Meet the East Coast’s first black female comic book store owner

August 22, 2019

Ariell Johnson in her shop (left) and with RiRi Williams (right) on the variant cover of Invincible Iron Man #1.

Ariell Johnson checks out a customer at the cash register as patrons browse her store’s collection of comic books. The 33-year-old is the owner of Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse in Philadelphia. You might say Johnson is a superhero herself.

She’s the first black woman on the East Coast to own and operate a comic book store. The comic book world tends to skew heavily towards white males. That’s true among comic book authors and owners. But when it comes to finding inspiration, Johnson didn’t have to look far. She turned to the X-Men.

“The first character that really got me excited about comics was Storm of the X-Men. A lot of that had to do with the fact that she was the first black woman I had ever seen [in comics],” said Johnson.

“Seeing her I felt like I could be a part of that world.”

Taking the world by storm

A lifelong “fan girl” of all things “geek, supernatural and superhero,” Ariell said she first had the idea to open her own shop in 2003.

But even before Amalgam’s official opening in 2015, the store was generating a lot of fanfare online.

“Before we opened our doors we had over 1,000 likes on Facebook,” said Johnson. “People were excited about the concept, excited about a new comic book shop in Philly, excited that it is owned by both a woman and a black woman because that is something that is not the norm in the geek world.”

A real “Wonder Woman”

There are only five comic book shops owned by African Americans in the country, according to Yumy Odom, Founder and President of the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention.

That puts Johnson in a rare group of people and gives her the unique power to help influence the community around her.

For Amalgam that means finding books beyond the usual Spider, Bat and Supermen.

“I want to be very proactive and conscious to make sure we are carrying diverse titles. The smaller stuff, the independent stuff, the more diverse stuff that you really have to look for and I think it’s worth it. Seeing people representative of you can be important in your development and your self esteem,” said Johnson.

Even though the store is still in its first year, it’s already making a difference. The East Coast Black Age of Comics closed out its convention this year at the store.

“Mrs. Johnson has created a very welcoming space for the comic book, sci-fi and fantasy communities here in Philadelphia,” said Odom.

Johnson wants Amalgam to become a gathering spot not only for comic book and coffee lovers, but for those she feels are overlooked by the comic book world.

“There are a lot of black girl geeks in the world but we are not at the forefront. This store is also kind of a statement – we’re here, we’ve been here and we’re going to keep being here. I get a lot of little girls saying, ‘This is so cool. You have a great book collection,’ so, it’s exciting to see.”

She’s got it ‘covered’

Since Johnson has opened her store she has received quite a lot of attention with articles on CNN.com, The Grio.com and Ebony.com. But her favorite thing thus far was appearing on the cover of an actual comic.

Johnson appeared on a variant cover of “Invincible Iron Man #1.” She’s posed next to Marvel superhero RiRi Williams. RiRi is a science genius who enrolled at MIT at the age of 15 and is the heir to Tony Starks Iron Man armor as Iron Heart. RiRi is one of few black teen female superheros in comics.

The cover is made possible by Johnson’s colleague Randy Green.

“When the email went out about potential variants for stores, he was really excited and took it upon himself to work out the [details]. It was really his hard work,” she told ABC News. “I knew what it was supposed to look like, but having the actual art in front of you is so much different. It’s really exciting.”

Even though she’s now the “head nerd in charge,” Johnson realizes the seriousness of her new position.

“I think Spiderman’s catch phrase applies here, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’.

“When you are a person of color, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel to find someone you can identify with. I always felt like I was watching other people’s adventures,” she explained. “I hope with my shop, I can open a new world of adventures for young people of all colors and kinds to help them find their own heroes.”