Move Over, Comic Book Guy: Philly Comics Store Prizes Diversity In Its Heroes At Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia, owner Ariell Johnson says diversity isn't just an afterthought. She tells NPR's Michel Martin that new faces keep the heroics interesting.
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Move Over, Comic Book Guy: Philly Comics Store Prizes Diversity In Its Heroes

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

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

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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.

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