Dawn Arrington sits at a table with a comic book display at Rice Library.
Arrington at an event at Rice Library in Cleveland. Credit: Carol Malone

All heroes have origin stories. Dawn Arrington’s begins in 2017 with something her husband told her about a conversation he had with an auto mechanic. The man had apologized for not writing “window” on the receipt because he didn’t know how to spell the word. The story bothered her. She kept thinking about it and felt compelled to act, but had no idea what to do.

Fast forward to February 2018 and the long-awaited release of Black Panther, the first movie in the Marvel cinematic universe featuring a Black superhero — indeed, an almost entirely Black cast and a story introducing a fictional, futuristic African nation, Wakanda. Excitement for this movie went far beyond self-described blerds (Black nerds), Arrington recalls. The movie reverberated throughout Black American culture.

“We go to see the movie,” she said, referring to her husband and two kids, “and there’s a moment where King T’Challa and Okoye are talking in Xhosa and there are subtitles. And I was like, somebody who can’t spell the word window can’t read those words either.”

“So something as simple as enjoying a movie with representation, this grand moment — we’ve been waiting for Wakanda since Zamunda, we’ve been waiting for a hero who looks like us, and if I can’t read I lose context, I lose some of that experience.”

She figured out what she needed to do. She would buy comic books with characters of color in bulk and give them away in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, where she grew up; in Buckeye, where she lives now, and in nearby neighborhoods. Comics at The Corner was born. Since 2018, Arrington estimated, she has given away about 5,000 comic books. 

Last month, the Cuyahoga County Council awarded Arrington’s organization $30,000 of America Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

“In Cuyahoga County, something like 56% of adults are not reading efficiently,” said Arrington, who has stopped using “the I word” (illiterate); she considers it “dismissive.”

“And then when you drill down to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, it’s nearly 90%.” She calls the lack of reading proficiency “another invisible disability,” like diabetes.

“Some of my superheroes, people who can fix my car and do things that I could never do, they don’t have the ability to just fully enjoy themselves,” she says. “That’s a crime. That’s massive disinvestment, that’s poor educational policy, that is the war on drugs, that is all kinds of things” that plague disenfranchised neighborhoods.

A photo of Dawn Arrington, founder of Comics at the Corner.
Dawn Arrington founded Comics at the Corner in 2018. Credit: Michaela Arrington

Arrington, a manager and strategist at community-focused crowd-funding site ioby, has never intended to duplicate the work of Seeds of Literacy, the Literacy Cooperative or any other organization working to improve reading skills in Cleveland. She’s sort of a blerd activist, driven by the belief that stories can change lives. As she explained on the web page for her first fundraiser in 2018:

“I believe comic books can attract reluctant readers and those who may have reading challenges. All people of all reading levels are drawn to the stories. The visual cues make the messages more accessible, comprehendible and relatable. Comics are conversation starters and connections can be ignited between people who read them, and on-going relationships can be fostered as the various copies are shared amongst people.”

She used the $3,100 she raised then to buy comics from Imaginary Worlds, a Cleveland Heights comic shop that has since closed. (She’s now partnered with Carol & John’s Comic Book Shop on Cleveland’s West Side.)

“That first year I was literally driving around with comics in my car and stopping people like, Hey, I have comics. You want some?” she recalls. “It’s all about meeting people where they are. Corner stores, barbershops, beauty salons, I’ve set up tables at the Family Dollar on Kinsman. If you let me in, I will do it.”

With money from a second online fundraiser, she printed cards with information about local library branches and literacy and GED programs. And this year, she launched Literacy Lounges, pop-up-style events inspired by her fond memories of school book fairs. She invites artists and others — such as Vijay Shah, editor of Man on a Mission, a graphic novel about civil rights leader James Meredith — to speak and encourage discussion of comic books, the stories they tell, “and almost anything else involved with the creative process of creating and reading comics.” 

The county grant is to keep the lounges going through next fall.

On Sept. 24, Arrington is participating in a Literary Cleveland Inkubator event, Framing the Future: Comics Making in the Rust Belt at the West Side Market. And on Sept. 30, she’s moderating a panel on publishing at the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference at Cleveland Public Library.

In the meantime, she’s finishing up a new web site with help from a friend and planning the next Literacy Lounge (October, date and location to be determined). She smiles as she recalls a woman at the last one, who was so excited to see a Star Trek comic book that she dug through all the boxes looking for more “and cleaned me out!” Those moments are what keep her working.

“People will read what they’re interested in, they will read things that they can relate to,” Arrington said. “And so we’ve got to start there.”

Director of the Editors’ Bureau (he/him)
Frank is an award-winning reporter and former editor at alternative newsweeklies in Cleveland and Philadelphia. He has worked with writers of all experience levels on beat reporting, features, investigative projects and books.