Philly comic shop awarded $50,000 to open more doors
Comic book stores, like their retail cousins record shops, are often drawn to tight quarters. Even the “Android’s Dungeon,” the comic shop out of The Simpson’s fictional landscape, occupies only a thin slice of imagined real estate, squished between a barbershop and a diner. But Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, the brainchild of Philly resident Ariell Johnson, is spread out, light-filled and roomy –– the sprawling comic displays, coffee bar and plush couches are the first visual cues that the Kensington comic emporium is not like its peers.
This week, the Knight Foundation selected Johnson out of more than 4,500 applicants to receive a grant of $50,000. The eighteen-month old comic shop aims to open the world of comics to an “amalgamation” of audiences –– this grant will help the store reach even more.
Johnson’s proposal, “Up, Up and Away: Building a Programming Space at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse” will expand the shop into “Amalgam University,” where hopeful writers and illustrators can take classes on drawing, writing, pitching and publishing.
Johnson has already made waves in the comic world. When she opened the store in December of 2015, Johnson became the first African-American woman to own a comic book store on the East Coast. In addition to the largely white-male-authored mainstream staples, Amalgam stocks many works written by people of color, women and members of the LGBT community, as well as those by independent creators.
Because Amalgam sells self-published works, Johnson gets a lot of amateur submissions –– and many of them don’t meet the standards for retail.
“Often, the ideas are there, but they haven’t studied the craft,” Johnson explained. “It’s a comic book, but it’s also literature. Just like there are good writers of literature, there good writers and illustrators of comic books.”
Johnson wanted to find a way to equip aspiring comic creators, particularly those from disenfranchised communities without the means to go to art school, with the tools to compete with mainstream comic books.
Amalgam has already started on this mission –– they run children’s workshops, and partnered with RUSH, Danny Simmons’ arts philanthropy foundation –– an effort which Johnson said is made possible by their spacious venue.
“We do a lot of these programs in our space,” Johnson said. “But the building is actually much bigger. There are rooms behind the bathroom, which we haven’t renovated. This grant will allow us to open up those rooms to the public and create a permanent programming space. We’ll use it to its full potential.”
When the construction is finished sometime next year, Amalgam will be almost twice its present size, and Johnson hopes its impact on the Kensington and comic communities will follow suit. But the store has already influenced the area.
“I actually found out about the grant from a customer named Annie,” Johnson said. “She and her husband had recently moved here. They came in, introduced themselves and encouraged me to apply. Apparently, Amalgam was one of the reasons they moved to the neighborhood.”
Some of Amalgam’s patrons are like Annie –– devoted fans who factor comics into major life decisions –– but others have never read a comic before in their lives.
“We get a lot of newcomers asking for advice.” Johnson explained. “We listen to what people like, and we direct them into their lane. But once they get comfortable, they usually branch out.”
Groundbreaking Female Comic Book Store Owner Now Appears on a Marvel Cover
Ariell Johnson has been collecting comic books for more than a decade, but she’ll soon add a very personal one to her collection.
The 33-year-old founder and president of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, Inc. in Philadelphia will appear on a variant cover of “Invincible Iron Man #1.”
The first image of the book, which goes on sale next month and features Johnson having a meal with new Marvel superhero RiRi Williams, is below.
Johnson said she owes the collaboration to her colleague Randy Green, whom she said spearheaded the project and conceptualized the cover.
“When the email went out about potential variants for stores, he was really excited and took it upon himself to work out the [details]. It was really his hard work,” she told ABC News. “I knew what it was supposed to look like, but having the actual art in front of you is so much different. It’s really exciting.”
Not that she hasn’t earned it. Johnson opened Amalgym last December, becoming the first black, female comic book store owner on the East Coast. However, her obsession of all things geek really began around age 10 or 11, when she discovered “X-Men” character Storm. Johnson credits the character, one of the first black, female superheroes, with being “the bridge that got me into this world.”
“To think I made it a decade-plus and I had never seen a black, woman superhero is crazy because little white boys have so many [with whom they identify]: ‘I want to be Iron Man!’ 'I want to be Batman!’ 'I want to be Superman.’ 'I want to be Han Solo!’ When you are a person of color, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel to find someone you can identify with. I always felt like I was watching other people’s adventures,” she explained. “Being introduced to Storm was a pivotal moment for me because had I not come across her, I might have grown out of my love for [comics].”
After graduating from cartoons to comics in high school, Johnson began buying her own books in college. Her Friday routine was comforting: She’d go to the comic book store to get her weekly stash, and then take the books across the street to her favorite coffee shop, where she’d read them over a hot chocolate and piece of cake. When the coffee shop was forced to close some 10 years ago, Johnson decided it was up to her to create a space that gave her the same feeling of warmth.
“The goal is to be an inclusive geek space,” she said. “So it’s not just comics; it’s gaming, it’s sci-fi, it’s horror, whatever you geek about, we want to make room for you!”
She’s also proven to be a role model for girls and women. Johnson, who points to Marvel’s diverse cast of characters and story lines as proof that the industry is evolving in a positive way, said that she’s worked hard to make sure that everybody feels welcome at Amalgam.
“I had a girl tell me I had an excellent book selection and she was 7 or 8. I don’t know how welcome she might feel in some other spaces,” she said. “Women exist in this space! We’ve always been reading comic books, we just may not have been as open about it. I definitely get very positive feedback from not just little girls, but grown women too.”
“You know, I was proud when you took the name Nightwing. And now, a little part of me is kind of sad you gave it up. The great rebuilder, the catalyst of change, eternally reborn to start anew. But then, I think there’s a more appropriate name for that title now. Grayson.”
Year-old Kensington comic book store and coffeehouse getting attention
Since Ariell Johnson opened her comic book store and coffee shop in Kensington in December 2015, she has taken the world by Storm.
In fact, her childhood fascination with Storm, the X-Men superheroine, led her to comic book and sci-fi fantasy geek fandom in the first place, she said.
She has been profiled on ABC News, CNN Money, and MSNBC, not to mention various nerd and geek websites, as the first African American woman to open a comic book store on the East Coast.
And in November, she was depicted on a variant cover of the Invincible Iron Man No. 1 comic book, along with Riri Williams, the 15-year-old African American superhero character known as Ironheart.
Storm “was the first black woman superhero I ever saw,” Johnson, 33, said at her shop, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, 2578 Frankford Ave.
“In addition, she was a powerhouse; she was one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men universe. She controlled the very elements. She wasn’t a sidekick. She was the main event, which was exciting.”
Johnson said all the attention has been good for business.
“I think we’re doing well. We’ve had a very strong first year, and an untraditional first year, with all the hubbub around the shop,” she said.
Diversity in comic books has been met with some backlash from mostly male fans who assert on YouTube videos that characters should not be suddenly changed to black or gay. Some have called it pandering to attract more women and people of color to comics.
Johnson has not hesitated to speak out about the importance of the comic book world becoming more inclusive.
That means having characters who represent everyone - black, white, Latino, Asian, and people of all religions and sexual identities.
She makes sure to carry books written by and for women and people of color.
Johnson said people like them as heroes in fantasy and science fiction can empower young readers.
“When young girls come in here and know that a woman owns the shop, a black woman owns the shop, and they can see titles where girls are the heroes and not just the love interests or the sidekick … when they see women and girls taking the lead in things, that’s really powerful,” she said.
Since word of Johnson’s success got around, celebrity comic book writers have visited Amalgam.
The store was packed a couple of months ago when Ta-Nehisi Coates came for a book signing to accompany the release of a new comic in his Marvel series Black Panther.
She has also welcomed Greg Pak, author of X-Treme X-Men and other titles, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who coauthored a graphic novel, March.
Amalgam is spacious and colorful, with a red couch at the front window and blue and yellow armchairs nearby. In fact, it’s like entering a live comic strip tableau.
Small round tables have comic book logos: symbols for ThunderCat, Captain America, and Spider-Man.
Johnson said she became enamored of superheroes while watching television cartoon shows as a child.
“I’ve always liked shows about super powers,” she said. “I grew up watching ThunderCats, He-Man and She-Ra. But none of those shows had any black characters featured.”
When she was about 11, she saw herself in the character Storm in X-Men cartoons.
“In addition to being black and a woman, she had dark skin. The only thing that didn’t look like me was that she had white hair and blue eyes.”
A Baltimore native, Johnson came to Philadelphia to attend Temple University and earned an accounting degree there in 2005.
It took a decade of working for other people, first in retail and later as an accountant, before she decided to fulfill her dream.
Inside Amalgam the other day, Sam Woods Thomas, the commercial corridor coordinator for New Kensington Community Development Corp., said the coffee shop was the only one in the neighborhood.
Still, he said, things are looking up, with a new apartment development in the next block that people are comparing to the Piazza in Northern Liberties.
But he said it’s small businesses like Johnson’s that are key.