By Valerie Hoke
“I think we’ve all noticed that the most popular example of diversity – in [superhero] team situations, anyway – is you might have one or two white women, a Black guy, and like… a green guy,” deadpans Ariell Johnson as the crowd before her cackles with understanding laughter.
She’s speaking on stage at Ignite Philly 15 about her experience as a Black woman with diversity in comic books, and she’s dead on. (Her description rings a bell, right?)
Late in 2015, Johnson, a lifelong comic fan and self-proclaimed geek, opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, making her the first Black woman on the East Coast to own a comic book shop.
Her dream of opening Amalgam has been a long time coming, and it’s been largely inspired by her desire to defy the erasure of diverse people and groups in comic communities, both on the page and off.
Love of comic characters is a large part of what propels fan culture and geekdom, and that’s why every comic fan should be able to find a comic character that represents them. There are plenty of reasons to love something geeky – the history, the story, the people, the science – but it is through characters that so many of us become endeared or attached to fictional stories and worlds.
Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse is a place to celebrate that love, and more importantly, celebrate the inclusion of geeky fans of all kinds. And, although there are many spaces in which geek culture thrives in Philadelphia, Amalgam is a place that will encourage and cultivate diversity unlike any other.
“I just hope that we, in the geek community, really stand for the things that we push to the forefront as far as diversity and for people all over to know our shop is a place where we value diversity and value the things that make each of us unique and different,” Johnson said.
Historically, geek culture hasn’t been the most inclusive community. If you were alive in 2014, you’ll remember that #Gamergate happened, and it’s no secret that people still throw fits every time an actor of color is cast to play a character originally portrayed as white in a comic book.
What, then, is the relationship between the comic book world and diversity today?
“We value the growth you can experience by learning about someone who is different than you.”
The timeless formula for a great comic plot lies largely in the breakdown of a superhero’s trials and tribulations into everyday topics to which readers can easily relate and connect.
Many classic comic stories have origins in biblical or mythological tales. There’s no shortage of arguments for Superman being a Christ figure, and it’s no secret that Thor comes straight out of Norse mythology. Oh, and ever heard of Everyman? It’s not just a blank term we use to describe any average Joe. In 15th and 16th century Europe, morality plays were a prime form of literature, and Everyman was (and still is) arguably the most well-known play of the genre. Morality plays usually consisted of a protagonist representing humanity who undergoes tests and lessons with good and evil, resulting in a broad conclusion about morals and ethics.
Good vs. bad, the triumph of moral justice – sound familiar? Those are all classic comic book themes, and even more, basic stories to which day-to-day “everymen” (and people of all genders) can relate.
Here’s the thing, though: Relatability doesn’t only apply to plot structures and motifs. A wide range of relatable topics is no substitute for a diverse cast of characters, good or bad, human or superhuman.
Johnson unpacked this issue a bit for us. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a white man, but I know what it’s like to lose somebody; I know what it’s like to feel like you’re trying your hardest and it doesn’t matter,” she explained. “So I feel like just because you’re not represented in the story doesn’t mean you can’t relate to the story. But that being said, if me as a Black woman can relate to this white male, then why can’t a white male relate to a Black woman?
“The world is not just made up of white men. It’s not that I don’t want to read about Wolverine or Captain America or Batman anymore, I don’t want to just read that,” Johnson continued. “Nobody’s shunning the mainstream characters that we have, we’re just saying we should add to the selection, the arsenal, of what’s out there to read.”
In the last few years, comic giants like Marvel have injected their newest rounds of comics with a collection of notably diverse characters: a Black Captain America, a Spider-Man of Black and Hispanic descent, a Muslim Ms. Marvel, and a female Thor, among others.
That’s all great, but just strapping a label of race or ethnicity on these characters can’t be where the efforts of inclusion in geek culture screech to a halt.
“To me, diversity means a true dissolution of the power dynamics that affect [sic] everything else in western society into something more holistic, inclusive and representative of the people doing the work,” said Alex Smith, sci-fi writer and charter member of Metropolarity, a Philadelphia speculative fiction collective. “It also means that the creators of the work hold agency over their own voice and that they get to tell their own personal, historical, and cultural story.”
Is a Muslim comic book writer writing the stories for the new Ms. Marvel? Is the new Spider-Man’s story reflective of someone of a mixed-race background and the challenges that come along with such an identity? We can’t keep these efforts toward diversity to what happens on the page (or screen). Writers, artists, executives, producers, you name it – if a job is a part of the comic book process, the job demands representation.
“The usual outcry is that ‘it doesn’t matter’ who’s writing the stories, and this is unfortunate that fans think this way,” said Smith. “It is imperative that Black writers get to sit at the table, get to create myths, and add to the continuum.”
With the more recent amplification of fandom voice, largely thanks to community-building Internet social platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, fans have been able to take a more active role in demanding better representation within the pages and screens of the comics they love.
“The Internet is allowing us to be more vocal and be heard,” said Johnson. “You share a tweet, and it gets re-shared and re-shared, and people can join in and say, ‘Yeah, I agree with that,’ to put pressure on the studios and the publishers to create and put some money and time into diverse stories.”
Fandom voice also brews in-person, often within local comic and game shops. When it comes to Philadelphia’s geek culture, Alex Smith would like to see more cohesion and a better exchange of ideas between these diverse collectives and the city’s less inclusive geek and comic organizations.
“Comic and geek and sci-fi culture in Philly is somewhat divided. You have Xion, Phaesporia/Swine Films, ECBACC (East Coast Black Age of Comics [Convention]), Black Tribbles, Metropolarity, Laser Life/Chrome City, AfroFuturist Affair/Black Quantum Futurism… these collectives and individuals represent a truly diverse membership,” Smith said. “Most other organizations are pretty white, straight and male and uphold those same standards.”
Redcap’s Corner, a West Philly gaming emporium, hosts monthly LGBTQIA game nights and Ladies’ Magic nights in order to encourage inclusion and provide spaces where stereotypes about avid gamers can be broken.
“Women and queer people have always been into geeky things. We just weren’t the face of geekdom,” said Kris Zwack of Redcap’s Corner. “Now that geek is chic, white cis[gender] male geeks enjoy more cultural capital than ever before. As a result, the ugly practice of gatekeeping has come into fashion.”
Gatekeeping, Zwack explained, is just one method of promoting the idea that only some people deserve geek status: “Men in geek spaces often assess how into a hobby a woman is by asking her a series of questions that are on the surface meant to ascertain whether she is truly into the hobby she enjoys or is just faking her enthusiasm to get attention from men.”
Those types of exclusionary behaviors are exactly what Johnson plans to reject with the opening of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse. She wants the shop to be a place where people discovering the magic of comics can be just as welcomed and respected as lifelong fans.
Even though the companies behind mainstream comics and comic-inspired media have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to representation, spaces like Amalgam that encourage diverse characters and stories will keep the demand for diversity from becoming silent.
“[We value] the growth you can experience by learning about someone who is different than you,” Johnson said. “So I just hope that on a bigger scale, that’s what we are known for and that’s what we contribute to the geek community as a whole.”
Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, Tues.-Fri. 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., 2578 Frankford Ave., (215) 427-3300.