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First Black Woman to Open Philly Comic Shop Talks Diversity

Representation matters. What young girls of color see on the TV screen have lasting impressions on their perceptions of self, long after the TV is turned off.

When toy companies like Goldieblox introduce sheroes like Ruby Rails, a tech-savvy action figure of color that proudly disrupts the "pink aisle," it provides girls with positive images they can relate and aspire to.

But long before there was Ruby Rails, there was Ororo Munroe, better known as her code name, 'Storm', in the Marvel Series X-Men. A descendant of an ancient line of African priestesses, Storm is a powerful mutant who can manipulate the weather with extreme precision. Her mastery extends even to the human body, where she can control the air in a person's lungs or the pressure in the inner ear.

Storm was the first black woman heroine that Ariell Johnson ever "laid eyes on."

As a young black girl seeing an all-around "badass" like Storm on TV, Johnson wanted learn more about her story so she began reading comics. Several years later, Johnson made her first comic book purchase through a bidding on eBay for the series, Storm and Illyana: Magik.

Now as the owner of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia, Johnson has become the first black woman to own a comic book shop on the East Coast. Storm is still her favorite comic book character to this day.

"I was hyper aware that comic books are dominated usually by white men, but when I was creating the store, I wasn't really thinking about myself [or] about being first," Johnson said. "I was more so thinking about wanting to create a space that celebrated diversity."

The idea for Amalgam was birthed 12 years ago, when Crimson Moon, Johnson's favorite coffee shop to sit down and read her comic books, closed. Johnson said she never found another cafe quite like it, so it pushed her to create her own.

From the furniture to the decor, Johnson was very intentional about crafting this space. In fact, Johnson says she sat in every chair in the store before purchasing it to ensure comfort. Johnson insists Amalgam is a place for all people.

"I hope people feel like this is a store that was created with them in mind from beginning to end," she said. "It's a store that they can claim as their own."

Bridging coffee and comics, Amalgam is not only committed to building community, but also diversity and inclusion.

"To not see yourself ever represented as the hero or the protagonist does start wear on your self esteem and your self worth because it's like you're not valued enough to learn more about or write a story about," Johnson said. "Diversity is important because we live in a diverse world and the media that we consume should reflect the reality of the world. It's healthy to see other people represented because it helps you relate to people."

Since Amalgam's opening last month, the store is picking up buzz around Philly and is starting to have a ripple effect in other parts of the country.

She says she receives messages from other enthusiasts who are now inspired to open their own stores. This feedback motivates Johnson to keep making Amalgam bigger and better, but it's also the thought of her late parents that give her a sense of joy. Johnson's dad died when she was 16 and her mom died when she was 28.

"I believe that they see it," Johnson said. "They know what's going on, but I have so many times where I wish they were here — especially with the response that it's getting — I know they'd be really proud."

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