Noir Caesar is a Black-owned and operated manga company, founded by NBA star Johnny O’Bryant, with partnerships to Japanese companies such as Kodansha and Tezuka Productions. Their mission is to create stories made by fans, for fans. Together with TOKYOPOP, they have begun a collaborative partnership to publish their original stories.

Comics Beat recently had the pleasure to meet the Noir Caesar founders at Anime Expo — below is an interview conducted with Johnny regarding their two latest titles, XOGENASYS and Primus7, which were published in July.

INTERVIEW: Johnny O’Bryant talks Noir Caesar 

MARION PENA: Primus7 has a very unique world with its own continent and power system. What were the influences for this world that you wanted to tap into to shape it?

JOHNNY O’BRYANT: Primus7 was the first story that myself and the team created and like many creators’ first idea it’s often inspired by things we like. So for me those things were action, super powers, & African mythology. We wanted to create a big and unique world that allows for our characters to travel all over and really explore.

Cover of Volume 1 of Primus7

PENA: Would one of these world building influences happen to be Street Fighter? Atiyama reminds me a lot of the character Akuma, and Orii gives me the impression of the Satsui no Hado that Ryu, Akuma, and Gouken utilize in Street Fighter.

O’BRYANT: Haha, most definitely Street Fighter was for sure a big influence for the comic book. Akuma is one of the big scary and extremely powerful villains so we wanted to approach our main villain with a similar idea. The idea of Orii is actually an African version of spirit energy that you often see in anime.

PENA: The story of Darius in XOGENASYS echoes many professional athletes who grew up in unfortunate circumstances but were able to improve their lives through their talents. As you develop the Darius character, were there any experiences (personal or familial/close to you) that inspired you?

O’BRYANT: Darius and the story of XOGENASYS is for sure inspired by my life and other athletes around me seeing how we have to try to break away from our environment to be great and also how these mentor figures that come into your life early are all not what they seem.

Cover of Volume 1 of XOGENASYS

PENA: Similarly are there any personal experiences that inspired Primus7?

O’BRYANT: I wouldn’t say much of a personal experience but more of just what I would want to see if I lived in a fantasy world with cool powers.

PENA: Both series have cyberpunk elements in the form of highly advanced technology and themes of society struggling against authoritarianism. Would you say there is a connection between society advancing and marginalized groups getting overshadowed/overwhelmed by social, economic and technological factors?

O’BRYANT: That’s a great question. The stories were meant to convey how the advancement of technology will and possibly cause a lot of damage to humanity and society, but mostly those working low paying jobs that can be easily replaced through technology.

PENA: At your panel at this year’s Anime Expo, it was mentioned that artists are retained for series that “fit” them. What qualities drew the Noir Caesar team to selecting the artists for XOGENASYS and Primus7?

O’BRYANT: Well we were looking for artists that fit the style we wanted to convey. Just so happens those artists both got heavily invested in the stories and really made the worlds come to life. Also we like artists who can accurately portray black and brown characters in a stylish and unique way.

PENA: The dialogue in both series is very authentic and natural and resembles how people talk here in the United States. How did you guide the writing process to ensure this authenticity and preserve the feel you were aiming for?

O’BRYANT: The dialogue is something we went back and forth about because we wanted to make it sound very similar to how the youth would be talking and interacting with each other. The brothers were raised on the streets of Retzern and we wanted to make sure it felt like it.

From XOGENASYS Volume 1

PENA: Talent seems to be a major influence in the path your characters take, but they also do not shirk from working hard in order to cultivate those talents. Did that come from your experience as a professional athlete and your years of crafting a strong work ethic?

O’BRYANT: Yes indeed. I’m from one of the smallest towns in the Mississippi Delta and the amount of work and dedication it took to overcome certain obstacles was a lot at times. Even now as I am building and growing a successful company like Noir Caesar it takes non-stop dedication and drive to get most of the things done that we have managed.

PENA: In that vein, Do you have any stories or ideals/mindsets from your professional career that helped to shape your characters and stories?

O’BRYANT: Simply being able to overcome and adapt. The main characters in our stories are hit hard at times but are constantly able to pick themselves up and fight for what’s right. That’s something I’ve lived by my entire life. Do not take NO for an answer and do not settle with someone telling you that you are good enough.

From Primus7 Volume 1

PENA: What was the creative process for Primus7 and XOGenasys? Was the writing a collaborative effort or did you have a main writer who had a complete vision for the story arcs?

O’BRYANT: Yes, all of our titles are created with a team of writers. We believe in bouncing ideas off each other which leads to a strong story and world. We typically like to meet a few times a month when planning these stories and really pick each other’s brains about the material and figure out what works.

PENA: With how popular they are these days, are you entertaining the idea of doing crossovers or collaborations between your works?

O’BRYANT: Indeed we definitely have some crossovers in the works as the stories continue to build out and each volume releases. Also be on the lookout for our new titles that are coming out soon.

PENA: Do you think any of the cast in both series would get along well or have conflicts? For example, Darius and Seven/Silva.

O’BRYANT: Yes, mostly due to both of them being alike in some cases. I think Silva and Darius are very similar in the fact that both are quiet but also very strong fighters if pushed to do so. They both fight to protect the people they love.

From XOGENASYS Volume 1

PENA: Geo Yasuke is a standout character—he feels like he’s straight from The Boondocks! When these characters were developed, did you ever have any specific people in mind that helped to inspire their physical appearance or their vernacular?

O’BRYANT: Geo is heavily inspired by the guy in the local neighborhoods when growing up that was tough as nails and would look out for the younger kids to make sure no one picked on them. He’s also inspired by legendary Black Samurai, Yasuke, who is considered to be the first black samurai in Japan.

PENA: Besides black characters, you also feature Latino and Asian characters. What was the process for portraying that perspective accurately and in an authentic way?

O’BRYANT: Well the idea is that the world is very diverse and stories should be told from many perspectives and as accurately as possible. As I stated earlier we like to write in groups which allow for many different viewpoints and perspectives to be projected out from our stories.

PENA: For licensed adaptations announced at AX 2023, like Alabaster and Me and the Devil Blues, I can see why these are well suited to Noir Caesar. Both of these titles are unique but not yet widely known. What was your initial exposure to these works? How did you find them and know immediately “this will be a great Noir Caesar title.”

O’BRYANT: We found these titles through our search for diversity and characters that we can also relate to. These are titles we felt fit into the type of storytelling we want to produce. We are super excited to announce more soon. Please look out for Alabaster Kickstarter coming in September.

Alabaster, a recently acquired license for Noir Caesar, was originally by the “God of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka. Copyright Tezuka Productions.

PENA: With your endeavors launching and curating original + adapted content for Noir Caesar, you are forging new paths for BIPOC and minority creators, artists and writers as well as fans that love comics and manga. What is the single most important message you want to send to both your audience and your fellow publishers out there?

O’BRYANT: Create the stories that you feel are important and your audience will find you. Be a student of what you are inspired to create but also learn the business of comics & animation. It’s important to learn how to navigate the industry when your time comes.

Check out The Beat’s review section later this month for reviews of Noir Caesar’s first two titles!