The first time Ariell Johnson imagined herself as a superhero was when she laid eyes on Storm of The X-Men.
“I just saw this white-haired, white-eyed black woman flying around shooting lightning at people and I was like, ‘Who is this?’” she says. “I felt like I was just kind of watching other people’s adventures but never imagining myself as being a part of it.”
That all changed when she saw Storm. Since then, Johnson has turned her love affair with comic books into a business. The Temple University graduate opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. She wanted to create an inclusive space for comic book lovers, especially those who didn’t always see themselves as being a part of the action.
“I remember my first time going into a comic book store. It actually took me over the course of months to actually build up the courage to go inside of one because geek culture has a reputation for being very elitist,” says Johnson.
The 34-year-old is regarded as the first black woman to own a comic book store on the East Coast, and one of few black comic shop owners across the country. But the Philly café is much more than just a place to buy comics. It’s becoming a staple in the community. The coffeehouse hosts game nights, benefit concerts and other community events centered around activism and inclusion.
With the anticipated release of Marvel’s Black Panther and other characters, like Miles Morales, Moon Girl and Riri Williams, black comic book lovers are beginning to see a bit more of themselves represented within comic books’ colorful pages and on-screen. This blossoming diversity isn’t met without backlash.
“Whenever there’s change, there’s going to be backlash, and I feel like for white, male, cisgendered, heterosexual comic book fans, they have been the norm forever,” says Johnson. “Now that we’re starting to kind of shift the lens a little bit, it feels like oppression. And it’s not oppression; it’s just like everybody else is kind of getting their chance.”
Johnson is helping provide that chance for other blerds. Soon, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse will expand and house programs for diverse comic book creators to sharpen their storytelling skillsets.
“Images are powerful,” Johnson says. “If the only time you ever see a character that looks like you is if they’re the sidekick, or they’re the person always being saved and rescued or they always need help or they’re not as smart, that starts to influence how you see yourself. You can only be what you see.”