100% Authentic Feelings in Alissa Sallah’s Weeaboo

Debuting from Oni Press later this month, Alissa Sallah’s Weeaboo is a kind, gentle comic sure to capture the hearts of anyone who’s ever been shooed out of a Waldenbooks’s manga aisle. Weeaboo will absolutely steal your heart — we had a chance to sit down with Sallah to talk about her own teen weeb memories and how they helped shape this lovely book.

We also have one more treat in store for y’all: stop by this thread on our Twitter and share your fondest teen weeaboo memory by midnight tonight (CST) for a chance to win a free copy of Weeaboo! Courtesy of the folks at Oni Press, we’ll be drawing three winners to receive a copy of this book. Please note that we’re only able to provide a physical copy to folks living in the US — sorry, international POMEs! If you are one of our winners, we’ll DM you for more info so keep your eyes peeled!

A Kinder, Gentler Weeaboo

Above all other things, Alissa Sallah’s Weeaboo is an unfailingly kind and thoughtful book. To my knowledge, it might even be the only piece of media about teen anime kids that doesn’t solely exist to make fun of them. Teen weebs are such an earnest group — they love what they love and they’re willing to unabashedly post cringe to tell you all about their obsessions. It’s easy to poke fun at them — even easier if you were a teen anime kid yourself once. What could age more poorly than your own naivety as viewed with a decade or two of hindsight? 

In adulthood, we learn which of our goals were too hard to achieve, and which ones we never had a shot at to begin with. It didn’t take most of us long to realize that we were never going to move to Japan and create a magical girl manga that would take the world by storm.But as you age, you also think: what a fool that fourteen year old was, to have such a ridiculous dream. How silly of me, to have silly dreams, when I was a child.

I expected Weeaboo to be packed with wry or even self deprecating humor, to ridicule its protagonists. At best, I expected the kind of gut punch Akiko Higashimura throws at readers in her autobiographical manga Blank Canvas, a book packed with self-owns about the artist’s childhood shoujo manga superstar aspirations. At worst, I expected “remember this old meme” jokes and, naturally, cringe. Instead, Sallah defied my expectations altogether — she tells a fundamentally human story and introduces us to the complex inner lives of three awkward, striving teenagers hurtling into adulthood at full speed.

Dan gets asked out for the first time under a full moon.

Weeaboo follows James, Maya, and Dan, a trio of sweet, sincere teen weebs at the close of their senior year of high school. These kids are undoubtedly teen weebs though — they pepper their conversations with anime tropes and Japanese honorifics. 

At the same time, they also use fandom as a launching board to try on new identities and figure out how they fit into the world beyond their high school. Fandom inspires them to create. It helps them find other goofballs to hang out with. It gives them a safe refuge when things get rough. 

And things are rough for these kids. James struggles to be seen for who he is — not the academic his parents want him to be, or, as a biracial Japanese American, a conduit that can connect his midwestern friends with Japanese pop culture. Maya grapples with the ways that racist ideas (and ideals) shape how she sees herself. The world at large might treat Prince Of The School Dan as a young woman, but that isn’t necessarily how Dan sees things. 

And the whole time, these kids keep gently colliding, casually, accidentally bruising each other in ways that only well meaning teenage friends can. At seventeen, it’s hard to see how much you’re changing, but even harder to recognize changes in the people closest to you. 

Throughout Weeaboo, Sallah walks a fine line between visually honoring the spirit of the formative weeb texts her protagonists are so inspired by and walking back that high emotion shoujo and shounen energy when it counts. The real world is full of textured watercolors and crisp, angular figures — but Weeaboo’s protagonists daydream with genre-savvy metaphorical touches like wide, unfurling CLAMP wings and Rose of Versailles 70s shoujo aesthetics to evoke the characters’ Big Teenage Feelings.

Dan drawn in a more angular style with textured watercolor underneath, contrasted against a very Rose of Versailles-styled drawing of them in halftone

And her Deep Weeb chapter dividers — truly, simply inspired.

classic weeb homages in Weeaboo: left, what I'm pretty sure but can't prove is from Honey and Clover; right: Nana baybeeeee

But the best part of Weeaboo is that this trio is so much more well-rounded and realized than any one part of their identities. Each is more than their fears and struggles, more than their hobbies and interests, more than their daydreams and goals. Sallah makes space for all of the complicated pieces that make up a person, and even more space for you to imagine who Dan, Maya, and James will become.

Interview with Alissa Sallah 

Q: As a former teen weeaboo myself, I couldn’t help noticing how true-to-life the characters of Weeaboo felt. I have to ask: were you a teen weeaboo yourself, and if so, what were the anime or manga series that had the biggest impact on you during those years (for better or worse)? 

A: Oh. absolutely! I found many of my best friends by bonding over Naruto and Azumanga Daioh in middle school. We’d spend our afternoons putting self-insert OCs into fanfictions and play on websites like GaiaOnline and Newgrounds together. I’d stay up late watching Toonami (whose bumpers are the definite reason why I love listening to lofi hip hop playlists now) so I could catch episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist and Cowboy Bebop. These are the kind of feelings I wanted to catch in a bottle through this book.

Q: At times, Weeaboo felt ripped from my own adolescence. I definitely remember seeing one character whip out an iPhone within this book, but if memory serves, a few characters seem to be relying on phones I remember well from the pre-ubiquitous-smart-phone era. Is Weeaboo set in the late aughts / early 2010s, or this just the wishful thinking of an agéd former weeb like myself?

A: Good catch! While I want Weeaboo to feel current enough to be relevant to teens now, I also wanted it to resonate with folks like me who are on the other side of this adolescent transitional period. Then, hopefully, it would feel a bit nostalgic to look back on yourself. So, if we’re getting into specifics, I did place it in the early 2010s when I would have been the same age as Dan, Maya and James. The cellphones were my way of communicating this fluid, memory-like time.

The weeaboo teens texting on their devices of various ages

Q: I really loved that rather than laser-focusing on awkward/cringy moments, Weeaboo shines a light on both the good and bad aspects of the teen weeb experience. What memories stick out the most from your own teen weeaboo years? 

A: Right, a big point of this story is to show how we grow by learning more complicated aspects about ourselves and others, which is a delicate process because people are much more nuanced than binaries of “good and bad.” So with the idea of weeaboo, it’s not about picking a side but instead about picking apart.

The memories that stick out the most to me are times just meeting new people and geeking out together. Going to anime clubs at the local library, playing video games together, going to our first conventions, and LARPing through the streets of my hometown. Of course, there were cringey moments, but these are just as important to growth and expression as any other. Having too much shame, while it can protect you from embarrassment, will also stifle your path to finding your own truth. So there’s an importance to this shamelessness, a bird would never learn how to fly if it was afraid to fall.

Q: Over the course of Maya’s narrative within Weeaboo, she gets hit with the one-two punch of seeing the racist way that Black characters are (often) depicted in anime, and then has to deal with racist online comments from her fellow cosplayers. If it isn’t too personal to ask, were there any characters that affected your teenage self the way that “Pyunbaba” effects Maya?

A: Through Maya’s story, I wanted to show how even the most confident of people can still have all sorts of things affecting them you may not see. No one lives a perfectly pure life even if they might try to portray that to others. It’s particularly tough when a piece of media you like so much has something in it that seems to tell the person watching, “you don’t belong here.” And sure, of course there were plenty of characters like this I saw growing up, to the point that you were profoundly grateful when a Black character showed up that didn’t copy some archaic sambo drawings. I remember really enjoying the old show Cyborg 009 and the African character Pyunma (obviously the direct reference of the name in Weeaboo) having a similar effect. Thankfully, Black characters’ depictions in anime have gotten miles better since then, even Pyunma now has a great character design in newer renditions of the series.

Maya's favorite show adds a new character -- Pyunbaba, a racist caricature.

Q: Trying not to spoil anything here, but Weeaboo ends as each of the characters arrive at a transitional place in their lives. Where do you see James, Maya and Dan ten years down the road? What kind of adults do you see them growing into? 

A: That’s the thing about this story and these characters, the ending is like them stepping from the fantasy into a future of infinite possibilities. I hope that a reader can imagine all the routes James, Maya and Dan could take and pick the one that resonates the most with them. This was never a story about solid answers, directions or roles. It’s about imagining the places you’ll go and the person you’ll be. Making up your own stories is the fun part of being a fan, right? Anything I would say is just another fanfiction.

Maya and her anime heroine daydream alter ego looking bravely towards the future. Caption at bottom of image reads, "Well, I'm just getting started!"

Pick up a copy of Weeaboo at the comics retailer of your choice on November 23! And remember to stop by this thread on our Twitter and share your fondest teen weeaboo memory by midnight tonight (11:59 CST, 11/05/21) for a chance to win a free copy of Weeaboo!

CC Calanthe

CC Calanthe

If you prick your finger and write “Cat Fancy” on your mirror during a harvest moon, CC will appear behind you and make you put human clothes on your pets. CC is Head Crone in Charge at POMEgranate Magazine, as well as the co-host of Moon Podcast Power MAKE UP!!
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