‘Breaking’ Presents Ariell Johnson, Comic Shop Builder

By Sameer Rao Jul 20, 2015

Welcome to Breaking, a Colorlines series where we highlight under-the-radar artists of color. For our third feature, we’re switching it up a little, and profiling a businesswoman (another kind of creator) who is building a comics shop and coffeehouse where underground and new artists of color will have their work featured alongside major titles. The shop is called Amalgam, and we’re breaking Ariell Johnson.

Hometown: Baltimore; long-time Philly resident.

Interests: Comic books, sci-fi, Afrofuturism and all aspects of geekdom

Why You Should Care: Comics culture—and geek culture more broadly—is now a mainstream facet of American life. Movie after movie featuring stars of various Marvel and DC universes consistently pack in audiences, and comic books and action figures are ​central to geek culture’s consumer viability. 

We’re in an exciting time for geek culture—especially in terms of diverse representations, with the new comic-based Spiderman being a black Latino young man—yet as the casting of a new white cinematic Spiderman shows, there is still a long way to go. 

Ariell Johnson, whose Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse will open in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood this fall, started her business with the intention of highlighting the work of new and underground artists from marginalized groups alongside bigger titles. By making Amalgam a coffeehouse, she also intends to create a community around diverse representations in geek culture and break the boundaries that keep white-, male-dominated geek culture separate from everybody else. In this edited and condensed interview, Johnson talks about the importance of alternative narratives for audiences of color, the complications of opening a business and the importance of Afrofuturism to her world view.

Where did the concept for Amalgam come from?

I got the idea while I was in college. It started from going to a local comic shop on Fridays as my treat for a week done well at school. I’d buy my books each week, and there was a cute coffee shop across the street that I would just sit in and read everything I purchased. The coffee shop closed its doors, and I was at a loss for what to do—I didn’t want to go home or have to look for another place to hang out. That’s where I got the idea. I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a place that you could not only buy a comic book but also hang out, read them, get into some conversations, but comic stores are not really conducive for that. So I [wanted to create] the space where people could relax in the comic book store, and not just buy their stuff and leave. I’ve always been business-minded, so owning a store as a long-term goal just made sense.

What specifically drew you to highlighting underground or lesser-known artists of color? 

I saw the differences in who’s on these covers, what stories we’re telling, and realizing that, despite the fact that I love this medium, I don’t see myself or people other than the heterosexual white male stereotype. Like, there are less of us, but we’re out here reading it. 

You aimed to open the store this summer. What complications arose that people wanting to start a new business might not know about? 

We had a few delays that have been a little disheartening and frustrating, but I’ve talked with other business owners who’ve let me know that this is normal, that things cost twice as much as you might think, and to just keep pushing through. We’re two weeks into construction at present, so bars have been built, they’re putting in plumbing lines and coffee machines. All of my resources have been focused on getting the store open. But you have to keep pushing through it. 

Do you feel that there are unique challenges to starting a business that aims to highlight artists of color? 

That’s hard to say, because for every person out there that’s saying that [Amalgam] is awesome and something we need, there’s someone out there saying that this is reverse racism, and asking why we can’t be colorblind. And we’d like to get those people, too. [Laughs]. But this is a good way to have that conversation—we have to be mindful that people of color have not had the same exposure as white people, so we have to make an extra effort [at inclusion] or things will never change. 



I think a lot about the dichotomy going on in dominant comics culture, where Marvel introduced the black and Latino Miles Morales as the new Spiderman in the comics but just hired another white guy for the movie reboot. Is diversity still a big problem?

I think there is a lot of progress to be made. Miles Morales was a character that debuted in an alternate universe, which is basically an alternate timeline with the same characters, but they’re making him the Spiderman in the main universe of Marvel. I think that’s a big deal, and people who look like me will think this is awesome. But where we need growth is for white, male readership to see why this is awesome. They keep rebooting the universe in the films, and in a way, discounting all the things that happened, but the studios aren’t going to change that Spiderman because of concerns that the movie won’t do as well with a black and Latino boy in a role usually reserved for a white boy. We have to get to a point where everybody can be excited when they see diversity. I’m a black woman, but I also get excited when I see an Asian woman or an Indian man on the screen. They represent people I know, and they, too, should be celebrated. 

There is a lot of recognition that comics culture, and geek culture generally, has offered spaces for creators of color to express their own narratives and realities. Is it part of your personal mission to be part of a cultural movement using geek culture and sci-fi to provide these alternate narratives? 

I do think it’s important. The thing about science fiction, where you’re creating these universes where things can be wherever you want…the majority of science fiction still falls on this Eurocentric representation of how things are. Like, a lot of people would rather see a green person than a brown person. [Laughs]. And I don’t understand that. I think about "Lord of the Rings," where if you want to argue that Middle Earth is based somewhere in Europe, that’s fine. But then you have elves and these other creatures, and are they white too? That is a place where you could’ve introduced people of color —they’re elves! [laughs] And there definitely is a black sci-fi movement—Afrofuturism is important to me. I think about this quote from Walidah Imerisha I read in an article once: "For those of us from communities with historic collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs. Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us."

Learn more about Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse on Johnson’s crowdfunding Moolahoop page.