RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Superheroes tend to have a certain look, and it's usually the look of a tall, strapping white guy. Marvel Comics has been changing it up. First, there was Black Panther, and next month, the newest occupant of the Iron Man suit will be a 15-year-old black girl named Riri Williams. She's a science phenom who engineers the suit in her dorm room at MIT. Her superhero name is Ironheart, and she's on one of Marvel's covers next month. Alongside her on that cover is Ariell Johnson. She's broken some ground herself as one of the few black women to own a comic book store, and she joins us now on the line.
Ariell, thanks so much for being with us.
ARIELL JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me, Rachel. I'm happy to be here.
MARTIN: This is so exciting, I imagine. How did this whole thing come about?
JOHNSON: Marvel, you know, reaches out occasionally to stores to ask if they want to do a store variance. And what that means - it's the same story inside the book, but it has an alternate cover. And a store-exclusive variant means the only place to purchase that cover is at the store that it belongs to.
MARTIN: Oh, yeah.
JOHNSON: Yeah. So it's not going to be a book that can be picked up anywhere. You have to come to Amalgam to get it.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Your comic store, yeah.
JOHNSON: Yeah, we're - so on the cover, we're just in the shop, like, eating and drinking and chatting. And it was beyond anything that I was thinking when I saw the initial sketch. I was really blown away.
MARTIN: For people who are just hearing about Riri for the first time, tell us about her. Why is she significant? What's her backstory?
JOHNSON: She's a science phenom, a 15-year-old that has been admitted into MIT. And, you know, she's significant in the Marvel Universe because they are actively, you know, diversifying their line of characters. And, you know, there are people who, of course, will say, you know, Iron Man will always be Tony Stark. But what I like about her character is she is donning the suit, but she is not Iron Man. She is Ironheart. So I think that's really cool.
And I think it's cool that she is a young, black girl. You know, she has, you know, brown skin, natural hair. And, you know, she's a science nerd. I just think it'll have such a positive kind of effect...
JOHNSON: ...Just on, you know, the geek community, the black girl community, you know, black girl geek community (laughter), you know, just again, like I said, opening, like, the doors of your mind to what you can achieve, you know, if you want to.
MARTIN: When I think of comic books, I think of a world that is largely male and largely white. Are you still - as a black woman in this space, are you still the exception to the rule?
JOHNSON: There are probably not as many of us as there are young, white males or even old, white males. I mean...
JOHNSON: ...Comics have been around for a while, so a lot of, like, hardcore comic book people are older. But, you know, we are out here. And just even with my research - the research that I did in preparation to open the shop, the assumption is that it's probably 75 percent male and then 25 percent female. But actually, it's about 50-50.
MARTIN: Is it?
JOHNSON: As far as, like, who is buying comic books, it's about a 50-50 split. So women are buying them, and women are reading them and they have been. And then as far as, like, you know, the black geek community and the black girl nerd community kind of thing, it's - we are out here, I guess, in lesser numbers but still significant numbers.
MARTIN: Ariell Johnson - she owns Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia. We've been talking about the new Marvel comic hero - heroine Riri Williams. Hey, Ariell, thank you so much.
JOHNSON: I appreciate you having me on the show.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.