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Mixing Comics and Politics

New Store at Union Station Attracts More Professionals Than Teenagers

In 2005, Matthew Klokel left the libertarian Cato Institute to open a comic book store in Tenleytown. He opened his second Fantom Comics store on Nov. 14 in Union Station. With its location just blocks from the Capitol, Klokel has been seeing quite a few political types again.

During a recent visit to the new location, business was fairly slow, but it was clear the store’s collection and clientele were unique.

On the gray Monday morning, a man in shirt, tie and black raincoat piped up at Klokel’s mention of renowned comic book author Alan Moore. A woman in a green coat wandered in and crouched near the back wall to get a good look at Super Spy, a graphic novel with a female spy clad in a sweater and plaid skirt on the cover.

A few minutes later, a mustached man in a dark sweater inquired about gift cards. The gift cards are new, and activating this one proved problematic. After a few phone calls failed to solve the problem, Klokel asked the man if he could come back in the afternoon and promised to add “a little extra” to the gift card for the inconvenience.

There were no college kids to be seen; store manager Jordan Kessler probably came the closest, having graduated from American University earlier this year. No teenagers, either. Klokel said that while he’s “still learning” the Union Station demographic, it’s obviously different from the Tenleytown store, which, with its proximity to American University, attracts “a lot of college kids rediscovering what they left behind in high school.”

“We’re getting think tank people, people in government offices and a lot of government lawyers” perusing the new shop’s stock of comic books and graphic novels, Klokel said. “We get far more lawyers than high school students.” [IMGCAP(1)]

With the Union Station store’s more professional clientele, Klokel is particularly sensitive to the “negative stigma” that keeps adult readers from exploring the comic book world. The negative stigma, he said, stems largely from the perception that comics are just about the traditional, iconic superheroes, such as Superman and Batman, and that comics targeted at adults tend to be sexually oriented, such as certain types of Japanese manga.

The selection in the Union Station store seems geared toward challenging that perspective. Indeed, one of Fantom’s stated goals is to “introduce these under-appreciated art forms to the public at large.” While Batman, Superman and the Fantastic Four still take up their fair share of shelf space, several of the graphic novels — as opposed to traditional comic books — along the back wall focus on politics and foreign affairs.

For example, along the back wall, there’s “Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President,” by Kaiji Kawaguchi. “Pride of Baghdad,” another graphic novel, visually explores the Iraqi capital through the eyes of a group of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during Operation Iraqi Freedom bombing raids. “Persepolis,” a French-language graphic novel translated into English, is an autobiographical look at author Marjane Satrapi’s childhood in Khomeini’s Iran. A film version of the book received a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. And the graphic-novel version of the 9/11 commission report is available, too — and sells well, Klokel said.

This is not to say that the traditional comic books don’t have their fans among the powerful. Veteran Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R) Incredible Hulk tie is well-known on Capitol Hill. And Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is scheduled to make his second appearance next year in the Batman movie “The Dark Knight.” Leahy has written a foreword for an archive of Batman comics, also titled “The Dark Knight” (and available at Fantom). In the foreword, he explains his lifelong love of Batman, saying that he thinks people can relate to Batman’s flawed character.

He adds: “I have a specially drawn Batman edition provided by the brilliant folks at DC Comics. In it Batman and I discuss bedtime reading. I tell him I read Batman late at night — he says he curls up in the Batcave with the Congressional Record.

“Having read both, there are days when I think I made the better choice.”

Fantom Comics is located in Union Station’s West Hall.

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