Roye Okupe didn’t grow up reading comics but he did love superheroes. As a child he watched cartoons like Voltron, Justice League, X-Men, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He loved video games and animation, loved the action and adventure of teams working together to combat foes of all kinds. As a child in Lagos, Nigeria Okupe longed to see a superhero with origins similar to his own. Twenty-years later, he’s seeing that childhood dream become a reality.
In 2002, Okupe was a college student at George Washington University in Washington D.C. The superhero blockbuster movie craze was just emerging, with films like Spider-Man and Batman. These films rekindled his childhood love of animation, so he decided to pursue his dream of creating an animated universe with Nigerian superhero.
As a first-time producer with no work history, Okupe found the task of breaking into the insular animation industry all but impossible. He wrote, rewrote and then wrote some more. He met with producers and funded his own pilot, but got nowhere. Occasionally he’d hear a “nice try” but no one was willing to take a chance on an unknown. For years he worked trying to get his animated series off the ground and for years he failed, so he gave up. And that’s when he found comics.
In 2012 Okupe founded YouNeek Studios. Shortly thereafter, he launched a successful crowd-funding campaign on the website Kickstarter for the studio’s first graphic novel, E.X.O. – The Legend of Wale Williams. Okupe cites independent comics like Eric Dean Seaton’s, The Legend of Mantamaji and Is’NanaThe Were Spider by Greg Anderson Elysée among his many inspirations. Following the success of E.X.O. Okupe felt validated and emboldened in his mission to create a multicultural superhero universe. In 2015, YouNeek Studios released Malika: Warrior Queen.
The story of Malika is set in fifteenth century West Africa. Malika inherits the crown and kingdom of Azzaz from her father. Part one of Malika follows her rise to power and struggle to unite the kingdom under one banner after years of civil war. Malika faces numerous challenges and enemies both from within her borders and beyond.
These challenges, however, do not daunt Malika. She’s confident in her strength and intelligence as a leader–she’s a warrior who has never lost in battle and doesn’t intend to. Her story is deeply informed by the real history of Africa. Queen Malika is modeled off of the African Queen Amina of Zaria (a province of modern-day Nigeria). Grounding Malika in real history isn’t simply about lending the comic authenticity, it’s a much deeper commitment Okupe has to telling a different story about Africa.
Americans have a lot of misconceptions about Africa, chief of them being that we constantly refer to it as a country (it’s a continent). Confronting myths, stereotypes and a lack of knowledge about Africa is part of why Okupe founded YouNeek Studios.
“When you hear about Africa in mainstream media, it’s usually about wars, corruption, poverty and mostly negative things/images. While these problems do exist and it is important to shed light on them, it shouldn’t be the only narrative. As I mentioned in my previous comment, Africa has a wealth of history and culture. One aspect of which is our ancient kings and queens. Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire was one of the richest people in the world in his time. Sunni Ali of the Songhai Empire was one of the brightest military minds. ”
Though fictional, the world of Malika is firmly rooted in real history. In doing so, Okupe helps lend his comic depth. Speaking about world building Okupe says, “Malika’s empire, Azzaz, though inspired by the real kingdom Zazzau, is a fictional place I created. Azzaz, is surrounded by The Songhai Empire, The Oyo kingdom, The Nri Kingdom and the Benin Kingdom. All of which are very real African kingdoms that existed.”
The kingdom of Azzaz is surrounded by five provinces, each with a leader who helps comprise the Council of Five. The provinces are not rubber stamps of one another. From clothing, to geography, to weapons and fighting style–Okupe wanted each province to look and feel distinctive.
Perhaps more than anything, Okupe longs to make superhero comics accessible to all ages and audiences, especially those who may be unfamiliar with comics or superheroes. Speaking about the broader mission of YouNeek Studios Okupe says, “I always say I like to write books that are true to my culture. But I try not to do it in a way that alienates people who just enjoy a great story. Which at the end of the day is the most important thing. Writing a great story.”
Much of what Okupe does is in service to the child he was growing up in Nigeria, longing to see heroes who looked and spoke like him. Like all forms of creation, YouNeek Studios is a labor of love but Okupe is driven by a deeper mission to bring people together and to introduce them to the world of comics and animation.
It’s a world that has meant so much to him, that still means so much to him and seeing fans respond positively to his work both humbles him and pushes him forward. Currently, Okupe and the rest of the team at YouNeek Studios is running their fourth Kickstarter to help fund the creation and publication of Malika: Warrior Queen Part II. You can find out by following this link to the current campaign.
Malika: Warrior Queen Part II
- Roye Okupe: Editor in Chief/Writer
- Ayodele Elegba: Editor
- Chima Kalu: Pencils & Inks
- Raphael Kazem: Colorist
- Alitha Martinez: Variant Cover
- Paul Louis-Julie: Map and Logo design
- Kaiju Den LLP, Singapore: Concept art
- Godwin Akpan: Concept art/Poster
- Mohammed Abgadi: Cover Art
Andrea Ayres writes about comics, video games, and representation in pop-culture.