Roye Okupe is building an African superhero universe, one graphic novel at a time.
Okupe grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, watching American superhero cartoons, and when he moved to the the United States 14 years ago, he saw an opportunity to create a new comics universe that reflected his own culture. His initial plan was to make animated movies, but raising funds proved to be difficult, so he switched gears: He started writing graphic novels, and he hired African artists to illustrate them. In the past two years, his YouNeek Studios has published three graphic novels and an art book, with plans to publish four graphic novels a year going forward.
YouNeek started out with the two-volume E.X.O., a superhero story set in Lagos in the near future. In March YouNeek released the art book WindMaker: The History of Atala, and on June 6 published the graphic novel Malika - Warrior Queen, a historical fantasy about a 15th-century West African queen. Each of these three characters -- E.X.O., Malika, and WindMaker -- star in standalone stories, but Okupe plans to eventually draw them together into a shared universe,
Although Okupe prefers the graphic novel format, the first chapter of "Malika" was released as an official Free Comic Book Day release this past May. CBR talked to Okupe about his publishing strategy, formats, the FCBD experience and what he plans to do next.
CBR: Why are you publishing graphic novels rather than monthly comics?
Roye Okupe: The comic book industry is very competitive. It is really tough to get your name out there, so we felt it would be best to release graphic novels so people can absorb an entire story as opposed to relying on a series from month to month. We also see a trend where people are buying more trade paperbacks.
Given your preference for graphic novels, why did you do a Free Comic Book Day comic?
Because of the exposure it brings. We got amazing feedback on social media, with people saying of all the titles that was their favorite. It was almost like finding hidden treasure. A lot of times people know what to expect when they go to Free Comic Book Day. To see an independent book that features a woman of color in a powerful role was a breath of fresh air for a lot of people.
We value the direct market and comic book retailers so much -- it's something we really want to expand on in the coming year -- so FCBD was a perfect way to take us from where we were with the direct market to where we are now, and to have retailers actually recognize the brand and recognize the characters.
Where are people finding your books?
We are doing a combination of everything. We try to get in as many comic book stores as possible, and we have been very successful at that. About five months ago we got distribution with Baker and Taylor, Follett, and Brodart, so you can find our titles in bookstores. Most notably, we have it stocked in some Barnes & Nobles across the U.S. We recently signed a deal with the American Wholesale Book Company, the primary distributor for Books-A-Million, so in a couple of months our titles will be in Books-A-Million stores throughout the U.S. We try to make these books accessible to everyone. We are also on comiXology, Kindle, iBooks and Peep Game Comics.
We want to bring comics and graphic novels to a different audience, not just a comic book audience. We feel we can compete in the book market, not just the direct comic book market.
Are these graphic novels planned as part of longer series?
Yes, each title will have its ongoing series, but they will be released as graphic novels. The volumes will be released quite frequently. Eventually, these characters will start to interact with each other in the individual books, so you will see E.X.O. in a Malika book, Malika in a WindMaker book, but they will all have their individual stories. It's like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and graphic novels: Each character has his or her own individual story, but each book ties in to one overall plot.
Who is writing and drawing them?
I am the one who has written the graphic novels, but the artists are all based in Lagos. I really wanted to showcase African talent, Nigerian talent, on a global scale. If you see the quality of the book, you will see it stands up to anything you will see in DC or Marvel or Image. Right now, I am the lead writer, but I am getting to the point where I haven’t had time to write as much as I would like. I am going to have to be involving different writers to bring a different spin on these characters.
Other than the fact that you are from there, why did you choose to set your stories in Africa?
Africa as a whole has a growing comic book industry. People don’t know we have a Lagos Comic Con, which is in its sixth year now. The main reason I started YouNeek Studios is I really wanted to showcase to the world the amount of talent we have back home in Nigeria and in Africa as a whole.
When you hear about Nigeria in mainstream media, it's not usually positive. You usually hear about corruption or poverty. While these things are true and need to be addressed, there is a whole other side of Nigeria that the world never gets to see -- our art and culture. I am very proud of where I come from, and if I am going to base my stories on Africa, it only makes sense to have people who live there work on the content. I want to have authenticity but at the same time give people a story that is very universal. In my books you can see monuments that are in Lagos today, you see the way people talk, the way they dress, their humor, the unique way we process things, all presented [in a way that] anyone who bought these books can relate to. For me that's the goal, to create entertaining stories that allow people to see things from a different perspective and also appreciate that culture.
What are your plans for the next year?
Toward the end of the year we are doing a coloring and activity book. We wanted to start creating things for a much, much younger audience, between 6 and 12, and have a way for them to be able to experience our characters. This coloring book will feature all our heroes and villains. We are trying to pair our characters with real African heroes, so children can color them but can also learn about the rich history of Africa as well.
Next year we really want to get aggressive and release four graphic novels: Malika - Warrior Queen, Part 2 will be released in March, which is Women's History Month. We are looking at very talented female artists we can bring on board for Part 2 of Malika. Then two additional E.X.O. books, the next saga. Parts 1 and 2 were the origin story, and that has been concluded. We are moving on to E.X.O.'s next adventure, E.X.O. - The Rise of Avon. The final book that we hopefully would like to release at the end of next year would be the first WindMaker graphic novel. We want to get into the groove of releasing these books on a more predictable schedule than the last two years.
Do you have a specific readership in mind?
I personally have been responsible for all the writing so far in the YouNeek universe, and when I'm writing, I always have my nine-year-old nephew in mind. My sister would strangle me if she couldn’t pass on my books to her son!
I want to put in a lot of things you see in Africa right now. For example, one of the main things we have an issue with in Nigeria is corruption. In E.X.O., I have tried to write that in a way that is accessible to people around the world. We are all familiar with corruption. Some countries have more, but you would be hard pressed to go around the world and not find corruption in one way or another. So it's all about making stories everyone can relate to, but also showing the side of Nigeria that is doing well, showing the technology, our history, our humor, the way we interact, how positive we remain even in the worst of situations, the great architecture we have there, the way we dress, the way we talk and interact with each other. These are things that are often left out when the story of Africa or the story of Nigeria is told, and I always try to give a balance of, "Here's a problem that is going on right now" in a factual way but also "Here are great things you can experience if you go to Nigeria right now."
I want to write for people who want to see something different, not just in terms of story but also in terms of environment, culture how people interact. There's a lot of African mythology that people have not been exposed to. I try to write these stories in a way that if you haven't been to Nigeria or Africa you can assimilate this story in the same way you would assimilate Greek history or mythology in 300 or the Spartan movies.
There's something I always like to add to every interview and that's my personal story. It has always been my dream to start a company that produces characters that are based on my environment and where I grew up. My mission is to inspire people to chase their dreams while I am living mine. If I can get here by just believing in myself and following the end goal, anyone can get there by following these footsteps. I always like to use whatever available platform I have to inspire people to chase their dreams because I feel a world where people are chasing their dreams will be a better world for everyone.
YouNeek Studios can be found online at youneekstudios.com.