Fighting for diversity in the graphic novel world is tough work. Roye Okupe, artist and comic book aficionado, is learning that firsthand.
“I don’t sleep much,” he says with a laugh in an interview with Mashable.
A software programmer and web developer by day, Okupe writes graphic novels by night, recently completing a story about a Nigerian superhero in E.X.O. — The Legend of Wale Williams. The story is set in futuristic Lagoon City, inspired by populous Nigerian city Lagos.
After skipping town for five years, protagonist Wale (pronounced “Wah-Leh”) Williams returns to investigate his father’s mysterious disappearance. What he finds is an unrecognizably corrupt city and a powerful “Nanosuit” his father made, which grants the wearer superhuman abilities.
Born and raised in Nigeria, Okupe moved to the United States in 2002 to study computer science at George Washington University. Despite his sensible course of study, he couldn’t shake his love of cartoons and comic books.
Growing up, comic books and graphic novels were somewhat of a rarity in Lagos, Okupe says. If he wanted to read them, he could only hope a friend or family member went to the U.S. and brought copies back. When he finally got to college, he started to catch up on the classics.
After graduating, he started taking the occasional training course in animation. Unlike comic books, animation was easy to come by in Lagos when Okupe was a child. He remembers being glued to cartoons on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, developing an early obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Superman and more.
After dreaming up the idea for E.X.O., he envisioned turning the story into an animated film. He got to work, creating a short film to show potential investors and distributors who could turn it into a feature film.
He spent a year shopping it around internationally. Everyone he met with rejected the project. Many of them echoed the same reticence about his particular superhero.
nobody’s going to watch it because it’s based on African characters.
nobody’s going to watch it because it’s based on African characters.‘”
That sentiment, along with general hesitation about backing a product with a subject matter that is rarely broached in the mainstream (a futuristic African city and a black superhero with predominantly black supporting characters, all presented by a completely unknown animator), put a temporary hold on E.X.O.
“That time was actually very … I wouldn’t say depressing, but it was very discouraging for me,” Okupe says.
Of course, there have been mainstream superheroes from Africa in the past. Marvel alone has created Storm, Black Panther and Apocalypse. However, these characters are few and far between. The modern comic book industry is slowly ramping up diversity — Thor is now a woman, Captain America is black and Spider-Man is black in an alternate universe). But dystopian African cities don’t often serve as the playground for these characters.
Okupe decided to switch tactics. E.X.O. would become a graphic novel instead, and he would build a fan base from the ground up. Using his animation background, he created a trailer for the novel, to give people a taste of what to expect.
In order to get the project going, Okupe founded his own storytelling hub, YouNeek Studios. He also hired a team based in Nigeria to edit and create the novel’s artwork: Ayodele Elegba, editor; Sunkanmi Akinboye, artist; Raphael Kazeem, colors; and Godwin Akpan, cover art. While he could have hired people in the U.S., he felt it was important to keep Nigerians at the heart of this particular story.
“That’s part of my goal,” he explains. “To shine a light in terms of the talent that’s in Africa.”
There’s a lack of education about the continent, Okupe says, which leads to alienation from comic books. In the future, he hopes to use YouNeek as a springboard for diverse artists all over the world. At the moment, that future success hinges on the launch of E.X.O.
Right now, Okupe is paying for everything out of pocket. He won’t say how much it has cost him, but he’s focused on the long-term.
“I’m basically doing this to prove that yes, there is an audience for this,” he says. “If it’s done right, if you have a great story, if you have a great character, people will actually support it.”
Now that the graphic novel is nearly finished, Okupe launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $3,500, for those who want to support the future of E.X.O. To attract readers, he’s posting the first chapter of the novel for free online, well before the full summer release (no specific date yet). He’s learned a lot from his previous rejections, and hopes the buzz for E.X.O. will grow organically.
“In this life, no one owes you anything,” Okupe says. “You have to go out and make your dream come true.”
Read the first chapter of E.X.O. — The Legend of Wale Williams below.