BLM Round Table with Black Creators from Saturday AM

The other day I was driving through my (usually) quiet town when I came across a Black Lives Matter protest on the side of the road. Despite the heat and the threat of COVID-19, a group of young people – most of them adorning masks – were shouting “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” and holding up signs with the names of Black victims. Cars passing by on the busy street honked rhythmically to show their support. Even with this encouragement, the protestors seemed angry, yet determined. As they should be. As everyone should be.

The murder of George Floyd may have been the catalyst for the newly reignited BLM movement, but it’s also fueled by countless other cruel and racist acts toward Black people throughout this country’s history. The systemic racism in the United States is disgusting, and it needs to be completely uprooted. I silently raged with the protestors that day, agreeing with every phrase they yelled. However, other than a poem I wrote, I’ve been pretty quiet about BLM on this blog and social media. Not because I don’t care – I care a lot. Because I wasn’t sure how exactly I could help, besides donating, signing petitions, and retweeting.

Black Lives Matter logo

But thanks to Saturday AM, I was able to do this BLM-themed interview, which I hope will spread awareness. I teamed up with them to highlight Black creators in the comic and manga industry. If you aren’t aware, Saturday AM is a Western manga publisher that promotes diversity. Not only do their series include POC characters, they also provide a platform for POC creators. In fact, Saturday AM is so passionate about diversity, they even have a BLM campaign going on right now in association with Shina Iro Apparel. They are selling limited-edition clothing items that have original designs by Saturday AM creators, and all proceeds go to Color Of Change, ActBlue (Blacklivesmatter.com), and The Equal Justice Initiative. This promotion is only going on until the end of July, so be sure to check it out soon!

Anyway, let’s get back to the matter at hand. In this interview, I asked questions to three different Black creators who are currently working on series for Saturday AM. Each gave their own responses to questions about their work, their experiences, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The creators involved are:

  • Amber Lee (@Daggerstarfighter), who just made her comic debut in BRUNCH, Saturday AM’s new LGBT magazine, with her series Spirit Pizza.

  • Huzayfa Umar (@Zayf_Illustrations), the author of Orisha, the very first manga that takes place in Africa and explores African folklore.
  • J.R. De Bard (@jramamanga), a martial arts fan that went on to create his own fighting manga, Underground, for the seinen imprint Saturday PM.

***

Without further ado, the interview is below in a round table format. I hope you enjoy it!

  1. Please introduce yourself and tell the audience a little bit about the Saturday AM project you are currently working on.

Daggerstarfighter: My name is Amber L. Jones aka Daggerstarfighter. I’m an illustrator and 2D animator working out of upstate New York. Spirit Pizza is the name of my project, a story about a girl who gets wrapped up solving supernatural happenings via a pizza shop.

Zayf Illustrations: My name is Huzayfa Umar, I go by “Zayf Illustrations” on social platforms. I’m an illustrated storyteller working in Saturday AM on my series called Orisha, a story about the mythology of the African deities and a young boy who encounters one of the gods and gets entangled into their world.

J.R. De Bard: I’m J.R. De Bard, a content creator for Saturday PM and the artist and writer behind Underground. It is the story of a biracial mixed martial artist seeking prestige in the world of New York’s unsanctioned fighting scene. As he builds notoriety, trouble starts to follow him and he sees becoming an underground fighting champion as his ticket out of that trouble.

  1. What was the inspiration behind your series?

Daggerstarfighter: Initially pizza delivery people and just really digging how their color scheme is usually in the reds.  I think at the time I was also noticing in a lot of thriller media and honestly other media, where the black character even if they’re the first to run or fight back they’re the first to die, or they die in sacrifice for the white lead etc. Mix that with wanting to see more varied expression of black women past just being “strong” and you get Pan and Spirit Pizza.

Zayf Illustrations: I have always loved the medium of storytelling, especially mythological and historical stories like the Greek or Egyptian pantheon. However, not many African themed stories are being depicted especially in the realm of anime or manga/comics. So when I was approached by Saturday AM with a publication deal, I took it as an opportunity to introduce this hardly touched upon culture and African perspective to readers in a fun and adventurous way.

J.R. De Bard: There are many things that inspired my concept for Underground. I watch and practice a lot of martial arts myself and I wanted to apply that knowledge to a series. Along with that, I play a few martial arts-based fighting games like Tekken and Street Fighter, and seeing these diverse characters all with different fighting styles has always appealed to me and is the kind of thing I want to bring to Underground.

  1. How did you originally get into “geeky” culture, like comics, manga, anime, and video games?

Daggerstarfighter: My mom and dad are comic fans so I got into geek culture via comic books, notably the Bronze Age. So, Amazing Spiderman, Hulk, New Mutants, X-Men, etc. I think I saw anime before manga by watching Metropolis but seeing that and Dragon Ball + Sailor Moon on Toonami I didn’t know to categorize them as “anime” til I was able to get Shonen Jump through my school. From there I went into Naruto, Bleach, Nana and Full Metal Alchemist. I didn’t hit things like Michiko to Hatchin and Paprika til high school. Most items that I owned were Spider-Man oriented.

Zayf Illustrations: Almost every kid growing up watched a lot of tv and cartoon shows and I was no different. Shows like Samurai Jack, Dragon Ball, Naruto and Pokemon were so action packed and I loved it. At the time, I did not know the difference between an anime and a basic cartoon show which I enjoy regardless, but as I grow older I discover the genre of anime and I loved the different types of storytelling it crafted and more. That was when I became a fan of “geek culture.”

J.R. De Bard: I grew up watching a lot of Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z, and it never really left me. By high school, I made a lot of friends who were into the same thing as me so we just kept getting each other to watch new shows and read different manga. These friends were the same ones who pushed me to make manga of my own.

  1. There are obviously a lot of Black anime and manga fans, but have you ever felt out of place as a Black fan/creator in the “geeky” subculture since it is typically made up of mostly White and Asian people?

Daggerstarfighter: Yes– people go crazy over things like Promised Neverland meanwhile I’m looking at the “mammy” character Sister Krone like “y’all ain’t see this?” Not to say that I don’t dig the story but you occupy different states of mind than other consumers.  One Piece, DB Super and Boruto dominate the “popular anime” sphere and if you don’t like it people think you’re the strange one for not wanting to watch 1000 episodes. It’s not my bag. Kefla’s creation was 1000 years too late for me to be interested anymore.

Zayf Illustrations: I enjoy reading and watching anime and it is a shame that this culture I enjoy so much lacks diversity and representation of not just black folks but other cultures as well. Even when there are black characters, it’s not a true depiction of what that culture is but a humorous stereotypical depiction. Which is why Saturday AM exists, to bring that diversity to the forefront and evolve the subculture of anime and manga.

J.R. De Bard: I think I’ve been lucky enough to always feel like I’ve had a place within the “geek” community. The friends I’ve made are also ethnically diverse and we went to several conventions and gatherings together. As well, my mentor is a syndicated black cartoonist, and he hosted black comic book festivals in New York City. The one struggle I’ve really had with inclusion has been with manga specifically since I would hear a lot that since I’m not Japanese, no one would give my work the time of day if it had a manga aesthetic. At the time, that thought really kept me from making comics the way I wanted to make them.

  1. Are there any Black creators or characters that you admire or that have inspired you?

Daggerstarfighter: Ronald Wimberly (d-pi) is top on the list , as well as Shawna Mills (lazymills), an animator currently working on her project Boom Tag. I can trace following them both back to my deviantart days and have gotten to meet them both. Very goal oriented people that know what they want to express. Shawna drew in a way that I didn’t see other female artists do at the time (think 2010/11), forcing perspective and figure. Ronald’s process is very thorough and not just “flashy and cool” (though his work always stands out).

A panel from the first issue of Spirit Pizza

A panel from Spirit Pizza

Zayf Illustrations: Creators like Odunze Oguhuo (aka Whyt Manga), Ergo Josh and Mohammed Agbadi truly inspire my work because they are of the same cultural background as I am and that makes me want to keep growing as an artist. They are all Nigerian creators like me so seeing them succeed as artists in a culture where art is looked down upon inspires me to keep getting better.

J.R. De Bard: I’ve admired Jerry Craft since I first met him back in 2012. He helped me get my feet wet with working with publishers and evolving my work to a more professional level. Beyond that, he’s been able to bring countless creators of color together and inspire the youth to explore their creativity. It’s a dream of mine to be an inspiration to creators of color in a similar way Mr. Craft has been.

  1. How did you hear about Saturday AM, and what made you take the final plunge to work with them?

Daggerstarfighter: I heard about Sat. AM from reading Apple Black when I was still in high school. I believe (2008-2012) and then tried to keep up with it and Saigami sporadically (I’m very behind). I still would keep eyes on what Sat. AM produced and some of my mutuals they were in contact with. The final plunge was Fred (founder) reaching out to me about Spirit Pizza. When he said I’d own the rights I was like “okay why not?”

Zayf Illustrations: In my first year of college I began to drift away from art, but then I came across one of Whyt Manga’s YouTube videos talking about Saturday AM and what they were doing. It encouraged me to pick art up again and join their movement of pushing diversity into the realm of anime and manga creation.

A panel from the beginning of Orisha

A panel from Orisha

J.R. De Bard: I first discovered Saturday AM through Whyt Manga’s Youtube channel. Shortly after, I met some of the team at Anime NYC where they were doing portfolio reviews. I was already really interested in working with them, but what really sold me was Fred and Raymond’s insightful critiques and continued enthusiasm in my work outside of what I showed them at Anime NYC. Fred and I had a few phone calls after and I just knew I had to make a series for their magazine.

  1. As a Black creator, what message do you want to share with the world through your work?

Daggerstarfighter: I’d like to share that you can draw and write women as multifaceted. That they don’t have to be Strong all the time or Angry or even sexually desirable. You can draw them dark-skinned too, don’t shy away from melanin.

Zayf Illustrations: With my story Orisha, I hope to use it as an opportunity to introduce people to my African heritage and cultural beliefs so people will have a better understanding of our world  and shatter the misconception that people have of Africans. Not in a “preachy” way but rather in a fun and interesting way.

J.R. De Bard: I want my work to do for others what the creators for Saturday AM did for me. If my work can tell others that there is a place for diverse manga creators to make interesting and engaging characters of color, then my series is doing its job.

A panel from Underground

A panel from Underground

  1. What does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you personally?

Daggerstarfighter: The fact that it’s gotten traction again drawing so many non-black people in, and affected so many industries as a result (comics, animation, gaming, etc) pushing them to release statements and actually interact with how they’re representing BIPOC is something that I didn’t think I’d get to see. It’s kind of funny to see non-black people go “Oh wow police brutality IS a problem” because we’ve been saying it for awhile now… It’s cool that it’s happening because it’s exposing things everywhere but sad how these changes sprung off black death and trauma.

Zayf Illustrations: It is quite a shame that there has to be a movement to tell people that black lives matter in the first place. I still can’t comprehend the fact that there are those that think black people are inferior to them and wish ill of one another but unfortunately that’s the world we live in.  I am very proud the movement has begun making significant changes.

J.R. De Bard: As a black creator with a family who also has creative talent, I feel American society could do better at fostering healthy ambition with its citizens of color. I believe that the success of black Americans should be welcomed and celebrated in the same way it is for the white community. My grandfather was a black man who built his business from scraps. He didn’t have a college education or a lot of money but managed to find success as a meat wholesaler in Harlem. Despite his honest hard work to earn his money, he was unfairly profiled regularly since he was a black man with nice cars. The culture hasn’t changed much since, and that’s why Black Lives Matter is so important; if attention is not kept on these issues, then nothing changes.

  1. Everyone in the movement wants Black lives to be treated equally, but is there a specific issue that is very close to your heart that you would like to see resolved as a result of the movement? For example, less police brutality, more Black creators, a safer environment for Black trans lives, or so on.

Daggerstarfighter: All of it is close to me as I occupy so many positions (being a black queer artist, existing). There are discussions that need to be held around how we treat black trans people that fosters intra- and extra-communal violence; black creators have always existed, the way into industries needs to be more accessible and have healthily occupiable space; and the power that the police have to kill and get away with it needs to be checked. It all affects me so it’s all close to me.

Pan, the main character from Spirit Pizza

Pan, the main character from Spirit Pizza

Zayf Illustrations: Fortunately, I have never experienced the tragic inequality many black folks have encountered because I was born and raised in Africa, Nigeria. However as a human being, it has affected me and my perspective of the indecent discrimination people that look like me are being treated. I do hope for change and equality for all people especially my black brothers and sisters, there should be serious repercussions for racist acts. Racism should not be an opinion.

J.R. De Bard: My brother is a biracial transgender male and a really talented artist, so I’m hoping this movement brings improvement to his quality of life.  I want him to be able to share himself and his work openly in an environment that welcomes and encourages him.

  1. How do you think people – young and old – can bring about change to make the world a better place for Black people?

Daggerstarfighter: I think the young notably Gen Z are already doing the work– a lot of protests were organized by young women still in high school of different races, TikTok is ironically becoming a way that they’re sharing activist information and education instead of just memes. I think it’s the older people (me included) that need to be able to listen and provide them platforms instead of dismissing them. We need to decolonize the school curriculum and be able to dissect media because they’re usually where homophobia, racism and colorism start.

Zayf Illustrations: Well, change has to begin with young people. Social media has help made waves accross the globe with people of all ages sharing support and donating to foundations to help black people. But that still isn’t enough though. I do not have the answers, but I do hope to contribute in some way to the betterment of black folks.

Aboki, the main character from Orisha

J.R. De Bard: I believe educating yourself on issues facing black communities is one of the best things people can do, especially with how easy misinformation can spread and assist in fueling arguments that resist change. Doing research and having discussions with black people can help in viewing the world through a wider lens and should bring more support to black businesses and communities that really need it.

  1. What is something you have learned from working on your series for Saturday AM?

Daggerstarfighter: Pacing is key.

Zayf Illustrations: “Write what you know.” That was a piece of advice from Fredrick. L. Jones who is the publisher and founder of Saturday AM. He said it to me when I began working with them and it has stuck with me and helped me craft my story.

J.R. De Bard: The first series I pitched to Saturday AM was very “fanboy-esque,” and was heavily critiqued, rightfully so. When I took a step back, and reworked my ideas based on my own experiences, I feel like my concept and characters became more genuine and interesting. I feel as though my following has become more receptive to my work not just because artistically I’ve become better at portraying action sequences but also because my work as a whole has found a layer that is more authentic to who I am.

  1. Do you have any advice for anyone who is looking to get into the comic or manga industry, especially aspiring Black creators?

Daggerstarfighter: Keep drawing, try to reach out to other black artists or just artists period that’ve done what you’re trying to do (I say this and take a week to respond to messages). Even if they’re busy, if you’re specific with your question they tend to try and hit you back with something helpful. Be wary of people that want commissions from you for free, your work is worth something.

Zayf Illustrations: Keeping drawing and do lot of research into what you wish to learn. Be open minded and try to get feedback from fellow artists. I have learned that communicating with different artist helps evolve your perspective on art because everyone has a different viewpoint and background. And lastly, never forget to stay humble.

J.R. De Bard: I always try to advise other aspiring creators to stay connected. For me, this was going to conventions and jumping on every opportunity to have my work reviewed by other sequential artists.  With Covid-19 going on, this route is less accessible but it’s still fully possible to be discovered through social media.  Be open to sharing your work and pick out some good relevant hashtags to use, especially if you’re a Black creator. Even with Saturday AM, I managed to hold their interest by constantly sharing my art through social media.

Karim Yun, the main character from Underground

Karim Yun, the main character from Underground

Rai: Thank you to everyone who participated! It’s interesting to see how you all had some answers that are very similar and some that are very different. I’m looking forward to see how your comics and careers progress over time!

***

Please support these artists on social media and by checking out their comics in the Saturday AM app or website. You’ll also be able to find other culturally diverse creators and characters by reading the magazine. Additionally, you can do your part by donating to the Black Lives Matter Global Network or signing petitions.

Thank you to Saturday AM and the creators for the opportunity.

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