Roye Okupe is a Nigerian comic book creator who has successfully produced several titles of his own, including E.X.O. - The Legend of Wale Williams, Malika: Warrior Princess, and WindMaker. He writes and co-writes all of his stories and has been able to find some of the best artists in West Africa to bring life to his stories.
I got a chance to talk with Roye about his work, his process, how crowdfunding counted in his business plan, and how things changed when Diamond Comic Distributors started distributing his books and putting them alongside titles he'd seen growing up in comic book shops.
Most people don't realize that African artists and writers are telling their stories through comic books. Where did you grow up and what comics did you read when you were younger?
I was born an raised in Lagos, Nigeria but moved to the United States when I was 16, back in 2002. Gosh just saying that makes me feel like I'm getting old. But yeah, I actually started reading comics very late. I was more into animation/anime growing up as a kid. I loved shows like the X-Men animated series (as I'm answering, that killer intro soundtrack is looping in my brain), Spider-Man animated series, Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Dragon Ball Z and many more! Sure I would read comics here and there but not that much. But when I did read it was mostly X-Men.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to make comics?
Great question. So growing up and watching the animated shows I mentioned earlier, I always thought it was weird that there wasn't any hero that was Nigerian or even African. It wasn't a big deal then for me, but it became one as I got older. I realized that as a child not seeing character representation on-screen and even more importantly off -screen (writers, directors, producers, etc.) made me feel like I couldn't achieve my dreams of creating my own characters because I felt like it wasn't meant for people like me. Thankfully I snapped out of it around March 2012 and decided I would take a chance on myself. I founded YouNeek Studios. I decided to look at lack of diversity as an opportunity rather than an impediment. I quit my full-time job in 2015 and the rest is history.
What do you feel is different about your characters vs characters that we have in the West?
Well, all the characters/stories in our universe are inspired by African culture, history, and mythology. Add to the fact that as a writer, I've spent the first half of my life growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. You get to see that raw authenticity in the way our stories are told. Plus all the artists we've worked with so far live in Lagos. Having an all African-born production team working on stories inspired by African culture, history and mythology makes for an extremely YouNeek (pun intended) line of graphic novels. You can actually see for yourself by reading over 100 pages of our books for free on our website.
In terms of world buidling, do all of your comics exist in the same universe? If so, how?
Yup! We call it the YouNeek YouNiverse! Basically, it's a series of stories featuring a very diverse list of awesome heroes, villains, and locations with continuity and inter-connectivity from story to story. The YouNeek YouNiverse is a combination of individual graphic novel series (E.X.O., Malika, WindMaker, etc.) tied together with one continuous, overall plot that weaves through each particular story.
We want to make it easy for ANYONE to get into comic books and graphic novels. One of the inspirations behind the YouNiverse comes from something I see Marvel Studios doing successfully with their movies. Marvel has masterfully crafted a system of connected movies that has brought in millions of casual, everyday fans that have never read a single comic book! We decided to do something similar to attract both hardcore and everyday casual fans to beautifully crafted stories by way of graphic novels (except for special circumstances, all are comic books have a 100-page minimum; hence the use term 'graphic novel').
However, Africa is just the current area focus. Because I was born in Nigeria, it was the logical place to start. We do have aspirations to extend the YouNiverse and create heroes/stories from/about other cultures and places around the globe.
You have successfully used Kickstarter to fund most if not all of your books, how does that business model work?
We use Kickstarter to fund about 30% of the books we put out each year. Last year out of four books we released, we used Kickstarter to fund just one - Malika: Warrior Queen Part One. Basically, we try to use Kickstarter as a tool to raise money for larger productions (typically in Q4) as well as bring in new fans. The Kickstarter usually brings in a lot of buzz, so we use that as momentum going into the new year.
So you're also using crowdfunding as a marketing tool.
Absolutetly. It's worked really well for us.
You are a Diamond-distributed African comic. What is that relationship like?
Amazing, to be honest. As a nobody with a great idea, Diamond gave me a chance. I had no credits to my name. I hadn't even written anything at that point. But my pitch presentation to them was amazing, if I may say so. I made them feel like they had to have our books. Which was really hard to pull off. But I owe a lot to people like Trevor Richardson, Michael Moccio, and Megan Cosman. These people have at different points in time stuck their necks out for YouNeek Studios, even when they didn't have to. We've been selected for Free Comic Book Day two years in a row now, which is unheard of for a small studio like us selling African comics. And all this before all the amazing buzz from Black Panther!
Now I know you've have seen Black Panther. What is it like, as an African, seeing African Americans tell a story about a fictional African hero?
Lol! Love how you phrased that one. First of all, it was an amazing movie! I loved it and have seen it three times already. To answer your question, I had no issue with it. Wakanda is fictional, so there's a lot of room for creativity. If the story was based on actual history, for instance, telling the story of the Mali empire or telling a story about amazing rulers like Queen Nzinga or Mansa Musa, and they got certain things wrong, I'd definitely be upset. Would have loved to see some Nollywood and Ghollywood actors in there, though. Hopefully in the sequel.
Free Comic Book Day is May 5!