Photo: Temple News | Words By Dominique Matti
I haven’t met Ariell Johnson, but when I see her Ignite Philly talk on Diversity in Comics, she feels familiar. Her hands shake, her voice, too. She makes it very clear that she’s nervous. She apologizes for it, but she doesn’t need to apologize to me. I am beaming while I watch, because I see myself in her. She’s dedicating herself to something I don’t find in many places: representation.
Ariell Johnson does more than just talk about it. She’s the owner of the newly opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Fishtown. She's the first Black woman to own a comic and coffee shop on the East Coast, one of the most densely populated areas in the country. She’s the first Black woman to own a comic book store, anywhere. This is big. It’s no secret that representation of the Black woman as a person who can be interested in “nerdy” things is slim. Black women are rarely represented at all, and when they are, they aren't afforded much nuance or deviation from stereotype.
Ariell Johnson resists that. She’s created the kind of space we can be represented in, the kind that didn’t exist until now. She’s dedicated to keeping her shelves shocked with diverse characters. And her definition of diversity isn’t just code for one or two Brown people.
In her Ignite Philly talk she says, “The most popular example of diversity, in team situations, anyway, is that you might have one or two White women, a Black guy, and like a green guy. But when we follow and accept this prevailing trend, diversity becomes a formula and not a depiction of what our world looks like. Black, White, Latino, Asian, Indian, Native American, men, women, boys, girls, Straight, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Atheist: all have the right to be represented as full characters, and not just stereotypes or plot devices to move a story forward.”
That level of inclusivity is severely lacking in Media and other influencers of public consciousness. I’m a product of the 90s, I turned 8 in the year 2000. While I didn’t delve far into comics, I had my nose buried deeply in other books. Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction, Mystery: if I got my hands on it, I read it. But I was no where to be found in any of it, no one who looked like me or lived like me was present in the stories. If I turned on my tv, I could see caricatures of myself, and if I went outside, I could see other little girls mimicking those caricatures. But I couldn’t find myself reflected anywhere. There was nothing supporting the fact that the kind of Black girl I was was an acceptable thing to be. I began to think of myself as “weird.” People called me “unique” with judgment in their tone. They said “unique” and meant “odd.” My self-esteem took a plunge. I thought that I was a fluke in the fabric of existence.
I didn’t realize that my “oddity” was just being both nerdy and Black, until later, when I got online. Until then, I believed that nerdiness was reserved for pimply-faced White boys with braces and high-waters. But in Middle School I found community on the internet, found out there were girl nerds, and even better, Black girl nerds, like me. So I quarantined myself to the computer and spent all of my time on AOL Kids’ chats and Neopets forums, places I knew my skin wouldn’t restrict my access. It was incredibly affirming to be able to be myself and not be chastised for it.
Now, there’s a place I can go, in my city, where I can find myself both in the literature and in the physical space. It’s important to me that the shop is owned by a Black woman nerd who knows the struggles of underrepresentation and misrepresentation well. She’ll be responsible in ensuring that none of her clientele experience it when walking through her doors.
I highly encourage supporting her new business. It’s located at 2578 Frankford Ave. If you’re like me, and don’t know much about comics, no sweat. There’s coffee, snacks, and conversation. And if you’re interested in learning about comics, Ariell Johnson says that there’s no snobbery involved in starting there, “[It doesn’t] matter if you’ve been collecting comic books for 60 years or you just saw, you know, Guardians of the Galaxy and now you wanna, like, read something. We will treat you with the same level of respect and help you find what you want, or what works for you, or what type of book or reading experience you enjoy.”
So pay her a visit, have a cup of coffee, learn something new. Let's show her our appreciation for the important work she's doing for the city.
Dominique Matti is a 23 year old writer, poet, and mother based in Philly. Her central focus is social justice. Her favorite pastime is drinking copious amounts of coffee.