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Comic creator delves into self-publishing and D.C.’s ‘unconventional history’

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 Click on photo to enlarge or download: Matt Dembicki stands next to the desk once owned by Ulysses S. Grant that is featured in his mini-comic “The Brewmaster’s Castle.” SHFWire photo by Chris JessenClick on photo to enlarge or download: Matt Dembicki stands next to the desk once owned by Ulysses S. Grant that is featured in his mini-comic “The Brewmaster’s Castle.” SHFWire photo by Chris JessenWASHINGTON - Matt Dembicki started reading comics when he was 6 years old.

The son of Polish immigrants, Dembicki’s first language as a child was Polish. To encourage him to read, and to read English, his mother bought him his first comics.

Dembicki collected and read “all sorts” of comics through high school, and he began drawing and writing his own mini-comics. His favorite books at the time included Alan Moore’s run on “Swamp Thing” and Frank Miller’s work on “Daredevil.”

Now a published writer and artist, Dembicki’s book, “District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC,” from Fulcrum Publishing, hit shelves Aug. 7.

Though a comic book fan as a child and now, Dembicki said he lost interest during college.

But 15 years later, on his first date with his future wife, Carol, he noticed her reading a copy of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman.

His interest piqued, he began reading comics again. His love of comics was back, and he began writing and illustrating once more.

“District Comics” is a graphic anthology of the District’s history, from its beginnings to contemporary times. Dembicki edited the book and wrote two of the stories, “Banned in DC” and “Ego Shine.” He illustrated the latter.

The stories offer a unique perspective on D.C.’s history and were all researched using original and supporting resources, Dembicki said.

Click on image to enlarge or download: A panel written by Matt Dembicki and drawn by Andrew Cohen from the mini-comic “The Brewmaster’s Castle.” The panel depicts a desk, once owned by President Ulysses S. Grant, now in the Heurich House. Drawing courtesy of Matt DembickiClick on image to enlarge or download: A panel written by Matt Dembicki and drawn by Andrew Cohen from the mini-comic “The Brewmaster’s Castle.” The panel depicts a desk, once owned by President Ulysses S. Grant, now in the Heurich House. Drawing courtesy of Matt DembickiDembicki, who has a full-time job as an editor for a higher-education association, said “District Comics” took about two years to complete. The inspiration came when he wrote a 20-page mini-comic titled “The Brewmaster’s Castle,” which follows D.C. brewer and philanthropist Christian Heurich as he walks through his mansion one last time.

When “The Brewmaster’s Castle” was well received by the Heurich House Museum, Dembicki said he realized there are a lot of other D.C. stories that need to be told.

“I think when people come to Washington, they think of politics, they think of the White House and the Capitol, but there’s more to it. There’s history here, there’s local history, there’s national history … but maybe not the stories they’re used to seeing,” Dembicki said.

“District Comics” is not Dembicki’s first published work. He has worked on solo and collaborative projects, including the 2009 Ignatz Award nominee for outstanding mini-comic “Xoc: The Journey of a Great White” (pronounced “shock”). He edited and contributed to the graphic anthology “Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection,” which was the 2011 Aesop Prize winner and a nominee for best anthology for the 2011 Eisner Awards, referred to as the Oscars of the comic book industry.

Dembicki is also a founding member of the DC Conspiracy, a local collective of comic book creators founded in 2005 that publishes mini-comics, collections and a free semiannual comics newspaper “The Magic Bullet.”

For those that want to break into the comic book world, Dembicki said self-publishing can offer creators experience in printing and financing and help build a fan base, all of which he said makes for “a better pitch for your book.”

Jill Beaton, an editor at Oni Press and Dembicki’s editor for “Xoc,” said self-publishing is  important because it lets people get to know every aspect of what goes into making a comic and how difficult each part of the job is, something editors at Oni Press like to see.

With the advent of print on demand, Dembicki said writers and artists can self-publish “pretty nicely.”

“But how are you going to distribute it? That’s the key, and that’s why I think most people seek out publishers, because they have distribution channels,” Dembicki said.

Beaton said exhibiting at conventions is a great way to get noticed by publishing companies. She said Oni Press staff members walk the conventions looking for new talent.

Click on image to enlarge or download: A panel written and illustrated by Matt Dembicki in the graphic anthology “District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC.” The panel is an excerpt from “Ego Shine” which tells the story of Ego Brown, who owned a D.C. shoe shine stand in the 1980s and helped end a Jim Crow era law. Drawing courtesy of Matt DembickiClick on image to enlarge or download: A panel written and illustrated by Matt Dembicki in the graphic anthology “District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC.” The panel is an excerpt from “Ego Shine” which tells the story of Ego Brown, who owned a D.C. shoe shine stand in the 1980s and helped end a Jim Crow era law. Drawing courtesy of Matt DembickiJoining groups like the DC Conspiracy can also help with distribution, Dembicki said.

“You guys can exchange ideas and sometimes, maybe I can’t make a show, but a friend of mine can bring my mini-comics and put them on his table when he does his show, and I’ll return the favor later on,” Dembicki said.

Evan Keeling is another founding member of the DC Conspiracy, who Dembicki said has contributed to many of his projects.

Keeling, an exhibit specialist in graphics with the Smithsonian Office of Exhibit Central, said he wouldn’t be making comics without being in the DC Conspiracy.

“The group helped in many ways. It was a resource that I could meet people like [Dembicki], who I’ve done a lot of work with,” Keeling said. “But in other ways, I started improving my own work and my art has improved by leaps and bounds just from the time that I’ve been in the group.”

Beaton said that, although it can be frustrating for self-publishers to get their work out there, it is worth it.

“The creative industry can be humbling and joyful at the same time,” Beaton said.

John Jackson Miller, the administrator of the Comics Chronicles site, said the industry is doing very well right now. Since the mid-1990s, Miller has been calculating monthly and annual comic book sales figures from index figures published by Diamond Comic Distributors.

According to the site, the overall North American sales figures estimates for Diamond’s comics, trade paperbacks and magazines for 2011 was $414 million. The top comic book title for 2011 was issue 1 of “Justice League.”

The Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Comics for $4.2 billion in 2010, according to Disney’s 2011 annual report to shareholders.

Dembicki said he made about $10,000 last year from his comics and workshops at libraries and schools. He said he splits royalties from the anthologies with the other contributors.  

He said having a day job allows him to work on the books he wants to do, rather than “looking for that next project that maybe I’m not gung-ho about.”

But in the end, Dembicki said, people have to create comics because they love it.

“I think too many people come with this idea that, ‘Oh this is going to be an awesome comic and I’ll print 5,000 issues, make a lot of money, and [DC Comics] is going to buy it,’” Dembicki said. “They have these grandiose plans, which is fine, but I think you have to have a still dose of realism too … and do a book that you like, that you enjoy, and then keep doing it. And eventually I think you’re going to find an audience.”

Reach reporter Chris Jessen at chris.jessen@shns.com or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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