Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Keith Henkel is passionate about his two hobbies.
Henkel, whose full-time job is with the city of Washington, is an avid comic book collector, something he started as a child growing up in Dubuque. He is also an official Star Wars storm trooper.
“I’ve always been a Star Wars fan since I was a kid,” Henkel said. “My interest in Star Wars started in 1977 after seeing the movie at the drive-in.”
Henkel is a member of the 501st Legion, Central Garrison, Korriban Squad of storm troopers.
It was his love of comic books that led him to becoming a storm trooper.
“I didn’t know much about the 501st until I attended my first Comic Con in Chicago in 2017,” he said. “They had several tables set up and quite few people in costume. I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ That brought back a lot of memories from my childhood.”
He kept in contact with members and did some research about joining their ranks over the next year.
“It’s a pretty costly hobby when you get into it, which kept me away at first,” Henkel said. “In 2018, I spent a lot of time down there at the Chicago Comic Con talking to them. My wife said, ‘If it’s something you really feel that strongly about, let’s do it.’”
The first thing he had to do was get his armor.
Henkel said that the 501st has stringent guidelines about the costumes being accurate to the Star Wars movies.
“If you’re looking for a nice costume to wear for Halloween, it’s a lot less costly than if you’re wanting to gain membership in the 501st,” he said.
Armor options include ordering a kit that the person must build themselves — the option Henkel chose — or having it custom built.
“The price is all over the place,” he said. “If you get the kit and build it yourself, by the time you do accessories and boots, and if you want to have helmet electronics and fans and the whole works, you’re probably talking in the neighborhood of $1,500-$2,000 for a storm trooper.”
He ordered his armor kit in May 2018 and finished it in October 2019, after which he was accepted as a member of the 501st.
Henkel said that the primary focus of the 501st is to raise money for charities. Knowing that storm troopers are part of the Empire in the Star Wars universe, the group’s mantra is “bad guys doing good.”
“We are an organization that agrees that we will not accept any monetary compensation for an appearance,” he said. “We’ll do appearances for nonprofits. If it’s a for-profit, like a store or movie theater, they will make a donation to a local charity or a charity of our choice.”
The main charity that the group supports is the Make a Wish Foundation.
Not long after joining the 501st, Henkel made an appearance at the Washington Public Library in his storm trooper costume.
It was at that time he began sharing his passion for comic books with the library staff.
“I had discussed with the library staff about adding a graphic novel section, which is a collection of comic books series bound by either a hard cover or cardboard stock,” Henkel said. “It’s not an individual comic, but it might be a run of eight or 10 comics from a specific story line.”
Henkel’s passion for comic books began when he and his childhood neighbor began reading and collecting them.
“That was something me and my neighbor did,” he said. “We would walk to the comic shop every Saturday morning. That was where our allowance went.”
His favorites were X-Men and Wolverine, and he built up a good-sized collection.
“Then I got into adulthood and life happened and ended up liquidating everything I had,” he said. “It didn’t seem important with family and children. I’m regretting that now.”
About five or six years ago, Henkel began rebuilding his collection.
“I’m trying get a lot of the stuff I had when I was younger,” he said. “Now, I’m pretty heavily into trying to meet the artists at Comic Cons, trying to get signatures and original art, remarks on the comic books. I’m more interested in the more unique items.”
One of his most prized comic books in his current collection is a Hulk No. 181, which is the first appearance of Wolverine, one of Henkel’s favorite comic book characters.
“I have Wolverine’s No. 1 from his limited series, signed by Stan Lee, Frank Miller, Joe Rubenstein and Chris Claremont, which is the main creative team behind that book,” he said. “I have an X-Men No. 19, which I got signed by Stan Lee.”
Some of Henkel’s comic books are now on display at the Washington Public Library.
“We thought seeing some of the stuff I have might generate more interest in their line of graphic novels,” he said. “I like the art and story lines. It recaptures my youth. It’s a unique way to get literature out there.”