Living Black History: Ariell R. Johnson Talks Impact Of 'Black Panther' And Her Groundbreaking Comic Book Store

Nobody’s more ready for the release of Black Panther than the blerds (Black nerds) paying attention since day one. One of those people is Ariell R. Johnson, the 34-year-old founder of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia. 

As the only Black-female owner of a comics shop on the East Coast, the Baltimore-born Philly resident has held endless conversations in her superhero safe space speculating on how director Ryan Coogler plans to handle the first Marvel Studios film with an all-star cast of color. Opening Amalgam Comics in late 2015, this Temple University accounting major became interested in Marvel years back and appeared on a variant (i.e. multiple) cover of Invincible Iron Man #1 with 15-year-old Black girl genius, Riri Williams.

Amidst circular tables decorated with the symbols of Captain America, Deadpool and Watchmen, Johnson sat and spoke extensively with ESSENCE about Black Panther and diversity in the comic-book industry.

What accounts for the Star Wars-level excitement over Black Panther?

I think, much like Wonder Woman, this should’ve happened already. How many versions of Batman did we have? How many versions of Superman did we have? I think that the excitement stems from: we are about to see Black people who have total agency. Even with Luke Cage, it was like he had to break out of jail, and what was done to him was done in jail. I think that’s a narrative the white media’s very comfortable with, with Black people. “Oh, he’s a hero now, but he used to be a criminal.” But this is a king of an African nation that has never been conquered, never been colonized. It’s just black blackity black! They don’t walk into any room and feel they have to prostrate themselves before the white powers that be.

I think we as a people in America are especially feeling, as we’re pushing back against police brutality and just being less tolerant of white nonsense, the timing of the movie is just perfect. I think we as a people are ready for it just in our own sense of self. It’s a Black movie that non-black audiences are going to see, and that’s also record-breaking. White butts are going to be in those seats watching, and that’s not a thing that usually happens. 

Hopefully, that changes people’s perspective to understand that you don’t have to be the center of a story for the story to be good, to connect, to relate.

Who does a better job at injecting diversity into their stories, comics and characters, Marvel or their rival DC Comics?

Well, I am kind of biased I guess, because I am a Marvel person, so it’s hard for me to speak about it objectively. But I do think that Marvel does a better job. Not that DC doesn’t have diverse characters. They do. But I feel like Marvel has a history of handling those characters a little better. And recently, they did a lot of overhauls on their characters, kind of re-envisioning certain titles. As in, who is Iron Man, who is Thor? Those titles have been reassigned so that Thor is a woman now, Iron Man is a 15-year-old Black girl, which I think is cool. I think we need a mix of shaking up the status quo and also introducing new characters.

Some geeks have pushed back with: “Why not create original diverse characters instead of making Spider-Man or Iron Man Black?”

I think the reason maybe they choose to do reassigning a moniker to someone is because you recognize that name. Even though this is a new Spider-Man, it’s still Spider-Man, so because of your familiarity with that name and that title, you’ll likely pick it up. Because when they make new characters, those books don’t always sell. There’s a book called Motor Crush which has a really interesting concept, really dope art, but it has a Black female lead. There was all this hubbub in the comics industry because nobody was ordering that book. The owners of those stores were saying “we can’t sell a book with a Black female lead.” So then it’s like, which one is it? If we create a new character, you don’t buy it because you can’t sell it. So then when we say, “now we’re gonna make Iron Man this little black girl,” you have a problem with that and your immediate response is, “why can’t you just make a new character?” It’s this weird catch-22.

Feminist Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda comic get canceled last year. What led to the cancellation?

I don’t know why they canceled it. Here it’s a big seller, people ask for it. When World of Wakanda got canceled, when [Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther & the Crew] got canceled, people were coming in like, “Do you know why they canceled this book?” It was supposed to be an ongoing title, now it’s six issues and that’s it. I feel skewed because this is a Black-owned store, we’re very open and proud about that. We have a lot of Black nerds/blerds who come in here specifically looking for things with us in the pages. For us, it’s like, that didn’t make any sense because I can’t keep that book in stock. We get it in, it’s gone.

I feel like maybe it’s one of those things where it’s like, it’s not that we don’t give diversity a chance, we did it but then nobody bought it, so we canceled it. So now that’s why we don’t have diverse titles. I feel like everything is reasoning so they don’t have to do it. [laughter] There’s been a lot of talk about Proud Mary and how they didn’t promote it. So you made it, but you want it to fail so that you can say, “Oh, see, we tried it, it didn’t sell.” But that’s crazy. There are so many movies with white leads that are horrible; we still get movies with white leads. But that’s your justification for why we don’t do that anymore.

What comics are you enjoying right now?

Saga, ’cause the lead in Saga is an alien but she’s brown. I read the first issue of Motor Crush, I really liked it. The character design is so freakin’ fly, I want her wardrobe! The art is really dope and it’s a Black woman in a way we don’t usually get to see Black women: she’s a bike racer. She’s professional but she races underground to get this stuff called motor crush—it helps your bike be faster. It’s illegal but people do it, it’s a whole thing. [laughter] I really like Sleepless, which is a new medieval book about this [Black] princess.