Roye Okupe didn’t read comic books growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. Comic book shops weren’t around. Instead, Okupe was introduced to superheroes through Saturday morning cartoons such as “Transformers” and “X-Men.”
So when he set out to create his own Nigerian superhero, he thought animation was the way to go. That idea led Okupe on a journey that culminated in him debuting a new universe of African superheroes. Just not in the way he originally planned.
Okupe, now 31, arrived in the United States in 2002, attending George Washington University and earning a bachelors and master’s degree in computer science in 2007 and 2009. In between those degrees he took a class in animation at the Art Institute of Washington. After college, while working as a web developer for International Software Systems in Greenbelt, Md., Okupe was able to put together an eight-minute animated trailer featuring his first superhero creation, Wale Williams, a young, 20-something Nigerian who suits up in high-tech armor to become the African superhero E.X.O. (Endogenic Xoskeletal Ordnance).
Okupe shopped his trailer to distributors, television networks and investors for a year and got nowhere. One movie producer even told him that E.X.O. looked interesting, but he should think about changing the race of the character.
“That was a down period for me. I really had to dig into believing in myself that I could actually get this done,” Okupe told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “Hearing that from someone who was in the [entertainment] industry, I almost took it for the gospel. But if you have a dream, it’s your responsibility to make it happen and then people will join the bandwagon once you start to get some recognition.”
Okupe decided to take inspiration from another superhero medium: live-action movies. He was impressed with Marvel’s ability to satisfy both hardcore fans and the general public alike with its movies. But Okupe concentrated on the format so many movie superheroes originally came from: comic books.
Comics were much more affordable to produce. Okupe had never written a comic before, so he ruled out trying to take his ideas to mainstream comic companies. And when he didn’t hear back from “lower-tier” publishers, he decided to produce E.X.O. independently.
So in the summer of 2015, he cashed out his 401(k), resigned from his job and founded YouNeek Studios, the company that would debut his first comic book, “E.X.O. The Legend of Wale Williams.”
“It’s a very big change and a particularly scary one,” Okupe said of the moment he quit his job. “But I knew that to make the impact that I want to make in the comic book industry, I couldn’t do it with a 9-to-5.
“I was working as a web developer and making good money. But this has always been a dream of mine and I always tell people if you have a dream, no one’s going to make it happen for you.”
Okupe recruited four artists in Nigeria to help him produce his first E.X.O. comic. Ayodele Elegba would edit his writing. Sunkanmi Akinboye would be his interior pages artist. Raphael Kazeem worked on coloring and Godwin Akpan did cover art. Not counting the two times a year he returns home to Nigeria, Okupe does all his communicating with his art team from his apartment in Rockville, Maryland. It was important for him to have a team that could capture the cultural essence of his homeland, as E.X.O.’s fictional city of Lagoon City takes inspiration from Lagos.
“[The artists] are there on a day to day basis. They can feel the vibe,” Okupe said. “I wanted people that were close to home but I also really wanted to prove that Nigerian/African artists as a whole can do stuff that’s comparable to what you would see in Marvel or DC and I think I’ve been able to accomplish that.”
Marvel of course, is home to perhaps the most famous African superhero of all, The Black Panther, who is a king ruling over a fictional African paradise (Wakanda). Okupe’s tales are also fictional but he aims for a more authentic African feel. The book features Nigerian colloquialisms (translated in captions), traditional clothing and monuments.
“The country of Nigeria and the continent as a whole, you always see war, famine, terrorism — we touch on those points,” Okupe said. “But I try to pump up as much positivity as I can, because I feel that’s lacking when it comes to Nigeria and Africa as a whole in the mainstream.”
The first E.X.O. comic debuted on Aug. 31, 2015, and a second will arrive Wednesday. Instead of publishing monthly like many comics, YouNeek Studios produces chapters as graphic novels, a format Okupe hopes gives potential new readers an easy jumping-on point without having to worry about catching up on back issues. In the future, Okupe hopes YouNeek Studios will publish two graphic novels a year.
Okupe worked with printing company Print Ninja to get his comics printed and into select comic book shops, but they can also be purchased digitally via the YouNeek Studios website, ComiXology, Amazon and Apple Books.
Okupe used personal savings and family support to fund YouNeek Studios. Two successful Kickstarter campaigns, which Okupe promoted via blogs and social media, helped cover the cost of printing. He puts “every dime” he makes from the comics back into YouNeek Studios and supports himself via freelance web design work.
“I haven’t been kicked out of my apartment yet,” Okupe joked. “So I guess I’m doing something right.”
Okupe is now ready to focus on expanding his YouNeek universe with new characters, including Fury, a female character introduced in the E.X.O. books, Malika, a warrior queen based in pre-colonial Africa, and Windmaker, a hero who the ability to control the wind.
Creating superheroes is a thrill, but Okupe is most proud of the self-built, diverse fanbase that he hopes will stick around for more adventures.
“I’m having people in South America buy my books. People in Europe and Asia buy my books,” Okupe said. “So it’s not just African or African-Americans; it’s pretty much anybody who is interested in a great story.”