Editors note: Award-winning comic book creator/writer and businessman Roye Okupe took the time to discuss his career and his recently released work, The Oloris: Heroes Will Unite: Vol 1, with BlackSci-Fi.com correspondent Greg Anderson Elysée. Read on for an informative and fun look into this comic book creator’s career and new work.
Greg Anderson Elysée: Ah! Well if it isn’t Roye Okupe! We meet again, my former rival.
Roye Okupe: Hahahahahahaha!! Honestly, when I heard you’d be the one doing this interview, I thought about declining. [Laughs] I joke, I joke! Great to hear from you, man.
Elysée: How do you find yourself at this very moment?
Okupe: At this very moment, I am good but a little stressed. But happy to be doing what I love for a living. There’s no greater feeling.
Elysée: I love that for you, my brother. First and foremost I want to say congratulations on all of your success! We started around the same time, you jumping into the indie industry with your imprint YouNeek Studios and maaan, you’ve made strides, boy! Can you talk to us about a bit of your journey thus far starting from E.X.O? And what prompted you to create E.X.O in the first place?
Okupe: First and foremost, I would like to say that without people like you, Robert Jeffrey II, Dedren Snead, many more indie folks and the fans, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Without the comments, shares, and Kickstarter backing, YouNeek Studios wouldn’t be what it is at this very moment. So, thanks!
To answer your question, the journey has been absolutely insane. Full of ups and downs, highs and lows, failures and success, tears of joy and tears of agony. I’ve gone from working two jobs at the same time just to support this dream to times where I almost drowned myself in debt to stay relevant. I had 10 consecutive Kickstarters from 2015 to 2020 but still never once paid myself as a creator/writer. I’ve been duped off thousands of dollars, wasted funds on many foolish side ventures, and the list goes on (sorry, I’ll get to the good part; I just think it’s important to be real about this topic).
But through it all, I always believed that I was born to create. I never lost my belief in myself (I came close a few times) and kept pushing through. And that goes back all the way to my original “WHY:” to empower African creatives and storytelling.
It is the reason why all my stories are inspired by African history, culture, and mythology. It’s the reason why 99% of the artists who have worked on our books are based in Nigeria.
Elysée: Not too long after E.X.O. started building some momentum, I’d say you really started getting even more fanfare when you introduced the world to my wife, Malika: Warrior Queen. Who is she and what is she about?
Okupe: [LAUGHS!] Yeah, E.X.O. was the first thing I ever wrote. I kid you not; up until that point, I had never written anything. Not even a poem. But I feel like that naivety allowed me to spread my wings and do my thing. Of course, I did take a couple of courses and read books on writing, storytelling, creating comics, etc. But going into it fresh allowed me to do whatever I wanted, especially since I was self-publishing.
But after E.X.O. Part 1 and 2 came out and I got a lot of feedback from fans. I was able to make some drastic changes to my approach as a writer/creator. And I think that shows in Malika (pronounced “Ma-Lai-Kah”), which to this day, remains some of my strongest work.
I also feel like because Malika herself was loosely inspired by a REAL West African Warrior Queen (Amina of Zazzau), it gave an additional layer of substance and authenticity to the culture you hadn’t seen a lot of back then in comics.
For those that don’t know, Malika: Warrior Queen begins the tale of the exploits of queen and military commander Malika who struggles to keep the peace in her ever-expanding empire, Azzaz.
At its core, the Malika series explores the true meaning behind the phrase “Warrior Queen.” Why? Because a dichotomy of titles is one of the most relatable conundrums we have in our society today. How do you balance being a mother and a business owner? Dad and CEO? Is it possible to be excellent at both? If so, how? If not, how do you reconcile that? In Malika’s case, being both warrior and queen creates this very dynamic and sometimes overwhelming push and pull between when to choose diplomacy over aggression and vice-versa.
Elysée: I definitely believe you did a great job showcasing that. Now WindMaker came pretty soon after Malika and this is where I started peeping at that slow universe building. WindMaker made his appearance in Malika as her lover then went on to have his own book. Can you talk to us about that and what inspired you to go with this narrative?
Okupe: Yup! Before I put pen to paper for E.X.O., I already had a loose map of 20 graphic novels in my head. This allowed me to sow very minor breadcrumbs (even as early as the second E.X.O. book) that many people to this day won’t catch on their first read.
However, it was equally as important for each series to stand on its own. So I made sure that if you only wanted to read the Malika or E.X.O. or WindMaker or Iyanu series, you could absolutely do that without the pressure to grab the other series. However, if you read E.X.O. and then Malika, you would be rewarded with amazing easter eggs and story points that keep you engaged in an overall “YouNiverse” arc.
Elysée: Nice. This leads very well into my next question. This new book, The Ororis: Heroes Will Unite is a big epic crossover between a few of your books: E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams, Malika: Warrior Queen, WindMaker as well as a few supporting heroes from the mentioned books. When did you realize this was where you wanted to go? I ask this because I had no idea Malika and E.X.O. were even in the same universe until years later down the line!
Okupe: [Laughs] Like I said, I’ve been planning this from the jump. But I didn’t want to overwhelm readers with too many easter eggs or make them feel they couldn’t enjoy each series by itself. The funny thing is that this extends to The Oloris: Heroes Will Unite ,Vol 1.
While this graphic novel is a love letter to YouNeek fans, it’s important to note that The Oloris, Vol 1 can also serve as an entry point into the YouNeek YouNiverse for anyone who hasn’t read any of our books. I wrote it that way intentionally.
Elysée: What exactly is The Ororis about? What are these heroes dealing with that has brought them all together?
Okupe: You know how in almost every superhero/fantasy/sci-fi movie, TV show, or book, when there’s a threat to the entire world, be it aliens, a natural disaster, or rogue AI, the battle(s) always seem to take place somewhere in the USA (either New York or LA). Well, I thought, what if we had a similar, world-ending event, but the focus of the antagonist(s) is Africa?
And so for the first time since the YouNeek YouNiverse began, the heroes of the YouNiverse band together to defend the continent of Africa (and eventually the entire world) from a sociopathic anarchist who wants to use an army of extraterrestrial robots to burn the continent to the ground and build it from scratch in his own image.
Elysée: There are quite some personal relationships at play. It’s not like these are heroes just randomly coming together. Some have met prior, some are meeting for the first time. Which character dynamics have you been most excited about that you finally get to write?
Okupe: One consistent theme in all my books is “family.” Sorry, I don’t mean to sound like Vin Diesel pitching Fast and Furious, but that’s the truth [laughs]. To me, family is one thing we can all relate to/with. I’ve always found it really interesting to weave the good, bad, and ugly side of family dynamics into fantasy, sci-Fi, and superhero stories. And The Oloris, Vol 1 is no different. To answer your question, the thing I’m looking forward to the most for people to experience in this book is the interaction between Malika and WindMaker. There are loads and loads of stuff for new and old fans to unpack since they last “met” in Malika, Vol 1.
Elysée: I’m glad you touched on the story taking place in Africa as that was a s I have questions about that. The majority of your heroes are based in West Africa, from ancient pre-colonial times to the present. Comics from the continent aren’t new but it’s still not as mainstream. But you have been making some waves with a lot of progress. Can you talk to us about that? And what are the misconceptions of comics from Africa or African creators?
Okupe: As I mentioned previously, my mission has always been to empower African creatives and storytelling. It’s as simple as that. I grew up always wanting to read, watch, and experience stories like these. I am just so happy that I’ve been lucky enough to find a way to create said stories.
In terms of misconceptions, one of the big ones was that Africans couldn’t compete in terms of quality. We, as African creators and artists in general, have since put that to rest.
Elysée: Yep. And there is a lot of great stuff from African creators out there. One thing I want to point out is that a lot of this groundwork was done before your deal with Dark Horse. Since then, it’s been a pleasure seeing more of your content at shops all over the country. Can you tell us about the relationship between Youneek and Dark Horse?
Okupe: To be completely transparent, Dark Horse came at the perfect time because I contemplated quitting comics. I feel like I think about that every 6 months, honestly [laughs]. This industry can be so hard to navigate, no matter how much “success” comes your way. But yeah, the timing was perfect. I have self-published about 9 books at that point (2020), 2 – 3 a year since 2015, and I was just exhausted. Having to write, art direct, market, distribute, advertise, ship, go to cons, etc., was tough. I did all that for 4 years straight with zero breaks while, at times, working multiple jobs.
With Dark Horse, I could go back to doing what I did best: writing, worldbuilding, and working with talented artists. I can tell you it’s been a wonderful feeling having a partner who can take a lot of weight off my shoulders.
Elysée: I won’t hold you for much longer, I know you’re a busy guy… but I HAVE to ask about Iyanu: Child of Wonder! First: congratulations! Before you jumped into comics with E.X.O., you were an animator trying to get that concept out. Now you’ve come full circle back to animation, adapting your Iyanu graphic novel! With Cartoon Network and MAX, no less! How did this come about?
Okupe: An absolute dream come true, man. But again, I have to stress, and I know it sounds cliché, but it’s because of the support from the fans and folks like you in the indie comics space. I’m telling you, one of the main reasons IYANU was greenlit is because the studios saw that it had a dedicated fan base who constantly raved about the product. I can’t underestimate the effect the popularity of the book had in getting things across the finish line.
To cut a long story short, I’ve been pitching my IP to producers and studios since 2008! 2008! Even before I started making comics. And I’ve heard, “No. No. No. No.” But as heartbreaking as it is to be rejected constantly, I tried to get better every time someone shut a door in my face. At times, even after people rejected me, I would ask them what I could do better as a writer/creator.
It is important to have an attitude of perseverance in this industry. It is not for the faint of heart. But if you believe in yourself, know your “WHY” and surround yourself with the right people. Eventually, I believe, at least for the most part, life will give you at least one shot at your dreams. And mine was the pitch to Cartoon Network/MAX. I took everything I had learned over the last 10 years, including the rejections, and put it all into the multiple pitches we had with MAX. And the rest is history.
Elysée: What can you tell us about the series? What is it about and what can we expect?
Okupe: [Laughs]! I can’t say too much yet. I don’t want to get in trouble. But if you follow us on social media (@YouNeekStudios), you’ll be the first to know when we make some cool announcements later this year.
Elysée: Damn. I tried, y’all. Aight, fine… so for the creatives and aspiring creatives out there, what would you say is the difference between the writing process of the comic versus the writing process of the series? And what have you learned?
Okupe: Oh yes. It’s two different worlds. So technically, there are a lot of differences. However, if, at your core, you’re a storyteller, you can make the transition. But I have to shout out to Brandon Easton, who was the head writer and story editor for Iyanu. Brandon led the writer’s room (which I was in), and he mentored me all the way through. I’ve become a much better writer overall just by being in the writer’s room with him as well as some of the best writers in Animation: Kerri Grant, Ivory Floyd, and Matt Wayne.
Elysée: As a writer and creator with a family, how do you juggle and organize all of this? And what advice would you give people wanting to create their own universe?
Okupe: It’s hard, man. But you have to know what is non-negotiable and then what you’re willing to sacrifice because you will need to SACRIFICE A LOT! For me, my non-negotiable was family. God and family come first, above all. Outside of that, I’ve had to make so many sacrifices. I don’t get to watch as much TV, play as many video games, go to many social events, etc. You just have to find what works for you and stick to it. And please surround yourself with the right people. And if you plan to get married, marry the right person. My wife is my secret weapon.
Elysée: Thank you, Roye, my brother! I wish nothing but more success for you! To trying to get like you!
Okupe: Thanks, man! Always nice chatting with you!
Greg Anderson Elysée is a Brooklyn-born Haitian-American writer, educator, filmmaker, personal trainer, and model. Elysée previously wrote for theOuthousers.com, where he ran his own column, (Heard It Thru) The Griotvine, showcasing independent creators of color and LGBTQ creators, as well as writing for Bleeding Cool.
Elysée’s original comic series “Is’nana the Were-Spider” is a seven-time Glyph Award Winner.
His other work includes “Akim Aliu: Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey,” published by Scholastic Inc. and Kaepernick Publishing, “OneNation: Stronghold,” published by 133art Publishing, “I Dream of Home” in the Lion Forge graphic novel collection and Eisner Award-winning “Puerto Rico Strong,” and “Tyrone and Jamal” in the GLAAD Award-winning “Young Men in Love.” He lives in Brooklyn.