Many Turkish Airlines EuroLeague stars have diverse interests and talents that they have cultivated when not playing basketball. Inner-View is a series of Q & A's with players about their off-court hobbies and passions. Anime and manga entrepreneur Johnny O'Bryant of Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv opens the series.
The creation of Noir Caesar was years in the making, but once Johnny O'Bryant got it off the ground, his creative agency and art and animation studio for Japanese-style cartoons and comic books has been rapidly growing in popularity. A chance encounter with a teacher in his high school days planted the seed to create characters in his image and years later, once his professional basketball career had taken off, O'Bryant was able to bring that idea to fruition. Now a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague rookie with Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv, O'Bryant is not able to oversee the day-to-day running of the business, but he is involved in all the major decisions and is the creative voice behind many of the characters and comic book titles that Noir Caesar produces. "Most of the stories are created by me. And that's because some of these ideas I've had since I was little," O'Bryant explained. "I just want to continue to make contact with kids like me that didn't really see themselves portrayed on the screen, but like anime and like manga."
How did you first come to appreciate Japanese cartoons, anime?
"I grew up watching Cartoon Network and every day after school they had this anime block that was about three hours long; they would show Dragon Ball Z, Gundam, a bunch of Japanese cartoons. The things I liked about them was that the storylines were a lot deeper. I felt it was a lot more thought out than, say, your cliché Batman, Aquaman, Spider-Man kind of thing. And for me, that's what I liked more about Japanese-style cartoons."
"Basketball for me has been a roller coaster and I think I can tell a roller coaster story."
Were you interested in manga (Japanese comic books) at that time, too?
"I wasn't. I really didn't get into manga until about college. I just normally watched anime and then I discovered that any time you couldn't watch anime you could read the books. Once I discovered that, I dove into manga."
How did you decide to start Noir Caesar?
"It's a funny story. One day I was in my high school teacher's class and I saw him reading a manga of an anime that I was watching. I asked him about it and we just started talking. I remember us talking and saying that it would be cool to see more black characters and more diversity in anime. It was just a thought back then, but as I got older and got to the NBA, one day I was on an airplane and watching anime and I thought to myself, 'It's been 10 years since I had that conversation with my teacher and nobody has really tried to do it.' So I hit him up one day and said we should start something for young African-Americans to see themselves projected in anime comic stores. So we got together, we formed something called Noir Caesar and that was really our mission, to set out and create more things like Black Panther and that. So I think that was our goal and it kind of took off quicker than we imagined. It's been cool."
Is it true that some people question whether your work is true anime because it's not from Japan? Does that matter?
"Our work is a mix of western and eastern."
"Yeah, but not for me. It's inspired by Japan. Honestly, our work is a mix of western and eastern. It takes influences from American cartoons and mixes them with Japanese cartoons. So I think you could consider it whatever. As long as the mission is carried out, that's all I care about, really. We just call it whatever the story is and we let the fans determine [how it's labelled]."
You are the CEO and creative director? How involved are you in day-to-day operations?
"I am the CEO. I started it. But I have an amazing group of people that work for the company. They do a helluva job running it and making sure the day-to-day is up to par. I wouldn't say I am too involved [in the day-to-day operations]. I try to focus on playing basketball as much as I can, but with any major decisions they normally shoot me a text or we have a call, something like that."
Are you involved on the artistic side? Do you draw?
"Yeah, I draw a little bit. Mainly, if you look on the website, you'll see that most of the stories are created by me. And that's because some of these ideas I've had since I was little. We have a writing team and we have an art team. Basically, if I have an idea, I give it to them and they'll say 'I like it' or 'I don't like it.' And if they like it they'll go through with it. They'll write it and then they'll pass it to me, I'll read it. If I like it, I'll pass it to the art team and they start production on it. But I don't write everything, it's just kind of whatever topic I have."
Do you have stories that involve experiences from your basketball career?
"Yeah, I have one title called Eagle Heart and it's like rugby, actually, because I didn't want to do basketball. I wanted to tell a more adult-themed sports story, tell the ups and downs people go through. Because in my career, I've bounced around. I've played in the NBA, I've started, I've been inactive, I've not played for 20 games, I played in the G-League, been a G-League All-Star and now I'm here. So basketball for me has been a roller coaster and I think I can tell a roller coaster story through that."
Who is your target audience?
"Late teens through early adults. I'd say anywhere from 16 to 35 years old."
How do your teammates react when they hear about this?
"I haven't really talked much about it with them. To be honest, if you haven't really watched anime, I don't think you would really understand it. We do talk comic books. A few weeks ago me and some of my teammates went to see Venom, the movie. So I think they know more about American comics, Marvel, DC, than about Dragon Ball Z or something like that. But I've watched enough Marvel and DC to be able to talk about that."
"Most of the stories are created by me. And that's because some of these ideas I've had since I was little."
What is your ultimate goal for the company?
"Just to keep growing. We haven't announced it yet, but we do have an actual anime that is going to be shown on a streaming service. We signed that deal. That's big news. We hope to have that by the end of 2019. Other than that I just want to continue to make contact with kids like me that didn't really see themselves portrayed on the screen, but like anime and like manga."
How big is Noir Caesar?
"We have about 10 employees now. They run it day to day. They all do a great job just making sure things stay on track. We are about to launch in a couple of weeks an app, that should be available on the Apple Store, Google Play. And we have a clothing line based on our material coming out. So we're pretty busy. I think we have 11 titles out now with more coming out in a couple of months."
Do you have a favorite character?
"It's tough. We have one called XOGenaSYS. And that's the one you'll be seeing soon on TV. It's basically a sports story about how really talented young kids are taken advantage of in sports at a really young age. That's pretty much all I can say now. It's a pretty dope story. It's inspired by different things I've seen. I think everybody that plays at this level had some sort of success as a young kid and grown men come sit in your house and tell your mom, 'Hey, send your kid to my school and I'll take care of him for you.' And it's just things like that."
Is there an anime community here in Israel?
"I have no idea! I did look... It looks like they have an anime convention every year. I don't know the name of it, though. If it is, it'll be dope. Hopefully, I'll have time to go stop through."