Move Over, Comic Book Guy: Philly Comics Store Prizes Diversity In Its Heroes

Jan 24, 2016
Originally published on January 27, 2016 3:35 pm

The latest films in the Star Wars and Hunger Games franchises were not just box office smashes. They also shared something else in common: Both tapped into a widespread debate about casting.

Some fans of each of those films disputed casting decisions that put people of color into roles that weren't originally drawn or envisioned that way — at least by some onlookers. In the case of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, star John Boyega responded to the criticism with a succinct reply on Instagram: "Get used to it."

That may well be Ariell Johnson's message, as well. Johnson opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia last month with the goal of presenting diverse comics, creators and characters alongside the ones people already know and love.

The African-American comic book store owner tells NPR's Michel Martin about why she decided to start the shop — and what she thinks about diversity in blockbuster casting.


Interview Highlights

On why she became interested in comics

I have always liked the supernatural, superpowers, things like that. I specifically got into comics as a result of the Fox television show X-Men that came on in the '90s. That was a pivotal moment for me, because it had one of the main characters, Storm. That was the first time that I had seen a black woman as a leader, as a superhero, as a powerhouse. She is strong and a leader and all that.

It was just really exciting for me and kind of changed the way I viewed those types of things. Even though I always enjoyed them I didn't necessarily imagine myself a part of them. But after seeing her, I wanted to be a superhero. And so that just kind of stuck with me.

On the inspiration for Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse

What if there was a place where you could buy your comic books, but you didn't have to leave immediately after? You could get a drink, you could sit down and just kind of hang out. Maybe get into some conversations.

You know, generally in comic book stores there are always conversations happening, but the environment isn't conducive to that. There's usually no seating, or you're holding your bags, or you're standing around. It's just not comfortable. So creating that comfortable space.

On why people are responding to her business

I think the fact that I am a black woman opening up a comic book store, so I'm existing in this space that generally you don't see people that look like me well-represented.

For me to, in a way, be in the forefront — you know, this is my store and I'm choosing what we have in there and making it a place where we are being proactively representative of other people. It's not something that's an afterthought. [It's not like someone who says,] "Oh yeah we should probably have a Black History Month display or something like that."

We are actively thinking, how can we be more diverse? How can we show different kinds of people in this genre?

On diversity in big superhero movies

I understand why it's done. It's almost like I'm coming from two different angles. On one aspect, I understand why you're doing it, I think that's important again to have a diverse cast. If you make a movie and it's just white men up there, that is a problem.

But I think you also have to be careful, because when you do that, you're doing a disservice to the diverse character, whatever that is, because they're always going to be compared to their predecessor.

So in addition to diversifying established names, you also have to be mindful to create new characters, so that characters of color, characters that are LGBTQ, or who are Muslim or whatever. So that they are existing in their own right, and there's no one to compare them to, only themselves.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yesterday, we told you about the how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that runs the Academy Awards, is scrambling to respond to criticism about their membership and voting rules in response to complaints about the lack of diversity at the Oscars. But even as the industry has taken baby steps toward more inclusive casting choices, some fans have groused about casting decisions that put people of color into roles that weren't originally drawn that way or that fans had not seen that way. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" star John Boyega even responded at one point on Instagram saying, get used to it. And that might also be Ariell Johnson's message. She just opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia last month with the goal of presenting diverse comics, creators and characters alongside the ones people already know and love. She's also one of the very few African-American female comic book-store owners. Ariell joined us from Philadelphia, and I asked her how she got interested in comics.

ARIELL JOHNSON: I specifically got into comics as a result of the Fox television show "X-Men" that came on in the '90s. And that was, like, I guess a pivotal moment for me because it had - you know, one of the main characters is Storm. And that was the first time that I'd seen a black woman, you know, as a leader, as a superhero, you know, as a - you know, a powerhouse. After seeing her, you know, it's like I wanted to be a superhero. And so that just kind of stuck with me.

MARTIN: So how did the idea for Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse come about?

JOHNSON: So I started buying comics in college. And so my very first experience with a comic book store and was, like, my first - you know, my spot - and that was where I would go every Friday and buy my books for the week. And there was this really cool coffee shop across the street, and it was run by, you know, a young black woman. And she had just created this awesome, awesome space that was just so inviting, and she ended up closing. And so I was kind of at a loss for what to do after that. You know that just got me thinking about, you know, what if there was a place where you could, you know, buy your comic books but you didn't have to leave immediately after? You could, like, get a drink, you could sit down and just kind of hang out.

MARTIN: How's it going so far? You've only been open a month or so. How's it going?

JOHNSON: Really, really well. I mean, we have so many people coming out to support and are happy that we're there. You know, everywhere from just neighborhood people to people taking trips up from Maryland and D.C. and down - you know, coming down from New York and all that just to check out the store.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is? What is it that you think they're responding to?

JOHNSON: I mean, I think, you know, the fact that, you know, I am a black woman opening a comic book store, so I'm existing in the space that generally you don't see people that look like me well represented. And, you know, I'm choosing what we have in there and making it a place where we are being, like proactively representative of other people. We are actively thinking, like, how can we be more diverse? How can we show, you know, different kinds of people in - you know, in this genre?

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting 'cause I - this is happening at a time when there is this backlash when these other kind of characters are introduced. And I'm just wondering what are your thoughts about that?

JOHNSON: I think that's important again to just have a diverse cast, like even with Marvel - you know, Spiderman is now black and Hispanic, and, you know, Thor is a woman and the new Hulk is Asian. And, like, that's - that's awesome. And in a way, that has to happen because if it was just, you know, a random Asian guy or a random black and Latino teen on the cover, would the larger audience pick it up? Probably not - or maybe not. You know, but if you call it "Spiderman," if you call it "Hulk," even if they're mad about it, they'll probably pick up at least the first issue to see what it's about and, you know, maybe read it and think oh, man, this is awesome and continue to read it.

MARTIN: What superpower would you have, if you could have any? What would be yours?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I don't know. I would - I'd like to think that I'd just be out fighting for justice if I had powers like that.

MARTIN: That was Ariell Johnson. She's the owner Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, which is in Philadelphia. She joined us from station WHYY in Philadelphia. Ariell, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much, Michel. Thank you for having me. It has been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.