Lion Forge’s David Steward II on Diversity & Representation in Animation

David Steward II, founder of Lion Forge Animation, behind the Oscar-winning animation Hair Love, talks about the importance of showcasing diversity in content that better reflects the world we live in.

This year’s Oscar for best animated short went to a touching tale about an African American father struggling to style his young daughter’s hair. Hair Love quite perfectly sums up the ethos of what David Steward II wants to do through his Lion Forge Animation studio: to showcase diversity in content that better reflects the world we live in. Lion Forge Animation, the only African American-owned animation studio in the U.S., is expanding the story of Hair Love with a new series for HBO Max, Young Love. The company has also landed an exclusive first-look partnership with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Kids+Family, with an initial roster of animated projects that includes minority-focused stories such as Puerto Rico Strong. There’s also a deal in place with China’s Starlight Media. It’s all part of a larger mission of Steward II to amplify content that challenges expectations and reflects the diversity of modern viewing audiences.

TV KIDS: What was the mission behind launching Lion Forge?
STEWARD II: It started as a comics company, Lion Forge Comics, in 2011. We built that publishing company and along the way we acquired Magnetic Press, in 2016, which focuses on foreign reprints and premium comic books. We also acquired Oni Press last year. We’ve since merged the two comics publishing companies together into Oni-Lion Forge. A couple of years ago, we started Lion Forge Animation. Then, a year and a half ago, we created an umbrella company, Polarity, which all of these organizations sit under. 

 Our mission focuses on creating new content paradigms with an eye on diversity and inclusion and making sure that the stories we are telling and the mediums we are using are pushing the boundaries of what expectations are in those mediums. We’re working with diverse creators on content that is authentic and reflective of the communities that they represent. Within everything that we’re doing, we’re trying to find those unique genres, angles and voices to foster and grow and develop things that haven’t had the opportunity to be seen.

TV KIDS: How did Hair Love come about, and how did it land with Lion Forge?
STEWARD II: The project was brought to us by one of our co-producers, Karen Toliver from Sony Pictures Animation, who had a relationship with Jimmy Thomas from our business development team. They reconnected at an event, and Karen was talking about a project she was working on that needed producing assistance and funding help to get it off the ground. We met with her, looked at the project and got to meet creator Matthew Cherry. We recognized the vision and what he was striving to do, and we felt very compelled to get behind it; it spoke to our tenets of what kind of content we want to do as an animation studio. It spoke to the tenets of diversity and inclusion, to showcasing Black characters in a medium that we’re woefully underrepresented in, animation. In a lot of ways, it spoke to not only the African American community, but also had the potential for far-reaching impact across various communities. It was a great property that socialized an aspect of African American culture to audiences across the country and across the world. It was a very touching tale as well. 

We helped to produce the project and to make sure that Matthew’s vision was seen. We made sure that he was able to work with the team in an unfettered way. All too often projects get developed underneath a studio guise, and a lot of times the studio executives feel the need to put their imprint on a project or change it from what the intention of the artist is. With this one, we wanted to make sure that Matthew’s intention and direction remained pure. At the end of the day, we got a great product that we’re very proud of.

TV KIDS: Following the Oscar win, what opportunities have opened up for you and for Lion Forge?
STEWARD II: We were in the process of quite a few different initiatives, and certainly that helped to push things over the finish line in a lot of ways. We’ve been fielding a lot of phone calls for various opportunities. It’s helped to showcase what we can do. It’s one thing to talk about what your potential is, but it’s another thing to showcase it. This was a great showcase of what potential we have and what we can do.

TV KIDS: How did the deal come together to develop a series inspired by Hair Love with HBO Max?
STEWARD II: We are getting the “old gang” back together that helped to produce the original series, including Matthew. The series is about taking the initial narrative and view that we saw within the animated short and expanding on it. We are going to explore more within the family, with Stephen, Zuri and Angela. We will see more slice-of-life moments that occur within this family unit. It’s about a millennial-generation family in today’s world and how they go about life. We’ll have some more sweet moments and funny moments, as there were in the short. Fans of the original will find something to love in this new series.

TV KIDS: Lion Forge also has a first-look deal with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Kids+Family. What did you see in that company that made you want to collaborate with them?
STEWARD II: Imagine has been a great partner of ours. We’ve been having conversations with them off and on for a while. We were able to come together and find some projects that really spoke to us and spoke to them to collaborate on. They very much have a similar vision in how they look at content and how they look at bringing that content to fruition in various formats, whether it’s something that maybe starts as an animated series or starts as a feature, and how to give it extended life in other areas. So much of that comports with how we conduct our company. We look at things that we’re creating and what life they may have in comic books, in animation, in other potential mediums. We very much think along the same lines. They also have a view on diversity and wanting to see authentic and marginalized voices put out there. That spoke to us as well.  

TV KIDS: What are some of the initial projects that will come under that deal?
STEWARD II: There are three projects that we’ve announced. Chippy Hood is a project that Carl [Reed, Lion Forge president] and I came across in South Korea from a studio called Mostapes. It’s a musically-focused series that’s fun and lighthearted, targeted toward preschoolers. It has something that will stay with you. It has a lot of character and very strong character development. It’s a fun, madcap series. 

 The second, Puerto Rico Strong, is based off an anthology series we did about three years ago in comics. We got together Puerto Rican creators and put together an anthology book that had short-story vignettes that covered everything from Puerto Rican life and experiences to Puerto Rican history. We did that as a way to raise money for Hurricane Maria, but also to showcase voices that again aren’t seen as much in the mainstream media. We sold a lot of books out of that and felt compelled to carry that into the next phase: animation.

Then there’s Black Comic Anthology, which doesn’t have a formal name yet. Being an African American-owned animation studio, we have found that in a lot of ways we’re the only one in the marketplace. We’ve come across other Black creators floating around at different companies, and a lot of them haven’t gotten an opportunity to have leadership and get their ideas out there. We want to see more African American-led projects out there, so we’re putting together this anthology series to showcase some of that talent and to hopefully give a jumpstart to some new ideas, new IP and provide a new face to animation.

 TV KIDS: What does the partnership with Starlight in China entail?
STEWARD II: We’re a company that likes to do new and different things for new and different avenues. When Peter [Luo] from Starlight approached us, it was a great opportunity to look at, what does content look like in China, what are the cultural opportunities to take an American sensibility and content-creation capability and apply it with a Chinese voice? I find it very interesting that in the U.S., our culture is very much enumerated through the medium of the things that we put out. Other voices from other countries don’t have the opportunity as much; a lot of that content ends up being localized and regionalized but doesn’t really become a global phenomenon. We’re looking at those stories and working with them to find those cultural paradigms that are interesting and that can play not only in China but on a global scale as well.

TV KIDS: How do the companies within the Polarity umbrella work together, and what is their common thread?
STEWARD II: Each one of the companies operates in and focuses on their particular silo and on what they do best. We always want to be creating the best product within that particular pillar. If it’s an idea that’s supposed to be a comic, we want to make the best comic possible; if it’s an idea that’s starting in animation, we want it to be the best animation possible. All too often, and we have found this especially being in the comics industry, companies go at starting a new idea by trying to make it anything and everything through all mediums. They end up not making a good comic nor a good animation. We try to find where the best place is to start putting an idea in play and we want to make sure that gets done in the best way to showcase that idea. After that, we look at how the other organizations can be supportive and enumerate that particular idea. 

 As an example, we had a deal with DreamWorks Animation to do the comics for Voltron. We implemented a program by which we were publishing book content that was supplementary to what was going on in the shows. By working with them through that paradigm, we perfected what we feel like is the best rollout methodology and how these worlds work together, in a way to do world-building and give fans more of what they want. When a series launches, there’s only so much time that the content has, so once the fans are through consuming that content, where can they go next? How can we keep them engaged in that world and build it out in other places? That’s how we approach what we do, as working together as part of an ecosystem.

TV KIDS: What message would you like to send to the animation community, and particularly to those working in kids’ content, about the value of programming that challenges expectations and reflects the modern, diverse times?
STEWARD II: This phrase gets thrown around, but I’ve seen it in practice and play in so many ways: Representation matters—especially for kids’ content. Content creators need to keep in mind when they’re creating something: what do we want our future generation to be and how do we want them to be able to see themselves and to see themselves in many different ways.

 I am a kid of the ’80s and I remember Saturday morning cartoons. There weren’t shows that had an African American lead character, but maybe had a character who was African American. There were these paradigms of the Black character would be “the strong guy,” and later that the Black character was “the smart guy.” There are so many things that a Black person can be within content and we shouldn’t be limited to the same thing at all times. Content creators need to think about how they’re portraying and putting out content with diverse characters—but also behind the scenes, how are we making those teams that are helping to produce the content diverse as well so that we’re getting an authentic voice and an authentic portrayal in that. All too often, content is produced through the lens of someone else. While the diversity and inclusion may be well-intended, the mark is missed. That’s another important thing to think about when creating content. 

In one case, we had a book called Superb that was in our superhero line for Lion Forge, and it featured a character who had Down syndrome. In order to make sure that we were portraying that character appropriately and giving him a real and authentic voice, we worked with David Walker, who is a writer working with kids with Down syndrome, and also with the National Down Syndrome Society to engage them and have them weigh in on how the portrayal was. We wanted to have that authentic voice. The number of letters and pictures I got when that book came out, it really makes you tear up. It shows you that representation matters.