Johnny O'Bryant

The NBA player (and otaku) who started his own anime company

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Nov 29, 2017

Here's a scouting report on Johnny O'Bryant, a 24-year-old center/power forward for the Charlotte Hornets: At 6-foot-9, he possesses a solid post game, boasts a surprisingly strong outside shot that extends into three point range, and lists Yu Yu Hakusho and Erased as two of his favorite all-time anime shows.

In early November, the Hornets are in New York ahead of a game against the Knicks, and the night before he steps on to the court at Madison Square Garden, O'Bryant is about ten blocks uptown, on the second floor of a Japanese bookstore, towering over rows and rows of manga. He's a few minutes early for our meet-up at Kinokuniya, and is using the time to examine the first collected volume of the hit Japanese horror comic I Am a Hero. That afternoon at practice, Charlotte prepped for a surprisingly decent Knicks team; now O'Bryant is poring over his print competition. Give it a year or two, and the plan is for volumes of his own manga series to be on these shelves, stacked alongside the translated classics and newer, ongoing comics.

He's on a two-year deal in Charlotte, but thanks to a glut of established (and well-paid) centers and forwards, O'Bryant is a backup player for the Hornets at the moment, his court time based not just on how he plays, but also subject to the health of stars like Dwight Howard and the discretion of coach Steve Clifford. But here, in his other professional life, he's in charge, the lone big man, both literally and figuratively, as the head of Noir Caesar, his upstart, startup manga publisher and anime studio.

"It was my second year in the NBA, and I was on the plane one day, watching old episodes of Hunter x Hunter," O'Bryant tells me soon after we sit down in the Kinokuniya cafe, tracing the origins of what is both a passion project and increasingly serious business venture. "I thought to myself, ‘wow, man, you rarely see characters of color in anime and manga.' So I was like, You know what? I'll make my own anime."

A few years, several teams, and creative discoveries later, O'Bryant is on the path to correcting that imbalance and making his spur of the moment inspiration into a sustainable business.

Note: Technically, anime and manga are strictly Japanese products, and anything made outside the country, no matter how faithful it is to that style, is something different. Think of it as similar to champagne, a term that is technically limited to alcohol from that region of France, though sparkling wine drinks from around the world have now taken on the label. "Anime" is now a shorthand for a style, which is how we use it here.

Johnny O'Bryant 1

Credit: Getty Images

The crossover between NBA player and the cartoon industry is less unlikely than it might at first seem. Just think back to your own childhood — we are just weeks removed from the 21st anniversary of Space Jam (yeah, you're old), which paired Michael Jordan and some Dream Team pals with Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes gang in a gonzo feature-length commercial. OK, maybe that was made more out of smart marketing opportunism, and only now seems like a link back to simpler, more earnest times. But either way, its legacy far outlasted any product placement profit that Warner Bros. enjoyed.

A new generation of NBA players, born right smack in the middle of Space Jam's target demographic, grew up devouring animation and comics. The Lopez twins, Robin and Brook, towering seven-foot centers, are especially well-known for their love of superheroes and future comic book ambitions. And they, along with a number of other NBA stars, have gone far past the boundaries of Spider-Man and Saturday morning cartoons, falling down the Crunchy Roll rabbit hole. A few of the fans are well-known, like Oklahoma City center Steven Adams, who spent opening night last season watching the popular pirate series One Piece, though there are many more candidates for an NBA otaku text chain.

"Miles Plumlee, I know he watches a lot of anime," O'Bryant tells me. "Jabari Parker, who's a good friend of mine, he grew up watching some anime. Wilson Chandler from the Nuggets watches Dragonball Z. Channing Frye said the Lopez brothers were the ones that got him into it. I mean, a lot of basketball guys are into it. We like to kind of stay cool and laid back. But I think you find a lot of guys there that watch it."

O'Bryant and I stick out a little bit in the midtown bookstore cafe, which is uncommonly busy for a Monday evening. Japanese men and women read newspapers filled with kanji, while high schoolers compare Studio Ghibli collectibles and anime statuettes. But O'Bryant is no interloper, his love of manga and anime no recent discovery. Though he grew up in Mississippi, not exactly a hotbed of east Asian animation, he got hooked the same way millions of other kids first encountered anime, via the magic of afterschool cable TV.

"I grew up around the time Toonami became really popular," he says, referring to the Cartoon Network afternoon anime block that introduced a whole generation to the form. "I started with, at three o'clock, Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Yu Yu Hakusho. I just fell in love with it and stayed with it."

OK, so he admits that he fell off a bit during middle and high school — anime still wasn't all that popular at that point, and besides, All-American athletes being courted by top college programs generally don't have a ton of free time to watch cartoons. O'Bryant was a top 50 recruit his senior year, and wound up attending powerhouse program LSU. There, he became a two-time first-team All-SEC honoree… and rediscovered his love of anime and manga.

"Toward my later college years, probably around my junior year, I watched this anime called Afro Samurai," he recalls. "After I watched it, I was like, man, and it got me back in the groove of watching anime again."

Johnny O'Bryant 2

O'Bryant playing for LSU. Credit: Getty Images

It also didn't hurt that he had another motivation to catch up on the form: The summer after his freshman year, back home in Mississippi, O'Bryant met a girl who just so happened to be an anime fan. "That was one of the first things that we talked about," he says, smiling at the memory of their initial flirtation. "Anime and some of the things that she liked and grew up watching. She loved it way before I met her."

Eventually, O'Bryant would marry that anime fan in Mississippi. And she, along with their shared passion for anime, would provide an important lifeline during an up and down next few years.

O'Bryant got drafted high in the second round by Milwaukee in 2014 and spent his rookie year with the Bucks. After a season spent mostly on the bench, he was released by the team, and subsequently signed by the Wizards, an arrangement that lasted only a month. O'Bryant eventually played for Arizona in the NBA's minor league equivalent, the G League, where he had a lot more time to think — there were fewer games, longer bus rides, and infinitely fewer luxuries. While roughing it in motels and half-filled arenas, he experienced some life-changing epiphanies.

First, O'Bryant focused hard on his game, put up his best offensive numbers ever, became a G-League All-Star, and eventually got signed by the Hornets (after a brief stay with Denver). Second, he made the decision to create his own anime, which is now proving to be an equally big career move. Lots of NBA players have business interests these days, from big brand deals to tech investments (ex-Laker Kobe Bryant launched a $100 million investment fund last year), but O'Bryant knew he wanted to take a different path.

"A lot of people come to us with like, 'Hey man I got this idea, I need $100,000, and I'll say you're the co-founder,'" he says, laughing. "And for us it's like, the idea sounds good, but we don't know what the hell the company is doing, don't know the ins and out of the company. So here goes $100,000, or here goes $1,000,000, [just] bring my money back. And that's cool if you want to go that route. But I think for me, when I'm done playing I would rather actually sit back and do something I enjoy."

And O'Bryant had already been enjoying what was to that point a strictly theoretical creative endeavor. He had worked up a story for a would-be anime, about two warrior kids trying to not only survive, but live up to their soldier father's legacy, in a crumbling society set in a fictional, war-ravaged world.

"It was inspired by everything that I grew up on. I thought it would be cool to combine hip-hop, anime and streetwear fashion culture. I wanted to tell a good story as well. Have it in a more urban, modern setting, and put characters in roles that you would rarely see them."

Conjuring future worlds, that was the easy part. Figuring out the media business here on earth was the real challenge. On the one hand, O'Bryant's timing couldn't have been better: Anime and manga have never been more popular in the United States — there are several subscription streaming services devoted to the form, and Netflix is planning to roll out a whopping 80 new anime series beginning next year. But at the same time, starting a company from scratch in a newly saturated market presents its own unique difficulties.

"I had no idea where to start. I had no idea how hard it was to be to make an anime," he says. "The more I start getting into it, I met a bunch of different artists, I met animation studios, I met publishers. They said, ‘Why don't you make it a manga first, and build a fanbase? And then once the fanbase is huge, then you release the anime down the road.'"

Primus 7 promo art

Credit: Noir Caesar

Acting on that advice, O'Bryant slightly shifted his sights, called up a few friends (including his former high school English teacher, an anime fan himself), and started writing the early drafts of a manga based on that initial inspiration, which would become a series called Primus 7. Then he went scouring Instagram for artists, and connecting with other writers.

His mind, after years of one-way pop culture intake, suddenly began to brim with ideas, his imagination activated by possibility and collaboration. Suddenly, one idea turned into a handful, more than one series could fit. While playing the best basketball of his young career, and creating a solid future in the NBA, he was also making his biggest moves off the court.

"A lot of my time and money went to Primus first and then I was like, ‘You know what man, we got so many dope ideas, let's just blast a bunch of dope manga out there,'" he says. "And that's what we're doing."

The company launched only six months ago, but its creative growth has been explosive. Noir Caesar now has nine different manga series, new chapters of which are released every week on what it has branded Hype Thursday. The titles occupy different corners of the genre, ranging from post-apocalyptic stories like Primus 7; space sci-fi adventures such as Lux Nova, XOGenasys, and Space Pop; to mystical martial arts tales like Shinto and Arms of the Dragon; to edgy comedy like Playboy.

O'Bryant is Noir Caesar's CEO and sole financier, and also serves as the editor, with final say on each book. That said, the creative process seems to be loose and collaborative, anchored by an ongoing, brainstorming text chain between the company's creative staff and stakeholders.

Noir Caesar XOGenasys

Credit: Noir Caesar

"As long as you have a good idea, he's pretty much behind you 100 percent. One of the most laid back people I've ever worked for, but quality is definitely priority one," says Will Brown, the company's musical director, who will provide the beats that will accompany each manga series on Noir Caesar's forthcoming app. "He will redo things a million times, go through different artists and writers, until your vision is at the standard he's set for Noir Caesar."

 Knowing the rigorous schedule required for a pro athlete at the top level of the game, Brown marvels at O'Bryant's two-headed devotion to keeping the young company on track throughout the basketball season, which is for many an all-consuming career.

"He'll be on a seven-game road trip, and then literally after the game, he's texting, ‘how's it going with the panel?'" Brown says, laughing. "Sometimes it even seems like it supersedes the NBA, because he'll be literally fresh off the court and be like, ‘what's up with this chapter?' I'm like, ‘did you even shower yet?!'"

O'Bryant does have help with keeping the day to day operations on track and planning long-term publishing projects. Managing the increasingly heavy workflow is Corey Mikell, who began as a Primus 7 writer and was quickly bumped up to production manager.

"Johnny has a lot of ideas and when he wants to move on something, he moves on it. And it's my job to make sure those properties are creatively driven in the right direction," Mikell says. "He just wants to focus on bringing the right content to the right people at the right time, so it can reach a demographic that's not really being talked to right now."

 

Questions about the racial undertones in anime and manga are tied up in decades of complicated cultural and political history. Why do characters have light skin and big eyes?

Well, as pop culture and anime historian Jonathan Clements notes, it was cheaper in the early days of animation to have white characters — it's the default color on the page, and required far less ink — and Japanese artists were often aping animation from Walt Disney and the Fleischer brothers. TV back then was dominated by foreign imports, which resulted in the mainstreaming of white people speaking in fluent (dubbed) Japanese. Betty Boop was particularly popular there in the early post-war days, which influenced the facial characteristics of domestic animated characters. In a racially homogenous population, eyes and mouths began to become distinguishing characteristics.

OK, but why aren't there many black characters in anime?

"Early on, I'd say that black people were largely invisible or in subaltern roles, much as they were in American television," Clements, the author of A Brief History of Japan and Anime: A History, notes. "Japanese people's experience of black people, if they had any experience at all, was largely derived from what they saw on foreign media, and occasional encounters with American soldiers and sailors."

American identity politics were largely absent from Japan, which led to inadvertent insensitivity when black characters did begin to be added to cartoons. "By setting Jungle Emperor (a.k.a. Kimba the White Lion) in Africa, Osamu Tezuka stumbled right into the middle of race issues," Clements says of the famed Astro Boy creator. "By modern standards, his caricatures of black characters in the manga would leave many readers aghast, but he would have been mortified to discover that he had insulted anyone."

Over time, black people began to be slowly added to the form, as Japan continued to globalize and become a world power, but the prominent black characters were few and far between. There are internationally distributed shows like Afro Samurai and Samurai Champloo, which "actively reference blaxploitation and hip-hop culture," as Clements says, but otherwise, there is still a large disparity from a country that is still very much homogenous.

"It's fair to say that although there are increasing examples of diversity in anime shows, these often remain the idle speculations of Japanese creatives with a limited experience of other cultures," Clements adds. "Some black characters are living, breathing human beings, but others remain hulking, inarticulate gaijin seemingly inspired by something someone's brother-in-law once said about a G.I. his friend's friend once saw in Yokohama."

As the internet and cable TV helped popularize the form, taking it from niche interest in cities with heavy immigrant populations to after-school entertainment for kids in Mississippi, the racial disparity became more and more obvious. The public focus on the need for representation in Hollywood has largely focused on mainstream entertainment, from Oscar nominations to blockbuster superhero movies, but that battle is being waged on all levels. On a rainy day in mid-November, there was no mistaking the hunger for black characters in anime and manga, to see themselves in a form that has historically pretended people of color do not exist.

At Anime NYC, the city's annual otaku festival, Noir Caesar occupied a prime position, front and center on the Javits Center convention floor. The company marked its territory with a huge branded backdrop, surrounded on three sides by tables occupied by its writers and artists, who signed posters for visitors. A TV looped highlights from Noir Caesar pilot episodes, as Brown spun beats through a booming speaker that reverberated throughout the hall. Fans excitedly milled about, talking with the creative talent, and then packed the room for the company's 4PM panel, to the point that late arrivals were forced to stand in the back.

O'Bryant was in Chicago with the Hornets during Anime NYC — basketball pays for all of this — but the rest of the text chain was presented and accounted for. Noir Caesar has quickly developed a roster of creators and talent that had no problem filling out the dais up front and pumping up the audience. And as they introduced their respective projects, there was a growing sense of excitement and validation in the crowd.

The audience was mostly black teenagers and twentysomethings, some in cosplay as anime characters that inevitably did not look like them; up to this point, there's been very few alternatives. So they applauded and gave vocal affirmation when Jacqueline Cottrell, the company's PR manager, YouTube host, and creator of an upcoming LGBTQ-focused series, got frank near the end of the Q&A portion of the panel.

"I hate to say it but, point blank, coming up, if you were a nerd you were either trying to be white or you just were uncool," she said to cheers in the audience. "You weren't black. Being a nerd cost you your blackness, point blank. Me too, big time. And it made no sense."

The beyond-capacity crowd stood up and cheered at that, which felt like a declaration of defiance and a mission statement for the young company.

 

It's clear that the message is reverberating far beyond that Javits Center meeting room — Noir Caesar already has several thousand weekly subscribers (comics are $4.99 a month) and over 44,000 fans on Facebook.

There have been some missteps along the way, mostly borne of excitement and ambition, attempts to hit the ground running at a superhuman pace. Noir Caesar tried earlier this fall to raise $125,000 on Kickstarter for a Primus 7 anime, but fell far short, hitting just $36,315 from 262 backers — not an unsubstantial number, but not nearly what it had sought. O'Bryant learned his lesson, though, as Noir Caesar is now fully funding both Primus 7 and its next attempt at starting an anime series, an adaptation of its manga XOGenasys.

The XOGenasys pilot is being made right now, and the plan is to show it at next year's Anime Expo, the genre's biggest convention. Mikell plans to have books of Noir Caesar's manga ready to be sold by the time that convention rolls around, too — O'Bryant met with lots of top publishers, but for now they're going the indie, self-publishing route.

There's a certain pride the team takes in being a fully independent operation, though O'Bryant says he wouldn't mind getting hooked up with publishers and distributors like Shonen Jump, Viz Media, or Crunchyroll, among many others. After the NBA season concludes, he's going to head to Japan for the first time, for a mini tour to publicize his company and meet again with publishers there.

"I think more people are starting to see, hey man, you can put a brown-skin character in anime for a main character and it'll do well," O'Bryant says. "I think that's what Noir Caesar is starting to show people."