How a Super Bowl-Winning Tight End Became One of the Most Exciting Voices in Children’s MediaPhoto: The Imagination Agency TV Features The Fantastical Adventures of A.J.
Martellus Bennett doesn’t sleep.
Well, put more accurately, Martellus Bennett doesn’t want to sleep. The former NFL tight end/Super Bowl LI champ and current Creative Director of Awesomeness at The Imagination Agency—the multimedia children’s animation studio he started dreaming up in 2014—seems confounded by the fact that, in a world so full of creative possibility, he is regularly expected to do something as static and uninteresting as sleep.
“Honestly?” the proud Hufflepuff tells Paste in the days after the studio’s August 4 release of The Fantastical Adventures of A.J., “I don’t sleep. Because when I sleep, I don’t get to make stuff, right? So it’s like, I want to be UP. I love making stuff. I love what I do. And the more I sleep, the less time I have to do what I love. So why would I go to sleep when I could just make stuff, you know what I’m saying?”
On the one hand, he’s asking the wrong audience: Sleep is the first and favorite method of creative breakthrough for this wayward writer. On the other hand, this wayward writer doesn’t have a resume that includes both a Super Bowl ring and an ever-growing collection of children’s apps, books, graphic novels and animated shorts ready to take on the dearth of representation of kids of color in children’s media. Perhaps this is the very audience that needs to be asked.
In either case, as he joins the ranks of sportsmen who have branched out into art, education, writing, and justice, Marty Bennett has answers, and Paste (along with this wayward writer) is taking notes.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste:I know we’re here about The Imagination Agency and The Fantastical Adventures of A.J., but I also just listened to the first episode of your new podcast, Revenge of the Jocks, whose audience is definitely intended to be adults.
Bennett: Yeah, that’s something I just started, I think it’s pretty cool. What’d you think?
Paste: It was fun! Between that and A.J., they kind of feel like two extremely different but related ways of diverging from the professional sports career you had for the past decade, really diving into different kinds of creativity.
Bennett: I feel like, as people, we’re dynamic. A lot of times we put ourselves in a box to be one thing. But for me, my ultimate goal is to be everything I could possibly be in my life. So that’s why I love doing things for kids, making things for kids. But I’m still an adult, you know? [Laughs] So I like to have adult conversations, and since most of the day I’m doing stuff for kids, the podcast is a good time for stuff I get to talk about with my friends. [Though] sometimes we talk about cartoons on there!
Paste: Your first conversation was with your brother, fellow NFL player Michael Bennett. Who else do you have coming up?
Bennett: This Thursday launches with Jon Negroni. He wrote The Pixar Theory, about all the Pixar movies being connected, and some of the same characters appearing in multiple [films]—it’s pretty interesting stuff. And then the third episode is actually my wife—I interviewed my wife. And then the fourth episode is Ryan Holiday. He wrote Ego is the Enemy. He’s an author, a philosopher, so it’s like a mixture of stuff. And I just got off the phone with DeAndre Jordan, who plays for the Mavericks now. Me and him grew up together, playing basketball together, and he’s a really interesting guy.”
Paste: That seems like a real good mix of people to get into conversation with! Have your interests always been so eclectic, even back in childhood?
Bennett: I mean, as a kid I was first chair in band. I grew up playing instruments, also playing in the school plays if I could, especially in like middle school. And then football, basketball, rapping—pretty much anything I could do to express myself, I did. Art was fun. Pottery was one of my favorite things growing up. I always felt like I was a bridge between geeks and jocks. And then my mom’s a teacher, my dad is a computer guy, so that’s how I got into tech and writing. That’s why I make the interactive children’s book apps and everything now—it’s like a bridge between both of my parents.
Paste: And then you ended up in the NFL! How did that get you to where you are now with The Imagination Agency?
Bennett: Going through the NFL, the one thing that it allowed me was time. Like, in the off-seasons, after working out, you have all this time left in the day, and it was just like, what do I want to do? Do I want to just be a guy who smokes weed and plays video games? Or do I want to be a guy who actually goes out here and tries to do different things? So I just started experimenting. I started doing art shows. Then I started doing more music. I was in this alternative hip-hop band called The Moonshine Kids, and I would travel and perform with them. I was just trying to discover myself, because I never felt at home when I played football. Like, I love to play football, but I realized at a young age that I wasn’t a football player, if that makes sense. I realized that I was always more interested in making things, in creating things. That’s when I feel most like myself—when I’m in the process of making something, or working on something, or having a creative conversation. That’s when I’m at my happiest. Now that I’m no longer playing, it’s weird. I thought I was happy when I was playing, but I feel like I’m a way better person, a way happier person, without the game of football.
Paste: Did playing sports professionally influence your creative process?
Bennett: Playing sports, every day is pretty structured. So there’s always been a schedule. I’ve had structure my entire life… For me, creativity is a sport. I just think about it that way. And I [do] have a great project manager, Aisha, which helps a lot. I always try to stay on top of what I need to do, because the more stuff I get done, the more stuff I get to do! [Laughs] Teamwork, too. Animation and creativity, at a certain point, become the ultimate team sport. How well do you work with others? Football is one of the most eclectic groups of people I’ve ever been around, as far as working together as different people for one common goal. The locker room is crazy, there’s people from everywhere—from the country, from the city, from poverty, kids who grew up with money, all these different people, all these different viewpoints, but we are able to work together for one common goal.
Paste: Was there a specific moment at which your dreams about getting into children’s media became real?
Bennett: I had all these dreams that I had dabbled in a little bit here and a little bit there, but it was really when [his daughter] Jett was born that I was wondering, like, what’s she gonna be when she grows up? And obviously I’m gonna tell her she can be anything. But then I was thinking, “How can I tell her she can be anything she wants to be if I don’t become everything I want to be?” So it was 2014 when I really got serious. I had always wanted to do an animated project, so I started reading all these books about animation, watching behind-the-scenes directors’ cuts, reading interviews, and then I was like, “Alright! I’m ready to make this film!” I made my first animated project, Zoovie, which I think is pretty good. I mean, it’s my first animated project ever, so I love it and I hate it, because it’s [the result of] a long, long two years of lessons. There was like so much shit I didn’t know. It wasn’t in the books. I just learned it along the way… I’m pretty much self-taught.
Paste: When did you start developing A.J.?
Bennett: I started the A.J. project right before the year we won the Super Bowl [in 2017]. That off-season I was writing it, [and] during the season I was working on it. So when I won the Super Bowl, I was also writing The Fantastical Adventures of A.J. at the same time. After work [Ed. note: as in, playing professional football], I’d get home, go through all the emails, sit down for a couple hours and make changes, make notes, and really just crunch time the right way, manage my time the right way. On the plane, to the games, I used to work on my projects to get my mind off the games. On the way back I used to work on the project as well, because it was like therapeutic for me to draw and create.
Paste: I know you outsource a lot of your animation to Powerhouse Animation in Austin, but does The Imagination Agency also have a physical home now in Los Angeles?
Bennett: We finally got a physical location, I’m actually in it now! We’re still building it out, but we’re in Burbank. Nickelodeon is down the street, WB is down the street, Disney is down the street. I always get excited because I drive past all these places everyday and I’m like, “Yep, I’m gonna outdo you, and I’m gonna outdo you, and I’m gonna outdo you!” They have office hours—I don’t have office hours! They clock in and clock out. I never clock out.
Paste: What were some of your pop culture and animation favorites growing up?
Bennett: Well, it’s interesting, but because of my parents, I grew up watching like six generations of cartoons. My mom used to watch The Smurfs, Scooby-Doo, He-Man—like, my favorite cartoon of all time is Tom & Jerry. So I [got started] watching all those shows, like from the ’70s and ’80s, then I grew up in the ’90s boom with Nickelodeon: Doug, Rocko’s Modern Life, Rugrats. And then on Disney there was Kim Possible, which is one of my favorite shows, and Bonkers, Darkwing Duck, Tailspin, all those. I was watching so many generations of animation, I was watching so many cartoons, that it was kind of ingrained in me from a young age, just loving the way the media was made.
Paste: Watching The Fantastical Adventures of A.J., the character design—or at least, the swoops of A.J.’s hair—really reminded me of Disney’s (one) black-led animated series, The Proud Family.
Bennett: You’re right! I used to love The Proud Family! [Sings theme] Definitely in my DNA!
Paste: What impression did all that media leave on you, in terms of diversity and representation?
Bennett: I realized there weren’t kids that looked like me on those shows. I had a big enough imagination that I could imagine myself in those roles, even though they didn’t look like me, [but still] I grew up wanting to see more characters that looked like me, and wanted to be represented in books that I read. Like, I love Walter Dean Myers because he wrote books about characters that were like me. Slam!_ was one of my favorite books growing up, and then I also loved a book called The Watsons Go to Birmingham [by Christopher Paul Curtis]. [But] I put books down for a minute because [so many of] the characters weren’t like me, and subconsciously you start to think that only other kids can go on adventures, not yourself. Fortunately, me and my brother went on enough adventures on our own throughout the day, just playing and making stuff up, that we believed we deserved to go on those adventures as well.
Paste: Do you feel like you’ve seen any change in the levels of representation over the years?
Bennett: Not much. Especially superheroes—like, I always wanted black superheroes. We had Static Shock, and he was cool, he was alright, but other than that we didn’t have any other young, black superheroes out there who made me feel like I could be super, you know? That’s why Black Panther was such a huge thing, because it was like, “Oh! He looks like us, he’s a hero, he’s one of us!” It’s cool to be able to claim someone who looks like you. I always tell my white counterparts, they never have to worry about taking their kids to the movie and worry about whether there’s going to be someone in the film who looks like them, right? That’s a worry they’ll never have to have; there will always be someone who looks like them. It’s all the other cultures who go to the films who never get to see themselves in these roles and they know that they’re capable of being in these roles.
Paste: It’s really a loss on both sides, too, that anybody who is part of the majority—white, male, whatever—isn’t getting the same chances to develop those imagination and empathy muscles.
Bennett: Exactly. And I think that’s one reason why I’m so creative, is from a young age I’ve been creating my own stories. I’ve been writing stories and creating stories because they didn’t have stories for me, so I’d just make them up. I was the kid that, outside [at recess] everyone would gather around me, and I would tell stories, I’d just make stuff up all the time, I would add the people around us into the stories as heroes, as part of the story as well. So now that I’m in a position to really write these stories and put them out into the world where other people can actually see them and enjoy them, it is really special. But I do think that you’re right, that it does form empathy. I think it’s important for white kids to be able to see black kids and realize that they’re just like them, and it’s important for black kids to be able to see white kids and realize that they’re just like them. If you’re [only ever shown] a black kid in stories that are just the same type of story [over and over], then you develop a kind of muscle memory to think that all black kids are like this, but they’re not. They’re also going on adventures. They ride bikes, they go swimming, they go hunting. But no one ever writes those stories. So I feel like it’s up to me at this point.
Paste: That tokenism is a real killer. Because, like with The Proud Family—or Raven’s Home now, or Doc McStuffins, or Static Shock—there does seem to mostly be just the one. Which just from the landing page of The Imagination Agency, with its grid of all the different characters of color you’ve created thus far, is clearly the status quo your studio is aiming to upset.
Bennett: That’s the whole thing. You totally get it! That’s the whole thing about The Imagination Agency. I want to be the voice of the underserved community. I want to be the voice of kids of color. I want to be able to tell those stories for them.
Paste: Speaking of telling those stories—I know that A.J. is loosely inspired by your own daughter. Is her stuffed rabbit/imaginary friend, Theo, inspired by any of her imaginary friends? Or maybe yours?
Bennett: Well, I still have imaginary friends, but it’s crazy because Jett, I feel like sometimes I don’t know if I’m predicting her life, or, like, creating it, writing her life into existence. I started working on this about two years ago, and then when she was around 2 or 3, she started carrying around this stuffed rabbit. I mean, completely separately from my developing that character! But, yes, I had tons of imaginary friends when I was a kid, and I have tons of imaginary friends now.
Paste: And they have endured from childhood?
Bennett: Yeah, my imaginary friends don’t give up like Bing Bong! [Laughs]
Paste: Ha! Is that lesson of perseverance one that has helped as you’ve moved into animation?
Bennett: I think just believing in yourself is one of the toughest things, especially if you’re an athlete and wanting to write children’s books. Being a creative athlete is almost like an oxymoron; people don’t expect athletes to be smart or to be able to write children’s books. So breaking down those walls and those stereotypes is the biggest thing, [especially when people] still don’t accept my work at the level it is, or appreciate it, because they still have the idea of, “Oh, he’s a football player.” So they don’t enjoy the work, they don’t enjoy the creativity behind it. But I feel like my stuff is better than a lot of stuff that’s out there, and it’s only going to get better from now until the end of time.
Paste: Finally, I know the idea is to sell A.J.’s story to a larger network, to find her a home to grow into, but just assuming from your confidence that that is going to happen, which is the character you would be most excited to see get their own series next?
Bennett: I mean, I have some really good characters, and they’re only getting better! But I think Eli Wonder is gonna be huge, he’s gonna be super, super cool. His first graphic novel is like 150 pages, I’m pretty close to finishing it. But I also have this character named Carolina Blue, who’s really, really, really, really, really dope. And then I want to do more with “Towel Boy” Buzz, but I’ve been thinking about him as kind of a live-action show, so that will be interesting to see his story expand.
Both episodes of The Fantastical Adventures of A.J. are now available on YouTube. All other books, apps, toys, apparel, and more from Marty’s Department of Awesomeness can be found at The Imagination Agency.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.