It shouldn't take super powers to find real diversity in comic books
"Hi, I'm Ariell, and I'm a geek. I'm actually Geek of the Week — thanks, Geekadelphia!"
The opening words for her talk at Ignite Philly '15 last spring would have made Ariell Johnson sound interesting enough. Then factor in that she's the first African-American woman to own a comic-book store on the East Coast — in particular, a store that supports diversity in the art form of comics — and the power of her words comes into focus real quick.
"People that look like me aren't necessarily what you think of when you hear the word 'geek,'" she said at her Ignite Philly talk. "But rest assured, we are thousands strong, and though we are a rare breed, we are definitely not a dying one."
Far from it. Johnson just opened her dream shop, Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse in Kensington, on Dec. 14, after about a year-long process.
The store's concept is compelling, even for someone like me, who hangs out with coffee, yes, but not so much with comic books. Amalgam's mission might explain why I didn't connect with the medium when I was younger: Comic books historically have fallen far short of reflecting the cultural, racial, and sexual diversity of the world they were being pitched to.
We all want to see 'people like me'
Diversity in comic books can become formulaic, Johnson says. For instance, diversity might look like two white women, one black man, and "a green guy" instead of what real diversity looks like in our world.
"As a black girl, and a lover and collector of a number of geeky things, I often wonder why I love geek culture so much," Johnson says. "Maybe I shouldn't love it as much as I do, not because the characters aren't interesting or the stories aren't engaging, but because I'm less likely to see people like me."
Still, Johnson remained loyal to the art form. During her years as a Temple University student, she went back and forth between Fat Jack's Comics, where she picked up her treasures, and Crimson Moon coffee shop, where she'd curl up and enjoy them. She combined those experiences in her vision for a store that supports diversity in mainstream and indie comics.
"The lack of diversity didn't make me love the medium any less, and I think that would be true if you talked to someone else who'd been excluded," she said. "You love the medium, but this thing kind of picks at you, since you're not represented well. I think that's important, that everyone can see themselves in things that they enjoy."
When it came time to look for a spot to make her vision real, Johnson was staunchly community-minded. The locations she looked at in West Philly, South Philly, and Girard were too close to other comic or coffee shops. "My intention isn't to cannibalize another store's business, but instead to add to the landscape," she says.
She settled on Kensington because of the new commercial space development there. "No other coffee shops are near here, and there's a lot of street traffic on Frankford Avenue," she says. "And Frankford is also an arts corridor, so I thought it would be fun to have the comic book art represented on Frankford."
Amalgam opened in December — not a high foot-traffic time, even with this winter's unusually warm weather. But that's simply when everything was ready to go. Johnson says she and her colleagues anticipated a few months of slow activity, but they had a nice surprise. With their advance PR and crowd-funding and some local press coverage, they've had such a good flow of customers that she's hired on extra help.
It's thanks, in part, to the energy of the geek community in Philly.
"We reached out to geek culture and put our name in people's ears so people were hearing about us," she says. "So even before we opened our doors, we had more than 1,000 Facebook likes — which is cool, since there wasn't anything to see yet. And people wanting to come in and take picture with me — I'm like: 'What? You want to take my picture?' I'm still wrapping my head around it."
But maybe it comes back to how affirming the motivation behind Amalgam is.
"Everybody wants to see themselves represented, because there's a feeling when you're just systematically excluded from things, or there's just a token, it's like people are saying, 'Ok, we'll give you a little but not too much,'" Johnson says. "You feel erased. I look around and see many kinds of people, so when I look at TV and comic books, why are 98 percent of the people white? Why isn't there more LGBT? Why is it so disjointed?"
That determination to have comics reflect — and validate — the people reading them extends to more than just the books at Amalgam. Johnson hopes that when the business stabilizes financially, extra room in the space can be used for workshops, bring-your-own-game night, a gaming lounge, and private events that won't interrupt the flow of the store's business.
And like many community entrepreneurs, Johnson believes in paying her good fortune forward. "I'm passionate about low-income kids," she says. "There are a lot of talented kids who don't have the resources to develop those talents. I want to help foster that for children, providing opportunity to express yourself and learn something new. When you're low income, you don't know what's out there. People become what they know about. If you want to write a comic book, it's not a silly thing. Don't let people shy you away from that."
Bringing that passion together with her initial inspiration, Johnson adds, both kids and adults need "to see someone like them in the medium that they love."