Written by Kat Stellato
Photos by Matt McGraw
Ariell Johnson is a new kind of superhero.
The 33 year old owner of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, located at 2578 Frankford Ave, is leading the way as the first black female comic book shop owner in a culture dominated by white men. Although Johnson doesn’t think of herself as anything but a black woman, she does realize the implication of what she represents.
“I realize for other people, specifically for other little girls for other black little girls for other just children of color to see someone doing something that they are an outlier, you know when you think comic books you think very straight, very white, very male and so for me to exist in that space is strange but despite that I’m still doing it so you know hopefully that is an example to other people who maybe feel out of place in the thing that they enjoy would give them you know, courage and willpower to do it anyway,” said Johnson of her newly acquired position.
Johnson was inspired to create a space after Crimson Moon, a coffee shop that Johnson frequented as college student to read comics, closed its doors.
“I really liked the space she [the owner of Crimson Moon] created. I liked my pattern of getting my comics on Friday and going somewhere and sitting and reading them out in public and not feeling like oh I have to run home into my little nerdhole to enjoy my comic books. It was the wanting of that feeling of community along with the comics that started the process.”
Johnson later went on to begin building a business plan and making Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse possible. Johnson looked at several different locations such as West Philly on Lancaster Ave, Point Breeze and Girard Ave before settling on Frankford Ave.
“Frankford Ave is an arts corridor, so I thought it would be cool to bring comic book art and that element to an arts corridor instead of just the gallery spaces and things you normally see.”
Working hard for the next three years, Johnson brought her dream of a comic book shop and coffee house to the community. With an open area seating filled with comfortable chairs, a couch and various tables decorated with familiar logos, Johnson has created a welcoming ambiance for readers of all kind.
Along the walls are posters of favorite heroes, old and new such as Peter Parker/Spiderman and Mary Jane Watson, who recently joined the cast of Iron Man. New releases of comics line the walls featuring everyone from the Avengers to Wonder Woman. Graphic Novels and back issues are also available for purchase. Tee shirts featuring favorite heroes, the legends of the Star Wars, a blue telephone box and a platform that leads to a school of Witchcraft and Wizardry are also on hand for customers to buy. A case featuring an action figure of the mighty Amazon Warrior, Princess Diana of Themyscira sits awaiting more heroes to join her in a League of Justice. However, across from the counter where you can purchase coffee, bagels and other yummy treats sits a poster of Ororo Munroe, a tribal princess from Kenya who would later become one of the most famous X-Men, Storm.
Storm was the reason Johnson began reading comics in the first place. Johnson was first introduced to Storm from the Fox Network’s X-Men: The Animated Series which ran in the early 90’s.
“She was the first superhero that I ever encountered that looked like me, so that was kinda the thing that prompted me to wanna search further. I always liked superpowers and things like that like Thundercats, Transformers and things like that, I grew up watching those things, so I’ve always enjoyed that but none of those shows had characters that looked like me, so I always felt like I was watching the action but not being apart of the action, so seeing Storm for the first time made me feel like I could be apart of it.”
Storm would become one of the most notable female black characters on the 70’s when she was introduced. Prior to that point, black men had been predominantly featured in comics with characters such as Luke Cage, Black Panther and the Falcon. Following Storm, more black female superheroes appeared, including a black Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau, who is currently Spectrum.
The powerhouses of comics DC and Marvel have seen significant progress in inclusiveness comics in recent years with the addition of Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim teenage girl superhero from Jersey, Sam Wilson retiring as Falcon and taking over as Captain America making him the first black Captain America and Amadeus Cho as the first Asian Hulk. DC meanwhile cast Jason Momoa as Aquaman in the latest reboot of the Justice League franchise, introduced John Stewart as a black man as the Green Lantern (and arguably the best Lantern), introduced popular lesbian character Kate Kane as Batwoman and had Barbara Gordon’s Oracle in a wheelchair.
Johnson is glad to see theses changes and hopes that people can relate to these new characters and feel empowered seeing themselves the way she was empowered by seeing Storm. Which, is hopefully how little girls will feel seeing Johnson.
Female comic book fans are often criticized harshly for liking comics. They are questioned much more harshly than male fans. While women comic book writers and artists have become more prominent in recent years, it is still a male dominated industry. Although there has been a female Thor, Ironman and Spiderman added to the rotation, there is still a lack of women, particularly of color.
Despite all this, Johnson has created a space where girls of all ages and races can come to learn how to fight crime, swing from buildings, be an assassin, become a masked villagante and so much more without judgement. Although she may not wear a cape, Johnson is a new kind of superhero for creating a space for the next generation of girls to learn a lesson, you belong.