The first black female comic store owner on the east coast meets Riri Williams!
Ariell Johnson is taking the comic book world by storm—pun intended!—with her new shop, Amalgam Comics and coffeehouse, located in Philadelphia. As the first black, female comic book store owner on the east coast, Ariell works toward the goal of creating a comfortable, welcoming space for fans and readers to enjoy their favorite comics, and discover new ones.
We caught up with Ariell, as well as artist Elizabeth Torque, who created an INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #1 variant cover especially for Amalgam.
Marvel.com: How did you first get into comics? What characters and stories drew you in the most?
Ariell Johnson: I bridged into comics from cartoons by way of the X-Men, and it was really Storm who paved the way. When the Fox TV show aired back in the 90’s, I became totally obsessed with her. She was the first black woman super hero that I had ever seen. She made me feel like I could join the action, and not just have to sit on the sidelines watching someone else’s adventure.
So naturally, the first comic that I ever bought featured Storm. It was the MAGIK [limited series], featuring Illyana and Storm. That is still one of my favorite storylines of all time! Storm wielding magic, Illyana’s soul sword. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Marvel.com: We’re certainly making progress in terms of representation, but a lot of spaces in fandom are still dominated by white men. What do you feel is the significance of Amalgam?
Ariell Johnson: Amalgam shows that anyone can be a geek, and a proud one. I’m definitely not what anybody pictures when they hear the words “comic book store owner”—but here I am. And I think it’s important, especially for little black girls, to see that. It’s important that they know they can exist in any space they want, in any space that interests them. And that, if you don’t see a place for yourself, you can make one.
Marvel.com: In your store, you’re going to carry INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #1 with a variant cover by Elizabeth Torque that features you and Riri Williams enjoying a coffee in the store. What do you think is the significance of characters like Riri, particularly when they take over super hero mantles from white men?
Ariell Johnson: Yes! We are super excited about this variant. My Comic Book Jedi, Randy Green aka The Super Tribble, aka R-Son the Voice of Reason, worked really hard to make this variant happen, and the concept was totally his. Ms. Torque blew us away with the initial sketch, and the finished product is so absolutely amazing, I’m still wrapping my head around it.
I think representation is extremely important. I don’t see it as some forced notion of diversity, but rather as an accurate depiction of the world we live in. If you went by what we see with most forms of media, you would think the world was made up of a majority of straight, white, men and that’s just not true. I think characters like Riri help to bring balance to a really unbalanced medium. My hope is that with Riri carrying the mantle of “Iron Man”—or Ironheart—fanboys who may not have ever thought to pick up a book starring a young black woman will perhaps reconsider, and learn that characters that look like them do not need to be the focus for a story to be good or relatable—a truth that those of us who are under-represented have known for a long time.
Marvel.com: Having a comic book store that has a coffee shop is such a cool idea. How did you decide to do that?
Ariell Johnson: I got the idea when I was still in college, back in 2003. I didn’t know of any stores like the one I imagined but it came out of a need for a space where I could feel like I belonged, a space that felt comfortable. My weekly routine including buying my books on Friday, so after I got out of class I would head down to Fat Jack’s at 20th & Samson [in Philadelphia] and pick up my books, then I would head across the street to this awesome coffee shop called Crimson Moon. It was owned and operated by a young black woman named Koko. Her shop was so awesome! I can’t say that enough. From the furniture, to the music, to the mural on the bathroom wall, to of course the food and drink options. It was such a welcoming space, and I loved going there to read my books. It made me feel social and part of a larger community even though I rarely spoke to anyone when I was there. Maybe a year or so into my routine the coffee shop closed, and the loss of that communal space is what prompted the idea for Amalgam. I thought it would be cool if you didn’t need to search for that comfortable space, if that comfortable space was the comic shop. So it was a really simple idea to start, and it evolved in my mind over time into what it is today.
Marvel.com: What advice would you give to girls and young women who want to become involved in the world of comics and fandom?
Ariell Johnson: To quote Nike, “Just do it.” We’re dispelling the myth of what a “real” comic fan looks like every day. So I would say, don’t be intimidated; I must admit I was really nervous the first time I went into a comic book shop. In the beginning I would buy all of my books off of Ebay to avoid the discomfort. Go into a shop and look around, buy something you like, and read it. That’s how you start. If you have a negative experience, don’t write off comics or fandom, just look elsewhere, I guarantee you will find people who are like you and/or are accepting of you. We’re out here, geeks of all types. Join us!
Elizabeth Torque had some powerful insights, as well, about her INVINVIBLE IRON MAN #1 variant cover and representation in fandom.
Marvel.com: What is it that made you want to be involved in this project and create a variant cover for Amalgam Comics?
Elizabeth Torque: As a big fan, usually when a publisher like Marvel asks me if I want to be part of this or that project, my answer is always a resounding “yes,” regardless of the main character or the theme of the cover. But in this particular case, I found it an interesting challenge. It was not the classic super hero scene. For the cover they wanted something with a touch of everyday life and humor. I loved the idea of mixing the two worlds—the comic and the real—for these two interesting women to sit for a chat and a coffee.
Marvel.com: What do you think is the significance of Ariell’s work with Amalgam, and of characters like Riri?
Elizabeth Torque: As a woman and as a worker, I feel totally identified with what Ariell is doing. I see her as a strong and enterprising woman who has taken her business very seriously, with effort, creativity, and a love for what she does. And Riri is one of many Marvel characters who reflect this type of woman today. It’s great that in the comics you can find female characters as powerful and iconic as male characters.
Marvel.com: Where do you think we stand generally in terms of representation in comics and fandom?
Elizabeth Torque: The comic world is possibly living one of its most glorious stages. It has strength, popularity, and acceptance. Thanks to the films and television shows, it has been opened to the general public. Comics have great diversity, both in terms of genres and creators. There is a comic for everyone, and characters for all. Thanks to social networks, the fandom can participate and provide feedback—and in my years of working, I’ve learned that criticism and compliments both help you grow. So I think that this exchange of communication is really important.
Pick up INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #1 on November 2, and next time you’re in Philadelphia, visit Amalgam Comics!