Ariell R. Johnson on Building Comic Book Haven, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse

There is the old cliché, “that not all heroes wear capes,” that they can look like anyone and be anyone; that may be true, but all heroes (cape or not) have an origin story. Take Ariell R. Johnson, a child of the 80’s who grew up on a diet of He-Man, She-Ra, Thundercats, Transformers and The Lady Dragon. These comics would be the gateway into a lifelong love of superheroes and superpowers.


Originally from Baltimore, Ariell came to Philly for college. She graduated from Temple University’s Fox School of Business in 2005, and made Philly her permanent home thereafter. Losing her favorite comic book shop was heartbreaking for her, so she decided to take matters into her own hands and create a comic book haven of her own.

On December 14, 2015, she opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse. The shop became a viral sensation and set her on the path to becoming like the heroes she grew up admiring.

Ariell shares with CityWide the origin story of Amalgam, going viral, meeting a superhero, the heroes in her own life, who she is when she isn’t wearing the “cape” and creating a safe haven for all nerds!

Can you tell us about Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse’s origin story?

I got the idea for Amalgam when I was still a student at Temple University. I had a weekly routine of hitting up my local comic shop (Fat Jacks at 2006 Sansom St.) and then going across the street to the now closed café Crimson Moon, where I would sit and read all of my weekly comic purchases. The closing of Crimson Moon was the main catalyst for the birth of Amalgam.

I was so heart broken by the closing of that Philly landmark that it got me thinking, “What if you didn’t have to find another space to relax and feel comfortable reading comics? What if the comic book store was that space?” That in a nutshell was the beginning of what would eventually be Amalgam.

What were the challenges of creating Amalgam?

Honestly, there were a lot of challenges to get started. Even now, after being open for three years there are still challenges to overcome. One of the biggest and ongoing issues is access to capital. Brick and mortar business, especially foodservice businesses, have a lot of cost upfront and take a lot of resources to keep equipment working and meet city operational requirements. There is just never enough to do all that we need to do. We as a society still have a long way to go to ensure that POC and women-owned businesses have the same access to capital that white male-owned business do.

Did you anticipate that it would go viral?

No, not at all. I just wanted to get the word out about Amalgam. I had no idea it would turn into this national and international phenomenon. It still boggles my mind.

Can you tell us how you got to “meet” Riri Williams [Marvel’s Ironheart]?

I can’t take credit for that. Marvel reached out to me to see if I wanted to do an exclusive store variant for their upcoming [issue featuring] Riri Williams as Ironheart in the pages of Invincible Iron Man. I put my Comic Book Jedi, Randy Green, in charge of overseeing the project. He proposed that the concept of our cover be Riri and myself having coffee right here in Amalgam. I thought that was cool and surprisingly Marvel agreed. The rest is herstory!

As someone who has been to Amalgam, it feels like a haven, and many people feel the same. Was that the atmosphere that you were trying to create?

Absolutely! I wanted it to feel somewhere between the Batcave and mom’s living room. A place where you felt safe and comfortable to hang out for hours. I did this by keeping [the] “unfinished” elements of our space during the renovation process. I kept the exposed brick, the concrete wall patches, exposed beams and concrete floors and juxtaposed those elements with bright colors, comfy chairs, and home-baked goodies that make Amalgam smell so good when you walk in!

Can you tell me about the heroes in your own life?

The three women that have had the most impact on me and my life is my mom, my grandmother Nana, and my big sister. They all showed me the importance of hard work.

My mom always expected the best [of me], and she didn’t settle for anything less than that. It was annoying as kid/teenager, but as an adult I see clearly and appreciate the values she was instilling in me. My work ethics come from her.

My grandmother Nana passed her gifts on me. She taught me to bake and fueled my interests in crafts such as knitting, crochet and needlepoint. She also showed me how to be self-sufficient.

My sister gave me tons of love and support. [She is] Always encouraging and always proud of my accomplishments; she is one of the people who keep me going. Running a business is hard but her love, support and words of encouragement help me show up, fight and make Amalgam all that it can be every day.

Why do you think there is a stigma associated with “female nerds,” “nerds of color,” and “LGTBQ nerds?” How can we combat that stigma?

It’s gatekeeping, pure and simple. There are those who want the geek world to be homogenous, and anything that challenges that is seen negatively. I think we combat it by being proud of who we are. If you are POC, queer or a woman, you need to unapologetically take up space in these nerd spheres. You don’t have to explain your nerd/geek to anyone. Just be!

You are a business owner, an active member in the community, a viral sensation but who are you when you aren’t the Super Hero Ariell Johnson? How do you de-stress?

I’m an introvert, so a lot of my de-stressing just comes from spending time alone. Whether that’s taking a dance or yoga class, seeing a movie solo, or simply cleaning my house; I really need that time alone to recharge.

Could you recommend some comics to our reader for Women’s History Month?

Abbot, Sleepless, Paper Girls, Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer, Man-Eaters. My very first comic book purchase was “Storm & Illyana: Magik.” It’s a four issue mini-series. Storm is my idol and I definitely recommend that mini-series!

What’s next for you and Amalgam?

Right now, I’m working to get our dedicated classroom space up and running. There have been a lot of hurdles to overcome, but the end is in sight!


Lastly, the baked goods at Amalgam are amazing! My favorite are the chocolate chip cookies. What is your secret?

A lady never reveals ALL of her secrets.