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YouNeek studios founder Roye Okupe on his groundbreaking deal with Dark Horse and never waiting for permission

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Jan 30, 2021, 1:42 PM EST (Updated)

In 2018 when SYFY WIRE first spoke with Nigerian-born creator Roye Okupe about his indie comic publishing company YouNeek Studios, very few people knew who the young publisher was. This week, Dark Horse Comics, the publisher behind series like Hellboy and The Umbrella Academy, announced that it had acquired the rights to publish YouNeek Studios' library in an unprecedented deal. Notably, this is the first time Dark Horse Comics has ever distributed an entire library of African superheroes — and it's also the first time the publisher has added a non-franchise Black character to its library since the Eisner and Hugo Award-winning LaGuardia series by Nnedi Okorafor in 2018.

For Okupe, the Dark Horse collaboration is a massive win after years of hard solo work, quietly building his "universe" through 10 successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns starting with E.X.O. The Legend of Wale Williams in 2015. All of YouNeek's titles live in a shared universe inspired by the beauty and mythology of West Africa. He even created an animated short around Malika, his first woman-led title. YouNeek Studios owes its success to its rotating roster of incredibly talented Nigerian artists and Okupe's dedication to consistently delivering high-quality products. Add to that a massive and engaged fanbase (over 90,000 followers on social media), former Diamond distribution, and "true believers" who vouched for his company at its start, and it's clear why Dark Horse chose to work with the fledgling franchise.

Okupe has achieved what few other indie solo creators with new publishing deals have: Creative control over his titles. In an agreement that he compares to Robert Kirkman's Skybound relationship with Image Comics, Okupe retains 100 percent intellectual property rights over his characters. The Dark Horse arrangement is a 10-book exclusive distribution deal with YouNeek Studios. The first four releases are repackaged omnibuses of his current original graphic novels, E.X.O. The Legend of Wale Williams, Malika, and Iyanu, all of which will hit shelves starting in September of this year. The next six titles, not disclosed at this time, will be all-new projects from YouNeek.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Okupe about his Dark Horse deal, how much hard work went into building his company, and how the road to success is paved with multiple failures.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

You worked as a successful software developer before starting YouNeek. When were you confident enough to leave your full-time job and work for yourself?

2015 was the first time I quit my job, but I ended up having to go back to work. I dove into comics full time without a plan and for the first four years, I didn't make a dime from YouNeek Studios. I didn't pay myself. I was freelancing as a web developer to sustain myself. Honestly, it was the best thing that happened to me because when I got my second full-time job in 2019, it gave me the necessary security that I needed to make wise decisions. I quit my job again in 2020 when the Dark Horse deal became final.

Many people in this business only talk about their successes and don't share their failures.

Failure is part of this business. As creators, it's our responsibility to learn from our mistakes, come out of those failures, and share with people what we did wrong. "Here's how I corrected what I did so that you don't have to make the mistakes." It doesn't mean it's the end of the world. It's just part of the process.

Do you think that Black Panther's success (both the comic and the film) helped open a few doors to YouNeek's success here in the U.S.?

Not really. When I launched E.X.O. in 2015, we were featured on CNN, the BBC, the Huffington Post, and more within six months. That was when I realized that I don't have to wait for permission from a big publisher, an animation studio, or a distributor. There's an audience out there for my work.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

What changed your mind about working with a publisher?

I wouldn't necessarily say I changed my mind. Initially, I wanted a publisher to validate that I could tell my own stories the way I wanted. But I did pitch some of my stories to different publishers, and everyone told me no. So I was forced to self-publish, which I think was the best thing for me.

So you had to teach yourself the publishing industry, essentially.

I had to learn how to do everything. What exactly is the comic book industry? How do I write compelling comics? How do I create characters? I was the writer, the editor, the marketing, and publicity. Plus, making deals with distributors and negotiating the best print prices, and proofreading everything. The only thing I didn't do for YouNeek was drawing the comics. Which, looking back now, it's just insane. I don't know where I got the energy. But again, it's the love for the industry.

That experience has become an asset for me. Now, when I'm talking with Dark Horse, there's nothing they can tell me that I don't already understand. And they appreciate that because I make their job easier.

You've never published single issues, only OGNs. Why is that?

That's right. The average minimum length of my books is 112 pages. I knew I wasn't going to get the attention that [large franchise characters like] Batman or Superman get, where people will buy issues #1 through 6 based on the character alone. I was unknown. Also, with E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams, I wanted people to fall in love with my character in one sitting. I didn't want them to have to wait for the next issue.

It's gotten to the point that fans expect me to do two or three new graphic novels a year, which is great. Except I can't do that on my own anymore and maintain a certain level of quality.

It sounds like Dark Horse is not just distributing your work, they're helping you to scale.

Yes, this is why the Dark Horse collaboration is perfect timing. I now have four to five different series going on concurrently. And I now have the resources of a multimillion-dollar company helping me to level up my work. There will also be other content added to Dark Horse re-release versions Malika & E.X.O. such as previously released (limited editions) one-shots that expand on character backstories.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

Can you describe the pitch process?

Well, the negotiation itself took about two weeks last year. But I had met with the company before that when a rep from Dark Horse reached out. Somebody had given them a copy of Malika and they loved it. That was the summer of 2019. Then at New York Comic Con that year, I pitched the entire YouNeek universe to the editor-in-chief, Dave Marshall, in person.

What is the one thing that you are most looking forward to with this Dark Horse deal?

I don't have to work 16 hours a day. I can channel all my hard work and dedication into what I know I do best and even create better stories now.