Japanese manga, anime, and its subtexts from the perspective of Black Nerd : Interview with Omar Holmon (Poet, pop culture critic)
We humans are attracted to good words, and we appreciate them. But I think we express that appreciation in different ways.
#Black Nerd
Interviewee |
Omar Holmon

Omar Holmon is a poet, culture critic, performer, and nerdy content creator based in Brooklyn. He has been featured in Marvel Voices, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Huffpost, The Root, and Lifehacker.  The 'Black Nerd Problems: Essays' book, released by Simon & Schuster in 2021 was co-authored by Omar Holmon alongside William Evans, The book is titled after the Black Nerd Problems website that Omar and Will co-founded together (circa 2014) that provides fun editorials, reviews, and witty commentary.

■Black Nerd Perspective

Tami Yanagisawa: First, can you tell us why you started communicating about pop culture from the perspective of Black Nerd Culture?

Omar: I started because it was something I was good at. I thought I could do it - talk about pop culture, especially subcultures. It's my life, and it's something I grew up with. And when I started, nobody was talking about it. So that was my personality as well. Or the only people talking about pop culture were white. They're not people of color, so they miss out on important things. So I could talk about things they miss.  

Tami Yanagisawa: You are already a poet, and then you started to transmit your work as a Black Nerd. How does poetry writing relate to talking about subcultures?

Omar: When I describe something, I think I still have the feeling I had while reading poetry. And because of my poetry studies, I can manipulate words in a certain way. So when I talk about Hajime no Ippo, I don't just say it's a great anime about boxing. I appreciate it like a storyteller appreciates another storyteller's work. My aim is always to make other people want to read that book. What can I do to achieve that? I make the words stand out and make them a bit more dramatic. If I do that, if I paraphrase or exaggerate certain things as I talk about them, they go, 'OK, now I have to check this out.' That's what I like to do, and that's the core of what I do. To use my poetic writing ability to highlight and appreciate the work of other writers. That's the most important thing for me.

Tami Yanagisawa: You also use TikTok and X (formerly Twitter) to communicate about subcultures in a humorous and interesting way.

Omar: I'm a funny person. Some people might not take this too seriously because this is just funny and humor. At least in poetry, if you have a serious piece and a funny piece, the serious one is obviously more valued. Even though just because it made you laugh doesn't mean it's not serious. It's just a different way of doing the same thing.

■Poetry, rap, and nerd culture

Tami Yanagisawa: In your mind, poetry and talking about subcultures are connected. I am interested in what the poetry community thinks about that.

Omar: What I was doing was slam poetry. Slam poetry is a performance, and people use it for something. It's like opening up to something. I don't know what that will be. I started doing this in 2000, but it took off in 2007. I don't think it's surprising to people in the poetry community that I do essays about subcultures. Because I've always talked about comics. I like talking about those things, and it's like that's the platform now.  

Tami Yanagisawa: When we think of verbal art, rap music comes to mind recently. In Japan, contemporary poetry was also popular in the 60s and 70s, just as it was in the USA. Lately, tanka, traditional Japanese poetry, is also popular among young people, but it still cannot compete with the popularity of hip-hop and rap music.

Omar: We wouldn't say that poetry and rap are different things. Maybe academically, they are different, but to us, they are the same art. I want to be a great rapper, but that's not possible. But I can express myself with words like they do. They have a talent for rhyming, and I don't, but I think it doesn't change the fact that we paint a great picture.

■Uniqueness of Japanese manga and anime.

Tami Yanagisawa: What do you think of the characteristics and uniqueness of Japanese manga and anime?

Omar: Japanese animation artists and manga writers have unique approaches to their work. They have to work on a demanding schedule. It can be detrimental to their health, but they have a love for their works. That's an incredible thing for me. They love the stories so much. I'm also a big fan of American comics, which only come out once a month, but Japanese manga artists write 15 pages weekly. In American comics, the writer and the penciller have separate jobs to work on one project. The writer does the authoring, the penciller does the drawing, and the inker does the coloring mostly and helps the others as needed. Hajime no Ippo, which I talked about earlier, has been running for a long time, but it's basically written by one author. The author of Naruto couldn't go on a honeymoon for 15 years.

So I think. Dedication to craft is like a samurai breaking his sword seven times and not only sharpening it but also experiencing a fatal wound. George Morikawa in Hajime no Ippo really almost died. Luckily he got better and resumed his manga, but when the main character retired, he was injured, and he was like, 'This is the last thing I can do', and I felt like the author was speaking through his character. It's like the real world, and the level of the artwork is speaking in totality. Hajime no Ippo is the best manga of all time, and I've never seen an author or manga artist who could do that. I like people like that. They don't sleep well, their health is not so good, but they keep doing it. My brother is like that, too. He's not a hammer; he's like an anvil. The result of what those people make is very beautiful.

Tami Yanagisawa: Do you see anything unique in Japanese manga and anime when it comes to storytelling?

Omar: The biggest difference between Japanese manga and American comics is that, as I said earlier, American comics create a creative team, a team of artists (pencilers and inkers), and writers like a tag team in wrestling. Japanese comics do not have this. Manga artists are single wrestlers. They are just themselves. Of course, teams sometimes do great. But nowadays, American comics are getting shorter and shorter, with 12 issues, which means you're lucky if it lasts a year and is immediately discontinued. Then, a new team comes in right away. But Japanese manga artists are not a team. Good or bad, they keep going. I like the fact that the story doesn't change. I didn't like the situation in American comics where so many chefs are in the kitchen. In Japanese manga, everything stays the same, and nothing changes. This is in contrast to the way of production, where new people come in and are replaced, and what Japanese manga artists create is pure storytelling.

■ Nerd = being a fan

Tami Yanagisawa: Recently, 'otaku' has become less and less of a negative word in Japan, and the word 'nerd' seems like that. What do you think about this?

Omar: For me, 'nerd' means being a fan of something. It used to mean something negative, but now it just means being a fan, and I can be a 'nerd' for anything. ‘Otaku’ feels like the same thing to me. The level of fandom might be different, though.

Tami Yanagisawa: Does "nerd" have an intellectual connotation?

Omar: Yeah, yeah, that applies to a different type of geek. Like, they wear glasses, and they're awkward. There are different versions of stereotypes. When I co-authored this book (Black Nerd Problems), I wanted Webster's Dictionary to change 'nerd' to mean 'fan', or add another meaning. It's 2023, and I want to say that this designation is not an insult; they are fans. My secret mission is to add that word as a supplement.

■Why do African Americans love Japanese anime and manga?

Tami Yanagisawa: I was happy to see African-American artists I listened to a lot mention of Japanese anime and manga in their lyrics. What do you think about this interesting influence relationship between Japanese subcultures and black culture?

Omar: For me, I think that's simply a good story. I think that Japanese anime fans are a new version of the kind of people who used to be into martial arts stuff. They used to like old martial arts films, like 'Kid with a Golden Arm' and stuff like that. Those films they watched on free channels. They didn't have cable TV or anything, so they just watched films on those channels. So rap artists would rap about the films they saw, like the Wu-Tang Clan. They loved it. That's how more people started doing what I did. They would see a film I liked and mention it, and it would spread like, 'I saw that one too' or 'I didn't see that one.' It's like reading stories to them when they were little. Japanese animation might seem a bit childish, but it has a message. And the story moves along naturally. So you find out, oh, this one was about loss, or this one was about redemption. The animation is episodic, which is different from American cartoons, which are hour-long stories or a collection of short stories. One big story is told in episodes, episodes, episodes. I think that approach is connected to the dedication to craft that I talked about earlier.

We humans are attracted to good words, and we appreciate them. But I think we express that appreciation in different ways. That's why I started cosplaying (dress-up) too. My wife also likes anime; she's Indian-Australian, and our friends are black, but we cosplay and have hip-hop parties. It's a way of showing respect for the work. Black people like Naruto's Akatsuki, make these Japanese anime symbols on their bonnets. It's a cultural exchange; it's like we rock with anime. On the other hand, some Japanese people learn breakdancing, and they do crazy dance moves. I think they're showing their physical appreciation for black culture.

Tami Yanagisawa: I find that kind of influence relationship really interesting, but how can we deeply identify with each other's culture when our backgrounds are completely different and we don't even belong to the same community?

Omar: Right. I can say that I embrace my favorite cartoon and animation works as my own. They resonate with me. For example, Haikyu!! is a volleyball manga, right? There are a lot of different characters, of course, but in that one, the team is the real protagonist, and the focus is on the team and their journey. I do athletics and like volleyball, but I've had this experience. I jumped higher than I ever could have before and still lost. I remember being on the bus and being sad. The best jumper was a team member, Owen, and he was looking down, and I said, "You played well. What happened?" And he said, "Oh, thanks. But we lost the tournament, though." I can't help but remember that.

Omar: Reading Hajime no Ippo, the other film I mentioned earlier, reminds me of the injuries I experienced. Mine was not a chronic encephalopathy (CTE) due to being hit by someone but because of an accidental injury. But I can resonate with it because I've experienced certain injuries. When the protagonist lost his first battle, I was sad for two weeks, even though nobody died in real life... (Laughs.) I was walking around the house, almost crying. Like Jordan Peele said, you might not be able to look into it from the outside, but you can feel it. That's the power of storytelling.  

■Collectivism in Japanese manga and the black community

Tami Yanagisawa: When you said, 'The team is the protagonist,' I thought that made sense. Still, I have ambivalent feelings about this tendency in Japanese manga, which is also true of East Asian idol culture, to glorify the achievement of something as a group. This is because there are bad aspects of Japanese collectivism, and we Japanese also need the model of individualism in a good way.

Omar: Have you read Blue Rock?

Tami Yanagisawa: A student told me, "A comic has emerged that critiques collectivism and celebrates individualism!" and introduced Blue Rock to me. But I unfortunately haven't read it myself to the point where I could say anything about it. I am interested in whether the collectivist tendencies in Japanese manga and anime are something African Americans can relate to; what do you think?

Omar: Individualism and collectivism, right? Yes, because we are not from the West, we are not from the Americas, so that community can mean a lot. In a way, slavery is over, but I think collectivism is a big thing.

I don't know if you've watched it, but there's a viral video circulating about a boat incident in Alabama. One black male security guard was asking white men to move the boat. One white man then pushed the black security guard, and several other white men joined him in taking him down. The black men returned fire, and now one black man joined in with another and another, and there were even people who swam from the boat and joined in, so it became a big fight. Interestingly, the police were there, and he was like, 'Yeah, you're right to attack that guy,' it wasn't until someone started swinging a chair around that it was like, 'I have to intervene.'

There's that kind of collectivism, and black people, in particular, help black people in need. Black women are the lowest in the social hierarchy, so they need more support than men, so I want  people to help them. We are that kind of community. We are individuals, but we always come together as a group when there is danger, and not only that, we also get together often to celebrate, as we do with our animation events.

We live in the West, and we are taught by Western people to grow up, be successful, and earn money. But we are always in danger because we are not from here. Whenever we go anywhere, we are always looking for our people. Like in the viral video above, if something happens, we get united. For example, if I see a black man running, I immediately start running. I don't ask, "What's going on?" I run with him without a pause. Even if I don't know what I'm running from, it means there is danger. It's already like a way of life. I have the feeling of living between two worlds: the West and my community. I'm also in a position where I can help others, advise, and let people from my community in because I'm stepping into areas where my community has not been before. So, being black in this country has a twofold meaning. You're taught individualism, but your parents also teach you that you have to look after each other.

Tami Yanagisawa: I really appreciate that you have taught me so much. Thank you so much for teaching me so much. Collectivism for us, who are mostly racially homogeneous in the country, is quite different from that of African Americans regarding social background. I hope that Japanese people become more aware of this, and I feel that the deep-rooted collectivist orientation in Japanese manga can be reconsidered in more depth.

■For people of color, subculture consumption is not an escape from reality

Tami Yanagisawa: Regarding self-awareness, I was very impressed by Omar's book and the fact that accepting subcultures is not just an escape from reality. Many Japanese people are unaware of social critical elements and idealistic visions in Japanese manga. The majority of people blindly consume them as entertainment.

Omar: Even in the US, the majority is the same. They (i.e., the majority, white people) don't think it's good to interpret things as deeply as I do. I'm an X-Men fan, and I love comic books. So about any show I make, they'll say, " Be cool; let's not make a complicated political storyline; let's make a fantasy story." But like Superman beat Nazi dogs, Captain America fought fascism, the X-Men came out during the civil rights movement, and subcultures have always been political. Just because they [i.e., the majority, white people] are fed up with it doesn't change it, and I think they don't look at it knowingly. 'I want to consume it without thinking, 'that's the kind of state of affairs they like. They can find representations of themselves all over society. They want that state where they're walking around in bulletproof vests, and they've got Super Mario music playing in their head, and Mario's got a star, and he's walking around invincible. It's like saying nothing will happen to me, but we can't escape some things. To them, it's a bad thing. I love accidents.

Unfortunately in the X-Men there's always genocide. I'm sick and tired of seeing these beatings. We had the most diverse team ever, with their three black guys on the team, and then the team was wiped out. So we're talking about why we have to pay such a violent price and what important points we have to show to prove.

One Piece is the perfect meme for these types of stories when it comes to Japanese productions. It's about friendship. But in ‘One Piece' main characters are trying to overthrow the government. The government now has a system crushing them, and the story is that it is unjust. But someone says: 'This isn't political.' Are you kidding? So they just consume the whole story and they don't see the whole picture of what's being said, so they say, this story is hilarious. Whereas for us, everything has a subtext. So, I always hit a void where I can find relevance.

As I mentioned in Black Nerd Problems, in The Avengers, vol. 5, issue 37, Mr. Fantastic's daughter Valeria from the Fantastic Four gives her father a note with advice for his problem. The note says: "You can't win. It's time to start thinking about how not to lose". When I read that, I thought that it sounded like the experience of black people in America. We are not from here. And the system is actually set up so that what I'm saying makes sense. Racism is racism, and it's a terrible thing. But it's also a complicated Rubik's cube. You know what I mean? If you fix one thing in one aspect, another aspect goes wrong again, and you have to start all over again. In the same way, in racism, some good work can make us suffer. So, every day, we think about how not to lose, but we can't win. What does it mean to lose in the first place? Is it being killed? Being harassed? If you can't win, what can you do? How can we not lose? How can I not lose? How do I get through the next day to day? It's my job to make you think about these things and what a good story can do for you. Do they (i.e., the majority, white people) want to escape reality by consuming these stories? I'll be back to reality in a minute.

Tami Yanagisawa: Omar's interpretations of subculture works are intelligent and profound, and I'm always really impressed, but I wonder if this kind of interpretation is still difficult for the ordinary fan.

Omar: No, it's not like that; regular fans also have great interpretations and discussions. Even in the US, there are gatekeepers in the NERD world, and they tend not to allow interpretation. I've had experiences like that, where I've been rejected at the gate. But it's important to have your own opinion without fear. It's crucial to become unconventional, but that takes time.

■To avoid becoming a toxic fan

Tami Yanagisawa: In Japan, ‘otaku’ often become cult-like, consuming large amounts of merchandise, worshiping like a religion, and far from critiquing and gaining insight into their favorites. How about in the US?

Omar: We have that in the US, as do Trekkies and Star Wars fans. The obsession becomes a whole personality. They dig into it and make it their personality, but for me, it's more about showing respect for the work. It's an appreciation before it's incorporated into the economics activity. So I feel it's not very cult-like.

Tami Yanagisawa: Do you have any advice to avoid becoming a toxic fan?

Omar: What I am communicating about NERD CULTURE is for everyone. It's not about gatekeeping; it's about saying 'Thank you.' If you make something your whole identity, when everyone has access to it, you can't know who you are. So, I think in order not to become toxic, you have to first have your own personality and be valued for what you are. You can't make what you like your identity. You have to have normal citizenship first. The work is made for everyone and you don't have to be an expert to enjoy it. I think being a fan also teaches you how to treat people. There's a big difference between being welcoming and saying, 'Wait a minute' and giving a person an assignment and seeing if they deserve to be there.

Tami Yanagisawa: Is there a much greater racial mix in actual fandom in the USA?

Omar: Case by case. Depends on what the fandom is. Star Wars is a good example. I love Star Wars, but I really don't want to be in that fandom. It's about fighting the evil empire, but Star Wars fans really act like Empire troops. They've made Star Wars their identity for so long that it's unacceptable when it changes, or I never want to change it in a way that they don't want me to. They want to think it's the same as it used to be. That's the problem. They can't accept change.  

■Possibilities of being a nerd and loving culture

Tami Yanagisawa: Finally, I want to ask about the potential of nerd culture. What potential do you think there is in liking subcultures and art and being a nerd? It is difficult to produce a counterculture with a significant influence in Japan, but I believe that subcultures such as anime and manga have the potential to do so; what do you think?

Omar: Sometimes, subcultures can change the mindset. When an individual has an influence on society, if you look at what they are doing, it might be something you can admire. Museums and art galleries are popular because people go there to appreciate what other individuals have created or what is beyond them. I can't do that myself, but I can appreciate that work. You can appreciate what other people are doing. If you are a decent human being, you can properly admire what someone else has done. That way, instead of getting something new, I can change my mind and change my ways towards something more community-oriented. For example, if you see a piece of artwork and you want to call a friend and just talk to someone in that way, you're admiring the individual who created it, and I think that work can help to change an individual's thinking. I think that's how poetry, art, and subcultures can change some of the dominant media.

Interviewee |
Omar Holmon

Omar Holmon is a poet, culture critic, performer, and nerdy content creator based in Brooklyn. He has been featured in Marvel Voices, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Huffpost, The Root, and Lifehacker.  The 'Black Nerd Problems: Essays' book, released by Simon & Schuster in 2021 was co-authored by Omar Holmon alongside William Evans, The book is titled after the Black Nerd Problems website that Omar and Will co-founded together (circa 2014) that provides fun editorials, reviews, and witty commentary.

Interviewer |
Tami Yanagisawa

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in Kwansei Gakuin University (Japan). She received his Ph.D. from Tokyo University in 2006. She is studying morality and religion, as well as pop culture and fandom as modern religions.

Twitter @tami_yanagisawa

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