedule. “We could publish quarterly and see where it goes,” he says.
Dembicki knows there are risks and plenty of challenges ahead, but it doesn’t faze him. He’s up for another decade of making Magic Bullet.
“We’ve had our bits of failure, but that’s part of the process,” says Dembicki. “It’s exciting. And it’s an adrenaline rush to publish.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery