Like a comic book protagonist, Ariell Johnson has a mission—to create a “community geek space” for those underrepresented in the comic book industry.
Inside an unmarked building at Frankford Avenue and Huntingdon Street in Kensington, Johnson wears a denim jacket with the yellow logo of the superheroine Rachel Summers from X-Men. The walls are lined with popular comics from DC and Marvel alongside lesser-known names like Paper Girls, an indie comic series with women of color as some of the main characters.
“You can get a comic, take a seat and talk about it,” Johnson said. “I hope people will get in conversations with people that are different than you and meeting people on a personal level, and I hope it will work to break prejudices that we all hold.”
Johnson, 33, and a 2005 accounting alumna, opened Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse in Kensington last month and became the first black female comic shop owner on the East Coast.
While growing up in Baltimore, Johnson admired several comic and cartoon series like ThunderCats, She-Ra, He-Man and Transformers. When she was 9, Fox aired its early-1990s X-Men cartoon series and Johnson fell in love with the character Storm, who was portrayed as a black female character.
“It was the first time I saw someone who looked like me in a superhero role,” Johnson said.
A friend introduced Johnson to comics in high school; once she started college, she began buying her own on eBay.
“Mainly because the idea of going into a comic store scared me a little bit, since it was traditionally elitist and I thought that if anybody didn’t fit into a comic book store, it was me,” Johnson said.
The idea for opening her own comic shop has been a ten-year-long thought that began during her college career, when she discovered Fat Jack’s Comicrypt at 2006 Sansom St.
“I would go to Fat Jack’s and across this street was this cafe called Crimson Moon,” Johnson said, adding the coffee shop was owned by a young black woman.
Johnson said she would always go into the shop after purchasing her comic to buy a hot chocolate and lemon poppyseed cake.
When Crimson Moon closed in 2005, Johnson no longer had a space to continue her tradition.
“There are hundreds of coffee shops, but just finding one where you are like ‘Man, I really like this place,’ that is when I got the idea,” Johnson said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a place that you could buy your comic, but also hang out, read them and talk to people?’”
With some encouragement from her family, the Amalgam idea was back on the table. Construction for the shop began in June 2015 and officially opened Dec. 14.
Johnson said the comics industry has long had an issue with diversity, but there has been recent progress.
“I think the industry as a whole is responding to the fact there are a diverse group of people reading these books,” Johnson said. “Thor is a woman now, the new Power Girl is now a black woman, the new Miss Marvel is Muslim.”
But Johnson doesn’t want to just focus on diverse characters—she also wants to spotlight authors and members of the community. Johnson added that along with selling more popular DC and Marvel comics, she will sell works that highlight characters of color or are written by people of color.
She has found several comic book writers through the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention, which is held annually in West Philadelphia.
“I am black and a woman all the time, so I am very aware that I am in a space that people aren’t used to seeing me in, and it’s not just like, ‘Oh, I work here,’” Johnson said. “It’s also my shop. I think because of that the store is innately welcoming.”
Issa James, an employee at Amalgam, first heard about the shop’s opening on the website Black Girl Nerds. James said she thinks the comic shop brings to light the lack of diversity in the comic book world.
“We have a lot of female customers come in that have admitted to me that they’re intimidated,” said James, who is in her final semester at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. “But then they see that it is female-owned, females work here and are well-versed in comics.”
Emily Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org