Nerd culture is slowly, but surely, pushing to become more inclusive. Whether it’s hiring Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates to write (now-cancelled) Marvel comics or bringing Black Lightning to the CW, nerd culture is trying to envision a new world that’s more welcoming for nerds of color. At the forefront of this shift is Ariell Johnson, owner of Philadelphia’s Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse Inc. When she achieved her lifelong dream of opening a comic book store, Johnson became the only Black woman on the East Coast to own one, and one of five Black comic book store owners in the country.
In the two years since she’s opened her doors, Johnson has hosted events with Congressman John Lewis, gotten her own Marvel cover, and truly transformed Amalgam into a safe space for her Philadelphia neighborhood. In this interview with Bitch, she talks about Storm as her inspiration, how the death of her mom birthed Amalgam, and her biggest hope for Wonder Woman 2.
Let’s go backward first. Who was the first superhero that you were obsessed with? What was it about that superhero that really appealed to you?
Storm was the reason for everything. I grew up watching He-Man and She-Ra, but I wasn’t into comics. I was introduced to Storm in the ’90s through an [X-Men] cartoon on Fox. I saw a preview for the cartoon with this Black, white-haired, white-eyed woman flying around shooting lightning at people, and I said, “Who is she? I have to watch that.” Up until that point, I’d never seen a superhero who looked like me, so [Storm] amazed me. Before seeing her, I always felt like I was watching someone else’s adventures. After watching [the cartoon], I thought I could be apart of it. Wanting to know more about Storm got me into comic books because I knew she originated in comics, so it made sense to read them. That was the beginning.
You opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia in 2015. What inspired you to open a store? Were you aware that there wasn’t another Black woman comic bookstore owner on the East Coast?
I’ve had this idea since I started buying my own comic books in college. My routine was to go to the comic book store on Fridays. Directly across the street was a really dope coffee shop called Crimson Moon, so I would get my book, go to the coffee shop, get a hot chocolate, and sit down and read. Then, the coffee shop closed. I was at a loss for what to do after getting my books each week because it wasn’t as easy as just finding another coffee shop. The woman who owned Crimson Moon did such an awesome job of making it a warm and inviting place—I needed that kind of coffee shop. That was the birth of Amalgam, but it took 13 years from that time to open the store.
When I graduated, I was in a ton of debt, so I couldn’t focus on opening a store. When I was 28, I lost my mom. She was only 57 when she passed away. She was still a young woman, and had life ahead of her—or so we thought. Losing her just reminded me of my own mortality. I was really unhappy in my career at the time. I was crying a lot and trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do on Earth while I’m here. Amalgam was always in the back of my head, but it wasn’t something I was actively working on. After losing my mom, I just felt like I may not have as much time here as I think. Do I want to be unhappy the whole time?
Then, I had really deep conversation about X-Men with my sister and brother-in-law one afternoon. I remember going on a nerd rant, and my brother-in-law saying to me, “You know, the only time you get excited is when you’re talking about comics or dance.” I dance in my spare time. When he said it, I took it the wrong way because I was soul-searching and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was also struggling with my love for comic books because I thought I was too old to be reading them and needed to “grow up.” My sister saw my train of thought, stopped me, and said, “No Ariell, that’s not what he’s saying. If those are the things that excite you, you really need to think about that.” That was the final push that convinced me to try.
When my mom passed, she’d already made arrangements for me and my sister. I had funds available to me, and I was able to pay off all of my student loans and debt. It was a really freeing thing, and allowed me to think beyond my current situation. Even though the idea of Amalgam was in my head, I had a lot of debt from school. That’s the new reality for our generation. That’s why we don’t own homes because we all have this gross amount of college debt. At the time, I was working two jobs, so the [inheritance] allowed me to think about what Amalgam would look like. I’m really thankful to my mom because none of it would’ve happened without her.
Black women are the fastest rising group of entrepreneurs in the United States, but I’m sure that comes with its fair share of obstacles. Did you encounter any resistance as you worked to open Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse?
Yes, definitely. Some people ask me if I got a lot of hate as a Black woman in a predominantly white space. You’re always going to have that, but I wouldn’t call that an obstacle. There’s definitely other obstacles: Money is always a thing; there’s never enough of it. For financing, we did a few different things. My family has put money toward the business; we did a crowdfunding campaign; and I received a grant through the city of Philadelphia’s commerce department. My business is in a commercial corridor that was kind of dead, and the city is working to revitalize it. It’s a loan, but if you’re open for five years or more, you don’t have to pay it back. Even now, I keep my eyes out for other funding opportunities.
We were recently awarded a Knight Foundation grant, which will allow us to finish some additional rooms in the space and open a multipurpose room and workshop area that we’ll be able to use for different kinds of programming and events. A big part piece of that is building Amalgam University to help up-and-coming comic book creators polish their skills in writing, art, pitching, and personal development.
If you’re opening a business, money is going to be a challenge—unless you’re a billionaire. It always feels like there’s more going out than coming in. Opening a business is not for the faint of heart. It was a three year process from starting my business plan to opening the doors, but none of the obstacles felt like things we couldn’t get past. It was just a matter of sticking to my guns, staying encouraged, pushing through all of the obstacles, and working toward the end goal.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about business and entrepreneurship? For other Black women who are considering opening their own businesses, what would you tell them?
I never thought it was going to be easy, but now I realize how much sacrifice it takes.
To say you’re an entrepreneur sounds impressive, and it is, but that really means you’re the last person to get paid. When funds are short and you have obligations to your employees, you’re the one who doesn’t get paid. There are late nights.
Currently, I’m working a lot of overnights to get caught up on paperwork that we fell behind on. I wasn’t ready for the media response to Amalgam. It was a lot, so I fell behind on the administrative paperwork. I’m working until 4 am, sleeping for a couple of hours, and then coming into the store. I’m looking at my wallet, and seeing my friends going out, but I can’t go out. They’re asking me, “Are you still eating [Maruchan] Ramen [Noodles]?” It’s a lot of sacrifice. I don’t think everybody’s built to be an entrepreneur. Everybody’s not Rihanna; we’re not launching something that sells out in stores. That’s not the norm.
If you don’t really love what you’re doing, you can very easily become disenchanted and quit. I’d tell any aspiring entrepreneur to be prepared for that. It’s going to be hard before it’s easy. Also, make sure you have a good support system. My sister and brother-in-law were very instrumental in helping me get [Amalgam] open, especially in the beginning. The researching and business planning was all me, but it was hard when I got into the construction phrase. In the planning stages, you’re giving your all because it’s your vision. When you bring someone else into your vision, it gets a little crazy. I had a specifically horrific experience with my contractor, but thankfully I had my sister and brother-in-law. When things weren’t going right, I could talk it through with them, rant, and even cry—there were a lot of tears in this process. They’d let me unload for a second, and then they’d encourage me and say, “Now, what do we need to do?” They kept me from giving up. My brother-in-law and sister aren’t comic book people, but they know it’s important to me, so they were supportive.
[You should] really do your research, understand your business and your market, and map out the steps that it will take to do whatever it is you’re aiming to do. Opening a business in Philadelphia looks a lot different than opening a business in Seattle, so you definitely want to do your research. There are some things you’ll learn as you go, but you want to have as much information as possible. [Lastly, you have to] be willing to adapt. I had my own ideas about what opening Amalgam would look like. Some of it looks like that, but a lot of it doesn’t. I’ve had to adjust and tweak my expectations. You can plan all day—and you should—but there will be some things that are nothing like you thought.
My best friend moved to Philadelphia one year ago, and we’ve watched the city gentrify so rapidly in that time. Are you intentional about how Amalgam creates community with native Philadelphians who are being displaced?
From the beginning, I wanted to be in a transitioning neighborhood. I struggle with the question, “Am I gentrifier?” because [Amalgam] is adding to the interest in this area. Gentrification is very interesting because there’s also a color component to it. When gentrification happens, it’s usually the white artsy hipster folks who come first, and then the middle-class people start to move in. I live in this neighborhood, and we’re starting to see more upper-class, white people coming in. I’m walking around with my green hair, and they’re probably thinking, “Ugh, I can’t wait until she’s gone.” [laughs] Little do they know, I’m a business owner in this community.
We try very hard to be a community space. When you look at the new businesses in gentrifying neighborhoods, you can tell from how they’re set up and presented that they’re for new residents. When you go inside, most of the customers are people who’ve moved to the neighborhood in the last couple of years instead of the people who’ve lived [in the Kensington neighborhood] their whole lives. I didn’t want to be that place. I truly wanted Amalgam to be a community place for [people of all] ethnicities, orientations, [and] religious backgrounds. I think we’ve done it well, and I can’t even really tell you how we’ve done it. It might be because of different events we do.
When you come into Amalgam, there are always so many different kinds of people here. We have our regulars who are low-income and have lived here all of their lives. We also have the new hipster families who just moved into the neighborhood. We have a community of high school kids whose school is a few blocks away from the shop. After school, they hang out for a little bit. They’re kids from the neighborhood who are not used to being welcomed into [public establishments]. They know Amalgam is a place they can come and sit, even if they don’t buy anything. I like that the store is a safe space [for them]. One of our kids was accepted into MIT, and he came into the shop to tell us that. Not only is the store a hangout, but these kids are truly a part of Amalgam’s community. I’m aware of the sensitivity of gentrification, and I wanted to make sure we are truly for the neighborhood.
I didn’t grow up with money, so I know what it’s like to not have access to things. Ordinarily, if you want to go to a comic book store, you have to go to [the Philadelphia neighborhood] Center City or another well-to-do white area, so Amalgam being in Kensington is a really big deal. Congressman John Lewis came to our shop for a signing of March, his autobiographical graphic novel series. He was here for the [Democratic National Convention], but he came to Kensington. It was a free event, so people from the neighborhood were able to see Lewis up-close-and-personal. That doesn’t happen in this neighborhood very often. We want to expose people to things they wouldn’t have had an opportunity [to experience].
Gentrification is hurting me too because I live here. I’m not a rich person by any means. Money’s tight sometimes, so the rent going up is making me panic as well.
You received your own Marvel comic book cover in 2016. How significant was that moment for you, as someone who’s loved comics books for so long?
The Marvel cover hasn’t really set in [laughs]. I’m a Marvel person. Storm is a Marvel character, so X-Men is my home base. To be on the cover of a comic book, especially for Marvel, is really awesome. [Marvel] approaches stores about having their own variant of a highly anticipated title. They reached out to Amalgam about having a variant of Riri Williams’ Ironheart title. I originally said no because I was thinking about the costs [laughs]. My comic book department lead—our jedi—said we had to do this. He negotiated with them to get to a price that we could afford. It ended up being life-changing. We got to choose the artist and give that artist our concept. [Our comic book department lead] chose [Marvel artist] Elizabeth Torque, and decided Riri and I should be on the cover sitting in [Amalgam] talking. It was an iconic year for women, especially Black women, in the comic book realm, and people were really excited about what Riri meant for inclusion in comics.
The cover is drawn from an actual picture. Once we sent that [picture] in, I stopped thinking about [the cover] until they sent us sketches of it. Even from the black-and-white sketch, I was blown away. I started fangirling at that point, but I still wasn’t thinking about what the response to the cover release would be. We had to get people to buy [the cover], so that’s all I was really focused on. Then, Marvel covered our cover and discussed Black women in white comic book spaces and the meaning of Riri Williams. From that article, we got all of these requests about pre-ordering the comic book—even before we had the book in our hand. I am community focused, so in my business plan, everything we do was centered around the space itself. Now that our name is out there and people from all over the place are reaching out to us, we’re trying to figure out the web component.
Web sales weren’t something I thought we needed in the beginning, but now our fans are so spread out, and we’re trying to catch up with that. This cover was the first real indication of that [nationwide fanbase]. It was overwhelming, but I had to be flexible. I was thinking we would have these books that we’d have to hustle and sell, and then they ended up selling themselves. As a fangirl, it was a really cool thing to be able to do, and the reaction to it was nothing I could’ve envisioned in my wildest dreams. I’m really humbled by it.
Even with the push for inclusivity, there still hasn’t been a standalone Black woman superhero movie or TV. If you could choose, which woman of color superhero would you like to see brought to the screen?
I always get concerned with adaptations. I’m always thinking, “OMG, are they going to do it right?” Michonne, the female lead on The Walking Dead, isn’t a superhero, but she’s a comic book character. Danai Gurira is amazing in that part; she plays Michonne so well. Michonne was iconic to begin with, but Gurira hits all the marks. I’m pleased with her, so the person I wanted to see [on-screen] has already happened. We’ve also had Storm, but I didn’t like the way she was portrayed in the movies. I loved Wonder Woman, but watching the ending reminded me of Nubia’s origins. Aries kidnapped Nubia and raised her to be his own Wonder Woman—a defense against Diana.
Wonder Woman defeating Aries would be the perfect time for Nubia to come out and say, “You killed my father. Prepare to die.” [laughs] The next Wonder Woman movie should be the battle of the wonder womans because that would be really cool since Nubia is Wonder Woman too. I have a comic book where Nubia and Diana fight, and it’s cool because they’re so equally matched. I was nervous about Themyscira because I thought it was going to just be a bunch of white women, but the movie did a good job of showing so many different types of badass warrior women. There were so many Black women. When I saw that, it gave me this big swelling in my heart because if there are all these Black Amazons, Nubia is on the table. Now the question is will they do it? Maybe I’ll start a campaign to get DC to put Nubia in the next movie [laughs]. When I think about [Nubia in Wonder Woman 2] avenging Aries’ death, I get super excited.
HBO is adapting Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. Octavia Butler is also getting some new shine. Who are some of the Afrofuturistic writers who’ve inspired you?
Afrofuturism is new to me. At this point, the only afrofuturistic novel I’ve finished reading is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. It blew me away. I’ve also started reading Everfair by Nisi Shawl, but I’m currently reading five different books so I got distracted. What’s interesting about afrofuturism is that we’re part of it. If you think about the things our ancestors couldn’t do, we’re their culmination of their dreams. We’re still dealing with the nonsense, but they couldn’t picture the freedoms that we have in their wildest dreams. Being brought here and enslaved made it nearly impossible for them to see themselves owning a business or being able to walk around free. We’re talking afrofuturism in terms of our futures, but we’re also in the midst of afrofuturism in the presence. We’re this supernatural thing for our ancestors. We’re living afrofuturism now. I’m excited to read more afrofuturism. Who Fears Death is next on my list of afrofuturistic books to read.
What are the forthcoming comics that you’re most excited about? What should we be paying attention to?
I’m reading very random things [laughs]. There’s a book called Godshaper, which is a world where there’s no modern conveniences. There’s no cell phone or internet, but everybody has their own personal God. There are certain people who don’t have their own Gods, but they have the ability to customize their Gods to make them bigger and give them different abilities. People without Gods are ostracized in the society: They’re not allowed to live anywhere, so they’re nomads, but people need them because they want their God to be customized and made better. Yet, they don’t want the person without a God living in their neighborhoods. There are some parallels to how we treat immigrant workers. We don’t realize how much our society relies on immigrant workers who we don’t want here.
Green Hair Don’t Care (Snotgirl, Volume I) is a book that came out recently. I’m waiting for part two, and I hope it gets picked up to continue. It’s about this vapid Instagram model. You should hate her, but you don’t. It’s actually a real fun mystery that you have to read. I’m six issues in, and I don’t know what the heck’s going on, but I can’t stop reading it. It just pulled me in.
I’ve been reading a lot of under-the-radar stuff, so I haven’t been reading a whole bunch of superhero stories recently. There’s no big superhero stories that I’m especially excited about.