Welcome to Creators on the Rise, where we find and profile breakout creators who are in the midst of extraordinary growth.
When Tony Weaver Jr. realized he’d need an art team to make his manga dreams come true, he came up with a radical idea for finding great artists: He’d actually pay them what they were worth.
And not only that, but he’d guarantee them a full-time job at his company, Weird Enough Productions, with all the standard benefits.
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How did that work out for him?
@tonyweaverjr Would you watch this anime? #manga #booktok #mha #atla #naruto ♬ original sound – TonyWeaverJr
He doesn’t mince words: “I’m actually very prideful about the Weird Enough team. I tell people that I feel like I have the best team in the world. Literally, if Disney called me tomorrow and said, ‘Fight to the death, your team versus mine,’ I’d be like, ‘Oh, we got you. Shouldn’t have did it. Shouldn’t have stepped into the arena, bro.’ I would put my team up against the best of them.”
His superstar team works on The UnCommons, Weaver’s comic and the flagship IP of Weird Enough, which consists of two branches: the media company branch and a nonprofit branch that focuses on outreach to Black youth. For Weaver, the nonprofit branch’s outreach is a core part of his webcomic writing process.
“Things kick off and our main character, Iris, has a vision where she predicts this oncoming calamity that threatens all of humanity,” he says. “I can look at Iris’s story as a young person that sees something that no one else in her community sees or take seriously, and link that to a lesson plan around what it means to trust your own vision, how important it is to see yourself exactly the way you are in a world where sometimes people don’t see you the way that you want to be seen.”
As you can probably imagine, Weaver wears a lot of creative and managerial hats. At the start of the pandemic, he added another one by joining TikTok, where he took his love of manga and anime–the things that inspired The UnCommons in the first place–and turned them into “Pop Courage” moments meant to inspire teens, especially those struggling with the impact of the COVID pandemic.
Fast-forward two years, and Weaver (who is, by the way, a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree, and was also featured by TikTok in its recent #WorldBookDay) now has over 700,000 followers. His social media presence has become a core part of The UnCommons, Weird Enough, and his mission to show kids that there’s something special in the way they see the world.
Check out our chat with him below.
@tonyweaverjr Hidden Leaf Dad inspired by @Alyssa #naruto #anime #weeb #uchiha #sasuke #itachi ♬ original sound – TonyWeaverJr
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tubefilter: Nice to meet you! For readers who aren’t familiar with you, give me a little bit of background. Where are you from and how did you get into manga and anime?
Tony Weaver Jr.: Definitely. My name is Tony Weaver Jr., I am from Atlanta, Georgia, and I consider myself a storyteller. If I have to put a title on myself, I consider myself a storyteller. I have always had a passion for stories, whether that be in the written word, whether that be film, or even the story that you can tell through music. I think media storytelling is just something that I’ve always been really passionate about. I’ve always admired people who have been able to tell stories like that.
I got started on TikTok because when the pandemic started and I saw that a lot of the young people in my community were dealing with negative outcomes pertaining to it, I thought that maybe stories could be helpful to bring some positivity and help bridge that gap.
Tubefilter: When did The UnCommons start?
Tony Weaver Jr.: The UnCommons is the kind of flagship series that is produced by my company, Weird Enough Productions. To tell you the story about The UnCommons, I got to tell you about Weird Enough a little bit too. Weird Enough Productions is my company. We’re a social impact organization, which basically means that even though we operate as a company, we believe that the impact that we have on the world is significantly more important than whatever our profit margin is. For us, when we think about success, we gauge success based on what our social impact is.
I started Weird Enough when I was a junior in college at Elon University in North Carolina with the idea that maybe the things that make people weird, the things that make people different are the things that make them powerful. This ethos that the things that we think are weird about ourselves are actually the unique gifts that we have to bring to the world. I started Weird Enough while I was in college with the emphasis on telling diverse stories and using them to make the world better.
The UnCommons was the first major series that grew out of Weird Enough. I was really inspired by artist collectives, like Odd Future and Rooster Teeth, this idea that we can all come together with these ideas and make something cool out of it. The UnCommons I started noodling on and writing on when I lived in Japan in 2015. While I was in Japan I was writing, I was taking masterclasses, I was going to museums.
I was taking a bunch of notes because, at the time, I was very much heavy into my like, “I want to be like all these mangaka that I grew up reading,” typeface and having the opportunity to learn there. When I came back to the States and made the decision that I wanted to make Weird Enough my full-time job, instead of going into a cubicle somewhere, we were able to raise investment, and it set me on this journey to be a storyteller and create this positive social impact.
Tubefilter: Has Weird Enough worked with any other writers?
Tony Weaver Jr.: The UnCommons is primarily the thing that we’re focusing on right now. We consider The UnCommons as the groundwork for larger universal stories that we’re building. I know that most writers right now, the trendy thing is to be like, “This is a part of my larger universal stories,” but I think the idea is that we recognize how difficult it is to get your foot in the door as creators, especially as creators of color.
The idea is that The UnCommons will help pave the way for a bunch of other stories that we have kind of in the background. For example, I have a series with First Second Books for a book series called Weirdo. That’s a middle-grade slice-of-life series focusing on my experiences navigating mental health as a young Black kid in Atlanta. We have a couple of other series that we’re working on as well that haven’t been announced yet, but The UnCommons is our first foray. They’re the vanguard of our storytelling force.
@tonyweaverjr I surprised a school with a manga library! What school should I visit next? #anime #weeb #crunchyroll #naruto #mha #deku #pokemon #booktok@crunchyroll ♬ original sound – TonyWeaverJr
Tubefilter: Got it. You talked a little bit about your inspiration to get on TikTok, but when you launched your TikTok, what was your intention in terms of the kind of videos that you wanted to make, and how does that tie into the rest of your creative pursuits?
Tony Weaver Jr.: Well, I wanted to create content on TikTok where I could be authentic and where I could make people’s days a bit better, which I think is why I had such an emphasis on TikTok when I started. When I came to the platform, I said, “Oh, wow.” There’s a type of content that I’ve always wanted to make that I’ve never felt like I could make anywhere else. Depending on what platform you go to, there are different norms, and even though I participated in different social media platforms before, none of them really felt like places where I could show up and be my genuine self and have an actual positive impact on people.
When I started on TikTok, literally the idea was, I’m going to take the nerdy stories that make me happy and use them to make other people happy. I would get my Funko Pop figures, like a Funko Pop figure of Goku, or Vegeta, or Naruto, and come up with a 15-second really quick thing that takes the story arc of that character and distills it down into a lesson that people can take for the day, and I called it “Pop Courage.” Using pop culture for courageous purposes.
That was how I started. As my account began to grow, what I noticed is that in the nerd space, specifically, there are a lot of people of color, a lot of people of marginalized identities that don’t feel comfortable in these spaces sometimes. My ethos expanded to, I need to make room for people to be able to be themselves in these spaces.
Tubefilter: Clearly you’re doing really well on TikTok now. Do you know what helped you take off? What helped you build your platform and your audience on TikTok?
Tony Weaver Jr.: I think that for everyone it’s different. When people talk about growing, especially on a platform like TikTok, they talk about authenticity, they talk about consistency, they talk about engaging with your audience. I think that all those things played a role, but if I’m being frank, I think that the reason that I was able to grow is because there was a community of people that were looking for a person like me, if that makes sense.
I don’t want to purport that I am this prodigious, I always think 100 steps ahead, I know everything and I know what all the trends are. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that honestly I showed up with the intention to bring some good, and there was a community that needed some good. I brought something that they needed and was able to grow in that capacity.
Tubefilter: You were on Forbes 30 Under 30. Can you talk a little bit about that experience? That’s wild.
Tony Weaver Jr.: Well, it’s fun. I was named on the Forbes 30 Under 30, and I’m also the first manga/comic author to be on the list, and that was a really cool thing. I think, as a writer, what I always focus on is how can the work that I’m creating have the largest, positive impact on my audience and the people that I want to support, and because of that, that leads to things that Weird Enough does as an organization.
When I was selected for Forbes, it was not only because I was writing, but because I built this kind of infrastructure of using writing and stories as a way to support young people. We work with over half a million students around the country using stories and graphic novels to improve their literacy and their mental health. I think that the Forbes 30 Under 30 nod came from the creative way that I was using stories, especially at scale to impact so many people.
@tonyweaverjr Akatsuki Roll Call #shabooyachallenge #rollcall #naruto #anime #shabooyachallenge #akatsuki #itachi ♬ original sound – TonyWeaverJr
Tubefilter: We’re stepping back a little bit, but in terms of building your team, how did you find the artists to work with Weird Enough?
Tony Weaver Jr.: I’m actually very prideful about the Weird Enough team. I tell people that I feel like I have the best team in the world. Literally, if Disney called me tomorrow and said, “Fight to the death, your team versus mine,” I’d be like, “Oh, we got you. Shouldn’t have did it. Shouldn’t have stepped into the arena, bro.” I would put my team up against the best of them. A part of why that is is because everybody on my team is really passionate about the work, and the way that we were able to find each other was through that passion.
As a writer, I don’t draw. I do a bit of creative direction, visual direction, but I don’t draw. A lot of people ask me, they say, “Well, Tony Weaver Jr., I write, but I can’t draw. How do I build a team of people?” The first thing that I go is, “You get money to pay them.” That’s how you do it.
Tubefilter: Yes! There you go!
Tony Weaver Jr.: That’s how you build a team. You get money to pay them. For me, when we were starting, what I knew was what I bring to the table is my stories, but also really cool words are not going to be the thing that keep the lights on. If you want to build a team and you want them to be as passionate about this work as you are, you have to create a company and an infrastructure where these people can literally trust you with their livelihoods and know that they can submit the invoice and that the invoice is going get paid.
Know that at the first of every month or when the pay cycle starts that direct deposit is going hit. I built my team by becoming a very shrewd business person. I became an entrepreneur out of necessity. I said, “I want to tell stories. I need a team in order to create those stories. In order to have a team that does the quality of work that I want, I need to be supporting that team financially. That means I got to go get some investment. That means we have to develop a strong revenue model.”
I took the same creative point of view that I apply to my writing and I applied it to building a business. Now we’re at a point where I pay my team more than Marvel pays their writers, more than Marvel pays their artists.
Tubefilter: Which is a low bar, to be fair.
Tony Weaver Jr.: Valid.
Tubefilter: Not to say that you’re not paying, but it makes me so angry to hear about Marvel’s terms.
Tony Weaver Jr.: Valid. 100% valid. I think that what artists have to deal with in terms of compensation, in terms of lack of benefits, and even lack of ownership for the literal body-breaking work that they’re doing is ridiculous. A part of why I’ve been able to get the team that I want is because we put out our first application for an artist, and I’m like, “I’m paying you full-time salary and benefits to draw comics.” We got over 300 applications in maybe the first 4 days.
I also got a bunch of emails being like, “I have never heard of you before. Is this a scam?” People on Twitter being like, “Hey, does anybody know this guy? Can anybody vouch for this guy?” because even the concept of it feels unbelievable to some people. I’m glad that we’re able to move the industry forward in that way as well.
Tubefilter: My partner’s an artist, and lots of my friends are artists, and I’ve seen them struggle to get paid and struggle to get benefits and healthcare, and hearing you talk about this is incredibly cool. That kind of support for artists just doesn’t exist in so many places.
Tony Weaver Jr.: I try to bring that spirit of artist support to everything that I do on TikTok. I think that as creatives, there is a lane or vertical, if you will, that’s very braggadocious, where people are like, “Look at me and what I made. Look at me and what I made. Look at me and what I made.” I understand why some people feel like they have to do that. For me, it was never about, “Oh, hey, look at me and what I made,” it was more about, “Look at how powerful stories can be, look at how they bring people together, and look at how we as storytellers can create a better world, not just for the people that are reading our work, but also for our collaborators as well.” I like to think that that difference might play a role in some of the success that I’ve been able to have as well.
Tubefilter: Definitely. Very cool. So right now you’re doing a lot of things and you’re wearing a lot of hats. With managing your business and managing making content and managing The UnCommons, how does all of this tie together? What does your quote-unquote “average” week look like?
Tony Weaver Jr.: Well, right now I’m in writing mode. What my team knows is that basically for one to two weeks every three months or so, I basically hibernate like Sandy from SpongeBob, “Don’t call him unless you need something.” My assistant is like, “It is my job to make sure that no one needs something while he’s over there writing.” Right now my day is that I am writing from maybe four o’clock in the afternoon to seven o’clock in the morning, and then I sleep until I get up, exercise, and then go right back to writing. I’m only doing that for the next two weeks. That’s not my daily but that’s what my day is right now.
When I’m not in writing mode, the way that I’ve been able to find success in managing my business and also my content creation is building a strong team and delegating things to my team. On the content team, I’m responsible for writing scripts. We have a very amazing managing editor that as soon as she gets that script, she’s like, “Cool. I’m going to go over it. I’m making sure that every part of the process, whether that’s sketches, lines, flats, colors, letters, or even upload to Webtune in their platform, all that being managed.” I have an operations assistant, where basically I show up, I set things in motion, and then they keep things moving in motion until it’s time for me to show up and close the deal.
When I started, weird enough, it was just me and I had a lot of early experiences as an entrepreneur where I relied on people and they didn’t step up in the way that I needed them to. In my early career as an entrepreneur, it was very hard for me to let go of things.
It was very hard for me to trust someone with a task, but now our organization is mature, and I also think that I as a leader, have matured to a point where I can give my team something and trust that it’s going get done so I can spend time doing the things that only I can do like putting on my hat and talking about the sacred text. No one else can do that. That’s just me. That’s only me.
@tonyweaverjr Netflix New Series Leaked #netflix #wednesday #wednesdayaddams #anime #weeb #booktok ♬ original sound – TonyWeaverJr
Tubefilter: It’s so, so nice hearing you talk about your creative team this way. It’s clear you respect them a lot.
Tony Weaver Jr.: I think I’m a special case in the sense that most creators…If you’re a creator where you make content, normally what happens is that you start telling your stories, you start making your videos or your animations or something like that, you grow, and then when you get to a certain point where you get a film or TV deal, or you get a major book deal, or maybe you get signed to a big agency or something like that, and then you go, “Ooh, team,” and you start expanding and hiring editors. Some people hire scriptwriters, which I don’t understand. No shade on them, but I don’t understand.
Tubefilter: I also don’t get it.
Tony Weaver Jr.: Some people hire scriptwriters and then they start working with this team. For me, I had been the CEO of a company for six years before I started making TikTok content. When I walked into the space I knew that what I was doing was bigger than myself. It was never about, “Oh, let’s get Tony Weaver Jr. famous. Let’s make people fall in love with Tony Weaver Jr..” It’s always been about, “How do we spread this ethos of using storytelling for positive change?” I think that ethos impacts people.
Tubefilter: Are you fully a nonprofit? Is that right?
Tony Weaver Jr.: We’re a hybrid organization. Basically what that means is we have a for-profit arm and we have a non-profit arm. It depends on what we’re doing. We do a lot of stuff in technology. We do a lot of stuff in EdTech that’s rooted in our for-profit side, but we also do a significant amount of on-the-ground direct community work, which is where I spend most of my time these days, and that’s in the nonprofit.
Tubefilter: I’d love to hear more about the nonprofit side, and your work with students.
Tony Weaver Jr.: Definitely. Essentially what we do is we take our series, The UnCommons–Well, to give you some context, our series, The UnCommons, tells a story of a group of unlikely outsiders that have to save each other to save the world. Things kick off and our main character, Iris, has a vision where she predicts this oncoming calamity that threatens all of humanity. We follow her on her journey to follow her vision and stop this calamity before it begins. From the beginning, you have Iris, this character who sees something that other people don’t see.
I grew up in a really educated household. My mom worked in public education for over 30 years. I grew up around lesson plans, school conference rooms. There was a point in time where my mom was the principal, so I was in the principal’s office every day. I can look at Iris’s story as a young person that sees something that no one else in her community sees or take seriously, and link that to a lesson plan around what it means to trust your own vision, how important it is to see yourself exactly the way you are in a world where sometimes people don’t see you the way that you want to be seen.
I can take that in the same way that I write the story and write a lesson plan project or activity that links to it as well, that will allow a young person to pick up The Uncommons, read five pages of The Uncommons, learning about Iris and her story, and then connect that to the lesson plan that’s attached, and suddenly, “Whoa, there’s some impact happening.” Because now you have students doing writing prompts about, “What do you see in your community that you don’t think other people see? What’s something about yourself that you wish other people saw? How can you improve your self-confidence so that when other people try to tell you that you’re something you’re not, you have the confidence to go, “No, that’s not who I am. I know exactly who I am. This is what I am. This is what I believe”?
In a point in time where in the United States right now, we’re dealing with the youth mental health crisis, suicide and depression rates for young people are the highest that they’ve been in the last 20 years, and they were that high before COVID. COVID only made things exponentially worse. In the Black community, specifically, which is where a lot of my passion is, we have reached the first time where mental health disparities for young Black girls are increasing at a rate that is proportionately faster than they are for Black boys.
For me, as a storyteller, when I show up to put something on the page, it’s not just about, “What do I want to write? What do I feel like writing today?” It’s about, “Who am I writing for? What does that community need?” In looking at those community needs, a lot of our community work grew out of that.
I think that for a lot of young people in the United States, there is a feeling as though they’re being thrown away. The way that I describe it is like this: When you’re in elementary school, everybody tells you, “You’re the future. You’re the future. You’re going to have such a bright future and you’re going to go to change the world.” You have all those motivational signs in the classroom and the bulletin boards everywhere. They’re like, “Our young scholars, you’re going to change the world, you’re going to change the world.”
Then you hit middle school and for whatever reason, the moment you hit middle school, they’re like, “Sit down and shut up. Stop talking, put your phones away.” I’m sitting here like, “You said I was the future. What happened? Wait, wait, wait. What did I do?” That moment of adolescence where young people get to a point where suddenly their potential is gone and people see them as liabilities. They’re like, “Oh, those dang teenagers. What are they going to do? What are they going to take? What are they going to break? What are they going to steal?”
Suddenly all these negative things get heaped on you and you’re like, “Bro, I’m just trying to navigate the world. I’m scared about a lot of things. It’s difficult for me to make friends. My body is changing. Why are you treating me like this?” We try to show up at that point and extend a hand, and let them know, “Hey, you’re about to walk a path that a lot of people have had to and it’s not going to be easy, but we’re here for you while you do.” Yes.
@tonyweaverjr This anime is going to break records. #anime #weeb #naruto #mha #manga #scottpilgrim #scottpilgrimvstheworld #netflix ♬ original sound – TonyWeaverJr
Tubefilter: That abrupt shift in middle school…I’ve thought a lot about this. I feel like we get told we’re the future up until we start thinking for ourselves. Then in middle school, kids, they’re teenagers, they’re in puberty, they’re starting to have actual opinions, and then suddenly it’s like, “Oh, no, no, no, we don’t like that so much.”
Tony Weaver Jr.: It’s not only you get to a point where kids are starting to have opinions. You also get to a point where they start making mistakes. When you’re a kid, when you’re in elementary school, your mistake is like, “Oh, I spilled something.” “Okay, let’s clean that up.” When you’re a teenager and you make mistakes like a teenager reasonably would, a lot of people don’t have the emotional intelligence to meet those mistakes with grace. That’s a part of why I’m so passionate about the work that I do on TikTok and how happy I am to be able to have TikTok as a platform.
Every week, three times a week, I’m going live to a couple of thousand kids over the course of three hours and they’re popping up asking me questions. They’re like, “I need advice about this. I’m arguing with my friend about this. What do I do? What do I do?” A lot of them express that they don’t feel like they have safe places where they can go ask those questions and where they can go be vulnerable.
When you walk around the world feeling that way, really afraid to make mistakes, really afraid to acknowledge that sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, and you open your phone and there’s some wacky guy with a purple hat on yelling at the top of his lungs about a book that he calls the Sacred Text, and he rhymes sometimes too, but he seems nice, it creates a space where you can go, “This guy doesn’t take himself seriously at all. Maybe he won’t laugh at me if I show up and say, ‘Hey, here’s this problem that I’m dealing with.'”
Tubefilter: That resource is just nonexistent for so many people. Are there any plans or goals that you have for you personally and then as an organization moving forward over the next year or so?
Tony Weaver Jr.: Well, for me personally and also for Weird Enough as an organization, our largest goal right now is to grow The Uncommons. I think that for me as someone that highlights a lot of stories on book talk, my goal is to get people to care about and be passionate about the stories of independent creators in the same way that they are more established IPs. I think that what independent creators need are audiences that show up for them and feel passionate about them.
It’s my hope that over the next year, I can help make that happen for independent creators. Especially if I see people doing Kickstarters for their books or something like that, but also for The UnCommons as well. I think that there is a shift that needs to happen amongst people’s attitudes when it comes to independent content creation. For example, Into the Spider–Verse, which I love, I got the art book back here. I don’t know if you can see it.
Tubefilter: Yes! Unbelievable work. Such a good film.
Tony Weaver Jr.: Into the Spider–Verse put out a trailer, and in that trailer, they introduce a character named Spider Bite that has had maybe two or three pages in Marvel continuity in their entire existence. Within 24 hours, I was seeing so much Spider Bite fan art off of you seeing six seconds of this character. You’re able to look, you’re able to relate, you’re able to go, “That’s my girl,” and you connect.
For so many independent writers, we spend so much time crafting our stories hoping that someone will love our characters like that, hoping that someone will give our characters that chance and say, “Make that investment and come do research on my character. Look at the character design on my character and do that deep dive, and figure out, ‘Oh, here’s where this symbol comes from. Here’s what that represents.'” Fandom exists, but so far it’s very hyper-targeted on focused and established IPs.
It’s not to say that those IPs haven’t earned that privilege, but over the course of the next year, it’s my goal to, number one, increase visibility for The UnCommons, but overall, create a space where independent creators are able to have fandom too, where people look at their characters and see themselves in those characters too.
Tubefilter: Is there anything else you want readers to know about you?
Tony Weaver Jr.: If there’s anything that I would say, it’s that I have been the person that I currently am for a while and I’ve been trying to accomplish the things that I’ve been trying to accomplish for a while, but I don’t feel like I really picked up momentum or had the opportunity to get positive feedback to that message until I started creating content on TikTok. That’s not an attempt to be an advertisement for the platform, but more of me candidly saying that I wholeheartedly believe that, as a platform, TikTok is a place where authenticity can survive and thrive and where you don’t feel like you have to put a personality on in order for people to show up and care.
There are a lot of young creators right now that are hesitant to jump in, that are hesitant to be like, “Should I do this? Should I do this,” because they think like, “Oh, well, I don’t have the cool voice,” or, “I don’t have all the gear,” or, “My camera’s not as fancy.” If there’s any place where you can just show up as you are and find your people, I feel like TikTok is that place.