Ariell Johnson, owner of month-old Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Kensington, once feared comic book shops.
Growing up in Baltimore, Johnson was a fangirl of TV cartoons He-Man, She-Ra, Thundercats and X-Men. As a kid, she always wanted to know the backstory for the X-Men’s “Storm,” the first black female superhero she encountered, the character who, she says, “opened my mind to the possibilities of anything is possible.” Here and there, she’d borrow a friend’s comic. But it was years before she could muster up the courage to go out and buy a book.
Today, she’s the first woman on the East Coast to own her own comic book shop. According to Amalgam’s followers—of which there are thousands—Johnson’s also the country’s first and only African-American woman to do so. (Atomic City Comics on South Street, a popular longtime comic seller, is owned by a black man, Darryl Jones.)
This, to non-comic fans, might seem an unlikely milestone. After all, comics are illustrated fantasy, a “free medium,” says Johnson herself. Sure, the industry gave us Batman and Superman, but it’s also conjured Wonder Woman and Storm. Could geeky comic book stores really be a bastion of white male dominance?
Well, yes, says Johnson. At least, until recently.
“In comics that started in the ‘50s and ‘60s, men went to work, and a good wife was at home, baking a pie,” she explains, “Women were there for sexual enjoyment, for the male gaze, as opposed to being fully developed people.”
Marvel and DC and all the rest might have been free to draw people as they wished, but they didn’t. Instead, the publishing giants created white male hero after white male hero, dressed their women in less and less, then took their male caped crusaders straight to the bank. This reliance on a traditional power paradigm fostered, says Johnson, a sense of “privilege” among comic fans and sellers. Like Johnson, female fans have long complained about the portrayal of women in comic books, a history littered with (absurdly-breasted) girlfriends dying, being coopted, being used for sex. (Writer Gail Simone, one of few women writing comics, started as a fan whose blog “Women In Refrigerators” catalogued the various afflictions suffered by female superheroes or sidekicks. The list is long.)
In other words, “A comic book store was not necessarily a space for people that look like me,” Johnson says.
Russell Simmons Tweeted about Amalgam, then sent Johnson a painting of a black supergirl, with a note signed by Simmons, his artist brother Danny, and Rev Run.
Johnson avoided comics shops until college. As an accounting student at Temple, she borrowed from the collection of an upperclassman and fellow X-Men fanatic. The drama. The heroism. The intertwining plotlines. The science fiction. It was addictive. When her buddy graduated, she needed more Storm. She bought her first back issue on eBay.
But her sophomore year, it hit her. If a flying, weather-controlling, African-American heroine could dominate her fellow mutants, then Johnson could step through the doors of Fat Jack’s Comicrypt on Temple’s campus. She did, and was pleasantly surprised.
From then on, each Friday, she’d shop for new issues, then cross the street to Crimson Moon cafe to devour them while drinking hot chocolate. In a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment, she wished Fat Jack’s sold coffee, and that Crimson Moon stocked comics. In an ah-ha moment, when Crimson Moon closed, she decided one day she’d open her own combination operation. An amalgam.
Fast forward a decade, past bookkeeping gigs at a nonprofit and a community newspaper, jobs managing Walgreen’s and frothing cappuccinos at the Washington Square West Di Bruno’s. Johnson kept dreaming of a combo comics and coffee business of her own, a place where all genders, backgrounds and ages of fans would feel welcome, that would stock Superman, but also would be “representative of people who are usually not represented,” she says.
It took years of working full-time, sometimes two jobs at once, scouting real estate for the perfect storefront, careful not to locate near a competitor, considering addresses close to public transit. In November of 2014, she found what she was looking for in an abandoned bingo hall at 2578 Frankford Avenue along the reviving Frankford Arts Corridor, a five-minute walk from Huntingdon Station.
Amalgam opened for business in December. In the front-of-the-house, a square coffee bar serves Philly Fair Trade Roasters from the Northeast, bagels from 110th Street Bakery, croissants from Narberth’s Au Fournil, and house-made loaf bread, scones and cupcakes. (Favorite flavor: “Storm” with chocolate-peanut butter frosting.)
In back, shelves hold a stock of about 250 titles, from old-school to LGBT, indie to Archie. There are tables reserved for gamers—they recently held their first Dungeons & Dragons night—armchairs for readers and smaller tables and chairs for coffee drinkers. Another shelf displays Amalgam t-shirts.
Technically, says Johnson, the business is still in its soft opening. She would like to build out the store’s stock, to load up the shelves. She’d like to get used to her new 4 a.m. wakeup. She’d also like, on occasion, to read the new Niobe series or catch up on Buffy.
But there’s no time. “We’ve blown up in a way we weren’t expecting,” says Johnson.
“If I want to see myself, if I want to see [comic book characters] that look like me, I’m sure other people would like to see themselves, too,” Johnson says.
Ever since Amalgam’s doors opened, the Facebook likes have been multiplying. The press has been knocking. MSNBC. WHYY. MTV. NPR interviews with even bigger names she’s not supposed to name yet. “I’ve heard from people I have grown up knowing about,” she says.
— AmalgamPhilly (@AmalgamPhilly) January 8, 2016
A couple weekends ago, Russell Simmons tweeted about Amalgam, then sent her a painting of a black supergirl, with a note signed by Simmons, his artist brother Danny, and Rev Run.
Naturally, people have been coming in from the neighborhood and from across Philadelphia. They’ve also been driving up from D.C. and down from New York. Some just want to support her. Others want to add to their graphic libraries. A few say they haven’t bought a comic in decades, and are doing it now, to be part of what feels like history. Some customers camp out at the gaming tables in back. Others come for meet-ups. Lots just wander the shelves then sit down for a latte.
It’s gratifying. It’s overwhelming. It’s proof of her theory.
“If I want to see myself, if I want to see [comic book characters] that look like me, I’m sure other people would like to see themselves, too,” she says.
Header Photo by Patrick Clark.