The Comic Book Store Owner Who Is A Real Life Wonder Woman

As Wonder Woman hits the big screens, many little girls who previously had little interest in superheroes are suddenly taking notice.  The character of Wonder Woman, (played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot), shatters gender stereotypes with her inhuman strength and bravery.  But, unlike many of her male superhero counterparts, her motivation is never about revenge or bravado.  Instead, she aims to protect the downtrodden and promote peace.

Female representation in superhero movies and comic books can be important in how little girls see themselves.  I had an opportunity to talk to Ariell Johnson, the owner of Amalgam Comic Book store in Philadelphia and the first female African-American comic book store owner on the East Coast, about her experiences as a black woman in a world that is often dominated by white males.

Do you feel like, as a black woman, you are represented in the comic book world? And does it matter?

Yes, it definitely does matter.  If there were more black women in comic books and superhero stuff and even just action movies and horror movies, me seeing the (African American) character of Storm for the first time might not have had such a big impact, because I would have been so used to seeing people who looked like me. But she was this rarity.  And, in addition to being rare… she was powerful.  Nobody could put her in the backseat.  It’s like she’s a powerhouse, she’s a leader. To see a character like that makes you feel good.  She looks like me.  Especially for little brown girls. Because you look at a society that makes you feel like nothing about you is wanted. You have this pressure, even from when you are a little girl. You’re told, ‘Oh, straighten your hair, lighten your skin, wear contact lenses.’ It’s like, cover up everything that is you. So when you see this woman, you feel like you’re finally seeing someone who looks like you.  She’s beautiful, she’s powerful, she’s strong, she’s a leader. It’s a good feeling. So representation is great.

Do you think female comic book characters are over-sexualized?

Um… yes. Here’s the thing. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it all the time.  I don’t like it when it’s like ok, we’re going to combat and the men are dressed up in head to head combat gear, while the woman has on a bra.  And it’s like, isn’t she about to fight the same fight that you guys are fighting and why isn’t she dressed right? In general, nudity doesn’t bother me. But there is a lot of emphasis on what women look like.

I think about Serena Williams and how she gets judged all the time. She’s playing. She’s tired, she’s hot, she looks like she’s doing something physical, strenuous.  When men look like that, it’s like oh, well, they’re warriors, but when women look like that they are judged.

Have you faced challenges as a woman starting a business that has been traditionally run by men?

Definitely. Sometimes with me, their way to approach has been like, ‘Oh, little girl, let me explain it to you.’ They want to do that to you. And the things is… I know what I want. I don’t necessarily know the process. But, I don’t have to know the process of everything. They wouldn’t expect a man to know it all. I mean, you have one too many nonsense conversations and you start to call bullshit.

Is there a typical comic book reader?

That’s the big misconception. People think comic book readers are straight, white, male, geeky socially awkward in their parent’s basement. And there are those people. That stereotype comes from a real place.  But, there are also a lot of people who you wouldn’t expect.  There have been people who tell me that they’re into comics and I’m like really? Because I had to even check myself. You know, I pre-judged you.  You looked a certain way, you were doing certain things, so I made assumptions about you and I was wrong. We all do it. Comic book readers come in all shapes and sizes, colors, genders.

Just as comic book readers come in all colors and genders, so too, do movie audiences.  Looking around at all the little girls cheering on Wonder Woman in the theater, I thought of Ariell and her work helping to promote diversity and girl power in the world of superheroes.  By giving young girls a hero to look up to, Ariell provides a real-world example of a Wonder Woman.

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