Black Joy

Representation matters: How a Black manga brand is closing the imagination gap

This story was part of our Black Joy newsletter highlighting Black-owned businesses. Sign up now to receive Black Joy in your inbox weekly!

Empowered by the radical imagination, Saturday AM manufactures a universe where fictional characters can be sorcerers, demon hunters, innovative engineers – and Black. And Brown. And disabled. And LGBTQ+.

Fredrick Jones launched the company in 2013 after noticing the representation gaps in manga, which means “comics” in Japanese. Headquartered in Jones’ childhood stomping grounds of Durham-Raleigh, N.C., Saturday AM mentors a global group of young independent artists who power the storytelling that backs the brand’s motto of being home to “the world’s most diverse manga-inspired comics.”

Saturday AM has been making noise – and history. In less than a decade,. Jones introduced the world to the first Black girl protagonist and first Indian protagonist in shonen, the action-packed genre of manga appealing to young boys. After perfecting their craft during the creation of 150 digital comic anthologies and an app where fans can follow their favorite comic series, Saturday AM has branched into publishing 11 print graphic novels that are being sold in major retailers like Walmart and Barnes and Noble. Just last month, Saturday AM announced a partnership with Overtime, a digital brand geared towards Gen Z sports fans, to create a basketball-themed manga featuring all multicultural characters – a rarity in the sports manga genre, Jones said.

Saturday AM’s growth parallels manga’s booming popularity, positioning the brand to revolutionize a medium that has Japanese roots but leans more towards whiteness – a complaint that’s been debated in Reddit threads, blogs, podcasts and in academia.

Adding more characters of color can open someone’s mind to who they can be.

“Diversity inspires,” Jones said. “That inspiration affects entire generations as they grow up and find it normal to root for and celebrate a young black girl, a bi-journalist, or a young South Asian hero, who knows what stories those fans will create? Diversity builds stories and what those stories can do for culture is amazing if given time.

Piccolo can’t be Black?

Saturday AM’s name pays homage to Jones’ childhood pastime. A 70s kid, he wasn’t privileged with the spoils of today’s on-demand streaming services. He begged his parents to purchase TV guides and mapped out which cartoons were premiering on which of the three networks available back then. On Saturday mornings, Jones would get up, grab breakfast and plop himself in front of the TV to be transported through different adventures. While the 70s were a time for Black animation with cartoons such as “Harlem Globetrotters,” Jones felt those shows still entertained stereotypes.

“Many characters were either jive talking sidekicks, popular sports or entertainment stars, or bland, but super intelligent sidekicks,” Jones said. “If anything influenced me, it was the hope to see the fullness of the black experience being represented more in my favorite superhero and sci-fi shows.”

Now 48, Jones credits his Saturday ritual for his sixth sense on how culture influences comics, manga and its multimedia sibling anime, which means “animation” in Japanese. He paid attention when the 80s independent comic book boom birthed classics like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” During the 90s, Jones was a fan of the Afrocentric comics from Milestone Media, which published stories centered on marginalized communities from its inception in 1993 to 1997.

“Nowadays it’s kind of a mish-mash of all that stuff with manga being the biggest innovation to Western comics,” Jones said. “When most kids think of comics these days they think manga.”

And the numbers back up why. Manga sales made up 76 percent of all comic and graphic novel sales in the United States in 2021, an 11 percent jump from 2020. Experts attribute the growth to streaming services’ investment in anime, a $24.8 billion industry forecasted to be $56.3 billion by 2030.

Manga and anime have become staples of Black joy. Megan Thee Stallion’s music videos and lyrics are oftentimes laden with anime references. Viewers laughed during singer and bassist Thundercat’s unsuccessful attempt to woo his crushes after finding a Dragon Ball Z durag. Lizzo cosplays during her performances to show her love for Sailor Moon.

Beyond the red carpet, Black fans find community in the abundance of blogs such as Blerd and Black Girl Nerds and find fashion from the multitude of Black-owned, anime-inspired streetwear. There are multiple anime and manga conventions catering to Black audiences.

Then there are those who do work from inside manga and anime itself, like Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks,” which featured on Adult Swim, and “Yasuke,” a Netflix animated series created by LeSean Thomas.

That same love isn’t reflected in an artform where the majority of protagonists are perceived as white, Jones said. Jones pointed out how the majority of the main protagonists in “Naruto” and “Sailor Moon” have blonde hair, blue-eyes and fair skin.

But Black fans aren’t budging, which is empowering to see, Jones said, and explains why brands like Saturday AM are important. He said fans in India and Latin America also contribute to anime and manga’s far-reaching appeal. Jones honored that audience with its release of “The Massively Multiplayer World of Ghosts,” which features the first Indian protagonist in shonen manga, Nilay.

“The global success of manga and anime in the past 20 years has come from our communities. We should not have to request to be celebrated inside of the medium,” Jones said. “You’re seeing more Black people asserting their space and not allowing trolls, or even the mainstream manga or anime industry who doesn’t normally talk about our concerns, silence or ignore them. So they’re building their own spaces – whether it’s websites, brands, whatever it is – they’re building their own space to make sure that our community and our voices are heard.”

There’s one Black anime and manga fans’ trend Jones said he can’t get down with. Lack of Black representation forced Black fans to claim characters who are coded Black due to their darker complexions or mannerisms. This led to the general consensus, amongst Black fans, that Dragon Ball Z’s Piccolo is Black. Jones isn’t part of that consensus.

“Piccolo is a green character with freakin’ antennas on his head and I’m like, ‘This must be something young Black kids think. I’m not with that,’” Jones said. “Our community doesn’t need to be compared to an alien so we can try to say, ‘Oh, this property is hitting, man. They get us.’ Like, no. Because white people don’t have to do that. Ain’t nobody white walking around

going, ‘I think Piccolo is secretly white.’ They’re not doing that because they got plenty of blond hair, blue-eyed characters they can go to.”

Jones isn’t downing how Black youth takes space in anime or manga. He’s saying they deserve better.

“I would like to see us making our space the way Saturday AM is doing, by producing content that’s not being filtered through some other person’s perception of what we should be like. We’re actually producing stuff that actually looks recognizably like us.”

Giving permission to dream

One of the moments that inspired the start of Saturday AM begins with bonding time between Jones and his nephew. Due to their shared love for all things nerdy, Jones took his nephew to his first anime convention. His nephew slipped on a wig to look like Goku from “Dragon Ball Z” for the occasion.

Jones thought nothing of the wig until he showed his sister-in-law a picture of her son. She didn’t chastise her son for his hairstyle, but her face twisted with concern when she saw a big, spiky blond wig on top of her baby’s brown head.

Jones tried to reassure her. This is what all the kids are doing, he said.

But was it their kids?

“I could just see the concern in her, like, ‘Why is he wearing this weird wig? I mean, I can see a white kid doing that. But do they have Black kids doing that?’” Jones said. “And it dawned on me: representation. She didn’t understand it because there was nothing for her to look at where she could go, ‘Oh, yeah. A lot of our kids are into this stuff. And a lot of these characters look like our kids.”

Manga and anime may be works of fiction, but the lack of representation causes a ripple effect of harm to Black identity in the real world. Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a Florida A&M University alum from Detroit, examines how white supremacy shows its face in sci-fi and fantasy

in her book, “The Dark Fantastic.” Thomas opens the book with her own story of why her parents convinced her that magic wasn’t hers to hold. As a Black girl whose parents witnessed the violent response to the Civil Rights Movement, no quests or magic mirrors were needed for her to find adventure. The realities of discrimination and racism were causing enough trouble for her family and community.

Thomas combs through examples of popular fiction like “Hunger Games” and “Vampire Diaries” to show how these stories reinforce racism not only through a lack of Black characters, but by also marginalizing the few Black characters who do exist. Thomas calls this issue the “imagination gap,” and the consequences are disheartening.

“When youth grow up without seeing diverse images in the mirrors, windows and doors of children’s and young adult literature, they are confined to single stories about the world around them and, ultimately, the development of their imagination is affected,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ methodology can be used on other forms of multimedia, not just fiction.The imagination gap appears in different factions of Black fandom. Black creatives have spoken on how the lack of representation warps people’s perception of their work and how they view themselves:

New Jersey cosplayer Avery Byrd, who forges armor from foam: “Going to these cons with masks on, there’s a perception unfortunately, that I’ve run into a lot of times, where when you’re wearing armor a lot of people don’t perceive you as Black. They perceive you as white. They get really shocked when you take off the mask to speak clearer if they’re talking to you or you’re taking a swig from a bottle of water and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re Black. I didn’t expect that out of a Black cosplayer.’ And it’s frustrating and angering to hear that.”

Anime-inspired, non-binary artist Dee Brown who challenges racial stereotypes through her artwork so Black people don’t shrink themselves like she did when she was a child: “I wasn’t used to seeing colorful depictions of Black women or even Black feminine people before… I grew up thinking that I was supposed to be either loud and aggressive – even though most of the Black women I grew up with were quiet and a little anxious like me.”

Jasmine La Fleur, founder of Black Fae Day, an annual celebration for Black people to roleplay as ethereal looking fairies: “When we’re included in fantasy, we’re either the evil person, the character that’s in a scene for a second, people love them and then they sacrifice themselves or we’re this exotic love interest that gets tossed away. I don’t consider that representation at all. I need our fairy queen. I need our dragon riders. I need the King Arthur of Blackness. Where is that?”

After more than a decade in the video game industry as an executive, Jones launched Saturday AM in 2013 to show that diverse manga could be profitable. He felt himself feeling frustrated a little over a year in because none of the creatives he met, including the Black ones, featured a Black character in their work. When he asked them why, he was shocked.

They didn’t want their work to seem “forced” by adding a Black character.

“I’m like, ‘The hell are you talking about forced?’” Jones said. “Number one, Naruto is forced. I’ve been to Japan. You’re never gonna see a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Japanese kid. It ain’t forced to see somebody Black being Black.”

Sensing their hesitation, Jones decided to show them diversity could work in manga instead of telling them. He went to the drawing board and created “Clock Striker,” which features the first Black girl protagonist in shonen manga, Cast. Inspired by the nonprofit Black Girls Code, Cast is an innovative, disabled, strong-willed character who transforms a robot hand into a chemical-reaction-producing prosthetic. She’s on a quest to be a member of the “SMITHS,” a league of legendary warrior engineers that initiates few people of color or women, but Cast is determined to change that.

Cast became a beloved character in Saturday AM’s community when her story debuted in 2015.

Clock Striker fanart floods Instagram, tweets about Cast stay viral on Twitter. “Clock Striker” was the most pre-ordered Saturday AM graphic novel.

Intentionality flows throughout the series since the collaborator and artist for “Clock Striker” is an African engineer who lives in France. He keeps Jones in the know when it comes to actual engineering principles and philosophies.

“Manga cannot become this popular and, then at the same time, send the message to Black and brown kids that they can’t be the hero. They can’t be the pretty, beautiful person, they can’t be the heroic sidekick – the Sasuke [from Naruto] if you will. We can’t even exist,” Jones said. “So I just thought it was really important for Saturday AM to make sure we’re giving young people permission to dream. Permission to imagine scenarios where they can be a Black wizard, a squad of young Black kids like Naruto fighting crime or being ninjas. You have to give them permission to do that.”

‘Diversity is the genesis of good stories’

Odunze Whyte Oguguo dreams started with drawings he made while growing up in Lagos, Nigeria.

In between the ongoing power outages and sharing the TV and video games with the other children in his home, Oguguo, co-founder of Saturday AM, used drawing to entertain himself. If the lights went off while playing video games on his Super Nintendo, Oguguo would imagine the fight scene in his head, then draw it. When he wasn’t drawing or watching cartoons, he was reading comics.

Western comics were Oguguo’s first love. But Japanese content, such as manga, became his soulmate during the 2000s. He loved the complex storylines and dynamic characters. “One Piece’s” protagonist Luffy and Marvel Comics’ Mr. Fantastic both have stretching abilities. But to Oguguo, the way Luffy thought and fought was more interesting and unique. A fan of “the Big Three” anime series “Naruto,” “One Piece” and “Bleach,” Oguguo started indulging ideas of drawing manga.

Only one problem: Since most manga and anime characters are fair-skinned, Oguguo’s art mimicked the same style.

“I just thought maybe that was part of what made this Japanese. Even when I started creating my own content, I didn’t include characters who weren’t Japanese and the setting had to have some kind of tie to Japan.” Oguguo said. “If you think about it deeply, that can stifle creativity and originality if young people start to think that they don’t belong there or it has to be a certain way.”

The lack of diversity didn’t kill Oguguo’s drive to become a better artist. With no one to mentor him, Oguguo went on an extensive search for online resources that could help him hone his craft. This effort paid off in popularity after he moved overseas to attend the University of Texas at Arlington. Known online as “Whyt Manga,” Oguguo gained some fandom as he started pushing out work in what he called the “Wild Wild West” of webcomics. After one of the sites that featured his art shut down, Oguguo was looking for a place to house his work.

Familiar with Oguguo’s talent, another Saturday AM co-founder, Raymond Brown, reached out with an opportunity to not only join the roster of creatives, but to also help build up the company. Oguguo took the offer and hasn’t looked back. His adventure fantasy series “Apple Black” is one of the most popular series on the site.

While the popularity is nice, the mission of the company kept Oguguo there.

“I started digesting more of that mindset – that mission of Saturday AM and that affected my work, it affected the work of everybody who was within Saturday AM.”

Jones attempted to broaden the creators’ imagination by turning their focus to their lineages. More than 30 countries are represented on their team. He encouraged them to shed the misconceptions of what they thought manga should be so they could tap into their authentic selves, and he let them know they were safe to create.

“If you’re like, ‘Hey, I want to tell a story about my indigenous, Native American or Celtic history, but it’s gonna have this really cool action in it that’ll look like this.’ We’re not going to be like, ‘We don’t have an audience for Celtic stuff?’”

This opened up an atlas of creativity for the creatives on his team. A Senegalese artist draws from his African roots to create an Afrofuturistic, dystopian manga where youth are chosen to end a war and save their country. A Nigerian artist illustrates a young boy with skin pigmentation who is granted Orisha-like powers to save his land after it’s attacked by an evil spirit.

Oguguo credits Saturday AM for giving him the space to stretch his mind and diversify his work. He created another series featuring Black and brown leads called “Bacassi,” which Oguguo developed as part of his thesis while earning a Master of Fine Arts degree. He started exploring the lore and history of different cultures and used those details to strengthen the worlds he already created. He included tribes inspired by West African culture. In “Apple Black,” he added a Nigerian-inspired character, Obi, whose wand doesn’t look like the ones you see in “Harry Potter.” It’s an electrifying bladed yo-yo named Shangochukwu, which is based off the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning Shango.

In the world Oguguo is building, a wand can be anything you choose.

“We’re diversifying the idea of wands,” Oguguo laughed. “Maybe someone has a cigarette and they battle with smoke. The wands are extra tools or accessories that help amplify the spell.”

For Jones, the magic of manga is its authenticity. The more aligned creators are with their truth the better a story will be.

“Diversity is the genesis of good stories,” Jones said. “We just try to get people to tap into their truth, and then use that to tell great stories. It’s easy once you start exploring the culture.”

Manga = comics

Jones made Black history twice in a medium that is no stranger to white gatekeeping. While most have celebrated the creation of Cast and Nilay, some have discredited the achievements by saying that Jones can’t create manga because he’s Black.

Dr. Shige (CJ) Suzuki, an associate professor at Baruch College in New York, and Ronald Stewart, a professor at Daito Bunka University in Japan, study the complexity of manga in their book “Manga: A Critical Guide.” By referring to manga as simply Japanese would dilute the creation of a medium that is “an amalgam of cultural traditions, socio-technological factors, and historical interactions with comic art and other visual media forms, some of which go beyond the national and cultural boundaries of Japan.”

The meaning behind manga is not fixed. Debates about the meaning of manga stretch back to the early twentieth century. Manga creators during that time even scratched their heads when trying to find meaning behind the term. Part of the challenge is the shapeshifting use of manga over time that goes beyond comics. Throughout history, manga was meshed with film and sound mediums.

It wasn’t until after the 1970s that the word manga started to be associated with publications such as Weekly Shonen Jump, one of Japan’s longest-running anthology magazines. When manga’s popularity reached the U.S. during the 1990s, the social and cultural nuances of the medium were stripped and narrowed to mean “Japanese comics.”

The book notes the existence of creators outside of Japan who label their work as manga. Although manga is sometimes referred to as caricatures, political cartoons and animation, Suzuki and Stewart state that “in Japan the term ‘manga’ is also used to mean comics in general, regardless of whether they are of Japanese origin or in Japanese style or not.”

This distinction makes way for brands like Saturday AM, which have a diverse rooster of creatives. However, these creatives often find themselves shouldering past microaggressions and racism. Both Cast and Nilay have been victims of whitewashing. Oguguo finds himself repeatedly defending Cast’s place in shonen manga history on Twitter.

Amongst the debating and the celebrating of diversity, Jones is noticing a small, yet growing faction of anti-diversity trolls circulating social media with manga avatars. They’re the ones who tell Black fans they can’t cosplay as Sailor Moon or a Black creative that manga isn’t for them. It’s a troubling way to embrace the medium, Jones said.

“I think there’s also is a battle going on, from a lot of right-wing groups to claim manga because what does manga do? It elevates whiteness,” Jones said. “So if you’re a white person and you don’t want to see diversity, here is an area where whiteness is celebrated.”

Academics and critics alike have called out manga and anime’s issue with racism and colorism, a form of prejudice favoring white or fair skin tones over darker skin. Nissin, a popular instant noodle brand, received backlash in 2019 for a manga-style ad featuring Naomi Osaka, the half-Haitian, half-Japanese tennis star who Nissin was sponsoring at the time. Osaka’s skin was noticeably lightened and her curls were straightened. Nissin apologized and pulled the ad, which was based off the manga “Prince of Tennis.”

Manga has a history of struggling with racial identities. Suzuki and Stewart noted how multiple popular manga artists have been criticized for their caricatures of Black people. The work of Osamu Tezuka, known as the “Godfather of Manga” during the 1940s-50s, was called out for drawing Black people with animalistic faces, big lips and unfocused eyes. These exaggerated features made Black people almost unrecognizable as human beings. Black characters were subjected to degrading roles like barbarians and cannibals. Defenders of Tezuka’s work blamed the cartoon-y artform, not racism, for the exaggerations. However, the caricatures of other races weren’t distorted as much. Some scholars point the finger West, saying that Japanese creators inadvertently copied racist images seen in American comics and satire magazines. Nonetheless Suzuki and Stewart stressed the influence of western comics on manga “does not absolve Japanese creators of their responsibility for racists stereotypes that appear in their drawings.”

Minstrel-like stereotypes continued to plague manga even after the 1950s, with characters like Mr. Popo from “Dragon Ball Z” and Sister Krone of “The Promised Neverland.”

While the depictions of Black characters have become better over time, some Black characters still fall victim to racial tropes. Historian Zalirah Cooper, known as TheMightyZ, breaks down on Twitter and Instagram how Black women in anime, cartoons and comics are hypersexualized or treated as discarded love interests.

Like Jones, Cooper also pointed out the overwhelming whiteness in anime such as “My Hero Academia” and the obsession of depicting almost every American as blond-haired and blue-eyed.

Manga and anime can’t keep defaulting to whiteness, Jones said. Because Black and brown characters deserve to be at the forefront of a story, not an afterthought.

“There’s a minority of people fighting for this sort of white view of manga to be the norm and to somehow try to push us out as being abnormal. And that’s why we’re here to say, ‘No. manga is for everybody,’” Jones said.

Making manga for everyone

Jones wants to make sure everybody feels authentically seen in manga. Saturday AM has become a training ground where diverse creatives can change a world illustrated as white. Jones starts by giving creators the tools and publicity they need to be successful.

Manga drawing books have been a staple at bookstores for years. Saturday AM went further by publishing a book giving artists a step-by-step guide to drawing characters who look like them. It was Saturday AM’s first graphic novel to hit the shelves.

“How to Draw Diverse Manga” touches on topics left out in traditional manga drawing books such as body positivity and different hair styles such as braids, locs and waves.

“We take very seriously this role of trying to be a beacon for young creators who want to build a career in this and want to see themselves be represented,” Jones said.

Saturday AM’s events strengthen both the virtual community and talent. During the worldwide March Art Madness contest, 64 artists test the limits of their creativity in a six-week long, bracket style tournament that mimics the spring college basketball competition. Jones said thousands of fans rush the site every week to vote on their favorite artists, who could win art supplies, cash prizes and an iPad Pro.

Saturday AM’s annual Summer of Manga program collects original content from creators 18 years or older. Stories that get the brand’s approval appear in the summer editions of the anthology and get a taste of the industry. Selected creators work with Saturday AM through the entire publication process from pitching to marketing.

“You can’t care about diversity and not make a pathway for those diverse people, you know,” Jones said. “If the Japanese said tomorrow, ‘We want more African creators,’ Well, how are you helping them get to Japan? How are you helping their transition into Japanese society?”

Saturday AM nurtures this talent in a space where they don’t have to wrestle with both racist trolls, stolen content and algorithm woes. Last year, Black creatives on TikTok went on strike because they weren’t getting credit for their creativity. Then there were the concerns from Black creatives about shadow banning, when a platform deprioritized an account without informing the user, thus restricting the reach of their content.

While those creatives had to fight to be seen, Jones is looking out for his team even when they aren’t in the room. When Jones was considering which publisher Saturday AM was going to partner with for its graphic novels, he picked a smaller company called Quarto Group over larger prospects because he felt like the quality of Quarto’s kindness and professionalism would lessen his creators’ stress as they push themselves to produce quality content. This choice also gave Saturday AM the opportunity to be a big brand at a small publishing company.

Joining Saturday AM helped Oguguo nurture his popularity and professional portfolio in a way online fandom alone never could. He has more than a half a million followers as a YouTube influencer who offers free, detailed tutorials. Saturday AM recently published two graphic novels for “Apple Black.” Volume one was released over the summer and volume two came out in November.

There’s something magical in seeing his work next to other major manga series like “My Hero Academia” and “Attack on Titan.”

“This is one of the first steps for the overall dream of building something inspired by the ‘Shonen Jumps’ of the world, but also by the Marvels of the world,” Oguguo said. “I’m very happy there is a chance for the future aspiring creators of the world who want to make content like this. They’re going to suffer less than I and other creators like myself did because our originality and creativity was stifled in that thinking of, ‘OK. it has to be this way.’”

With that being said, Jones keeps the pressure on his young creatives to stay professional. He mentors them as they go through their entrepreneurship journey, sometimes sternly, if need be. He doesn’t like hearing their excuses when they don’t make it to a meeting on time. He keeps them focused and advises them not to fall for the flattery of gaining a large social media following.

“Entertainment is a zero sum game. You can have all the talent, you can put in all the work and get nothing out of it,” Jones said. “So the main thing I try to work on in our folks as well is to not buy into the hype. That free life on Instagram ain’t money. No five dollars came attached to that. It costs nothing for them to like your stuff.”

They need to use that excitement and energy to build a following who will pay for their content. They needed to connect with those fans during book signings and conventions. They needed to be prepared to jump on partnerships that would advance their careers – just like Saturday AM did with Overtime.

Shooting your shot

In early November, the Saturday AM team went to Atlanta with a dream to redefine the racial landscape of sports manga. In front of a crowd of more than 5,000 people, they announced a partnership with the Gen Z-focused, digital sport brand Overtime to create a new basketball-themed manga.

The story will take place in Atlanta and will feature multi-ethnic characters designed by Oguguo. Artist Anthony Chukwudi Iwejuo is designing the comic itself. Saturday AM celebrated the collaboration with a dynamic day full of poster signings, two basketball games and Oguguo’s characters got their time to shine on the Jumbotron.

The Overtime partnership expands Saturday AM’s manga territory in a special way. Sports manga has a global cult following, but Jones said few Black characters existed in that genre – until now.

Jonece Starr Dunigan

Jonece Starr Dunigan | jdunigan@reckonmedia.com

Jonece Starr Dunigan (She/her/hers) is a journalist who gives the microphone to communities that are often ignored by mainstream media. Guided by empathy, her reporting centers the stories, movement work and voices of Black, brown and queer people. Her writing strives to amplify and empower readers instead of exploiting them of their traumas.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.