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Using Manga to Teach Youth About Representation

Tony Weaver Jr is the Founder and CEO of Weird Enough Productions, which produces a manga series (Japanese inspired graphic novel) called the UnCommons as well as educational material for youth. Weaver works with 12 creatives scattered all over the world to advocate for diversity and representation through storytelling.

Weaver shares with us how the UnCommons were developed as well as what the future holds for his company.

What was the catalyst for founding Weird Enough Productions?

I think that when I started Weird Enough Productions, I felt a sense of urgency about creating positive representation. The Fergusen protests were taking off and at the time I had already been thinking about the concept. I also was working with Naeemah Clark, a preeminent scholar on representation and media. She wrote the textbook “Diversity in U.S. Mass Media" and Dr. Clark had taken me under her wing. I was researching from a scholarly point of view about what happened in Fergusen and how details about Michael Brown were shifted according to different narratives. Media storytelling is so powerful in painting the public opinion. That’s why any solution to media misrepresentation needs to involve media storytelling on a massive scale. 

I put together the pitch for Weird Enough and the organization was started after I won $500 from a pitch competition at Elon University. I was an acting major and the pitch was a competition hosted in the school of business. I didn't bring any formal dress clothes with me to college so I showed up to my pitch as a formal Frankenstien. I was wearing my friends dress shoes, another one of my friends slacks, the same goes for the blazer, and a friend even let me borrow his tie. We walked away with first place and that is what kicked things off. 

Creating representation is the core piece of your work, who do you hope can benefit from comic books you create?

I think representation is a two way street. I love the chance for young Black kids to see my work and feel represented. And when I say young, I mean teens, like young Black people that are coming of age and figuring out who they are. I’d love for my characters to be there for them as they navigate that path for themselves. Representation can also fill in the gaps when other people can’t be there to do so. I'm from Atlanta, Georgia and there’s a significant Black population there. I believe my work is important there so young people can see someone represent them, but simultaneously, I could share my work in Maine where the Black population is low and I think my work is important there too. I need young people that don't grow up around people of color, that don't have very diverse upbringing and experiences, to see my work so their points of view aren't only influenced by stereotypes and racist norms.

How did you decide to use comic books as the vehicle to deliver your message?

In the beginning of Weird Enough, we made films. I wrote short films for us to produce and we were able to create a web series because of the massive infrastructure I had at school. There were students who wanted to act and be in my videos and I had access to production material. Even though the budget was low we could produce things. Post graduation, we received a grant, which allowed me to be sustainable at the time. However, I knew there was no way we could produce films on the same budget forever. I asked myself, “what stories feed me? What stories inspire me?” and the answer was manga and anime. The answer was sitting in front of me this whole time. It would also be cheaper because finding an artist is much less expensive than financing a film. 

Tell us a little bit about organizations you’ve worked with like WarnerMedia and Solve

WarnerMedia has been an amazing corporate partner for years because of the emphasis they put on digital learning. WarnerMedia and AT&T recently released The Achievery, which is a tool using content based education for young people. We were able to support them by putting our Weird Enough educational lens on content like Steven Universe, Adventure Time, and We Bare Bears. 

The support Solve provided was broad in our organization's growth and I think overall it helped us align our business model post Covid-19 so we could take steps towards sustainability in a new growth model.

What is the future of the UnCommons?

The UnCommons has a very bright future. We have over two and half million readers online and based on that success, we are able to partner with WEBTOON– the largest webcomic company in the world. WEBTOON isn’t acquiring our company, they’re actually working with us as a partner and that doesn’t happen very often in the industry. We’re going to relaunch the UnCommons in a newer format and I‘m excited to go back and reimagine some of the story's moments while also giving the characters more color and depth. This is kind of like the UnCommons director’s cut. We will be launching early 2023 with WEBTOON with hopes of bringing the manga to an even larger audience, which will catalyze our education work even more.

The UnCommons has seen extensive growth since 2014 but the journey is far from complete for Weird Enough Productions. After asking Weaver what’s next, he revealed that there is an animated series in development. He also leaves us on a note of curiosity, “I never said the UnCommons was the only story we would tell, so stay tuned.”

If you are interested in championing representation through innovation, learn more about Solve’s US Equity work.

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