Ariell Johnson is a geek of the most righteous variety.
And she’s embraced that part of her identity more and more over the last 12 years.
“Don’t let the packaging fool you,” she said in a presentation for Ignite Philly. “I know that people who look like me aren’t necessarily what you think of when you hear the word ‘geek.’ … Though we are a rare breed, we are definitely not a dying one.”
When the Philadelphian comic book enthusiast was a student at Temple University, she enjoyed her downtime ritual of comics and coffee.
“My favorite coffee shop was directly across the street from my comic book store of choice,” she told Philadelphia Daily News. “Each Friday, I would buy my books at Fat Jack’s, go across the street to Crimson Moon, and read everything I bought.”
Johnson was disappointed to learn one day that the coffee shop was brewing its final pot and going out of business. But the seed of an idea was planted, and it’s finally blossomed.
As we closed the door on 2015, Johnson opened the doors to her very own shop: Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse.
She beamed in an interview with Upworthy: “January second marked our first big day in sales. It was awesome! So many people milling around the shop, grabbing seats, reading, and chatting with friends, it was my dream fully realized. It was the moment that I really felt like creating this store was the thing I was meant to do.”
It was everything she’d ever wanted in a geek haunt, all under one roof.
Comics? Check. Games? Check. Coffee and baked goods? Check.
There’s one other thing that sets Amalgam apart from its competitors: its mission.
The most popular comics haven’t been the best reflection of the world’s diversity. FiveThirtyEight reported that in comic books, women and girls make up only 1 in 4 characters. And NPR wrote, “While there are lots of brown superpeople in the fictional universes that these heroes inhabit, they’re usually tertiary characters.”
As she is believed to be the first black woman to own a comic book store on the East Coast, Johnson wants Amalgam to be a place that builds community by celebrating diversity.
“We live in a diverse world. People want to see themselves in the stories that they read and watch, and not just as a token or a convenient stereotype,” she said.
“A lack of diversity reinforces the idea that white, straight, and male is the norm, and everything else is ‘different.’ … That is extremely harmful psychologically, especially for children, but for adults, too.”
In the near term, she wants to start hosting community events — especially ones that involve local youth. Shortly after opening, Johnson was approached by a teen for feedback on a story he was writing.
“I honestly had to fight tears the whole time I was reading,” she said. “The fact that this young man thought that I was someone that he needed to share his story with was overwhelming and exciting.”
The touching experience affirmed for her that she wants to launch creative workshops for young people to use comics as a medium to share their stories.
When I asked Johnson about her longer-term goals, she wasn’t sure how to answer. But given the barriers she’s already breaking and her vision of helping others do the same, I’d say she’s on the right track.
Watch Ariell Johnson’s presentation on diversity in comics for Ignite Philly:
Johnson’s comic book picks for the kids: “Tiny Titans,” “Itty Bitty Hellboy,” “Lumberjanes,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
And for the grown-ups new to geekdom: “V for Vendetta,” “Watchmen,” and “Saga.”