PCU bumped into comics creator Roye Okupe this weekend and grabbed him for a quick interview. Mr. Okupe is the founder of YouNeek Studios, a new company with a diversity-based focus which currently produces Malia: Warrior Queen, E.X.O., and WindMaker.
PCU: Why don’t you tell us a little about the company and how you got started.
Roye Okupe: I started YouNeek Studios because I grew up loving superhero stories, but I never saw any from where I was from—Lagos, Nigeria. So I decided to take a chance on myself and follow my dreams and create a comic book company that actually created diverse characters that looked like me.
PCU: So are you an immigrant? Tell us your story, how you came over here.
Roye: I actually came over here to attend university, college, actually. So I studied computer science, believe it or not, at George Washington University. I got my undergrad and my masters in computer science, and I graduated in 2008. I worked for about five years, and then I was like: you know what, I’m not enjoying this anymore. I want to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which was animation, comic books, superheroes. And then I quit my job.
PCU: Was that scary?
Roye: It’s scary, even until now. (Laughs) I wake up scared every day. But I also feel fulfilled.
PCU: Did you get to work for any other publishers before you started up YouNeek?
Roye: I tried. But I got rejected by pretty much everyone I sent stuff out to. But it actually worked out, because at the end of the day, I was able to start what I wanted to do and not what someone told me to do, so everything kind of worked out.
PCU: How did you get to starting your own company? What was that process?
Roye: It was a hard process. It’s something that I did a lot of research on. Obviously, I was a fan of the industry before I even got into it. But like any other business, it’s a lot of research that goes into it and a lot of investment, in terms of time that you put into it to actually know what the structure is. So for me, it was reading a lot of books, talking to people within the industry, getting a lot of advice, and after awhile, just taking a risk and not procrastinating.
PCU: So let’s hear about your comics background. So you were actually reading when you were in Nigeria? What comics did they have there?
Roye: I actually really got into the superhero genre through animation. So I really wasn’t a comic book fan growing up. I started with the X-Men show, Justice League animated series. It wasn’t until I got to the United States that I actually started getting into comics, because that’s when the movie industry went crazy. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man.
PCU: So around 2000, 2002.
Roye: Yeah. So that’s when I decided, OK, let me check out the comics, and I just fell in love with the genre and decided that, you know what? Someone really needs to start doing these books that are based on African characters, and that was it for me.
PCU: And you weren’t satisfied with the ones out there. You’ve got Black Panther, you’ve got Falcon, and…I’m running out of characters.
Roye: Yeah, exactly. A lot of times, there’s not a lot of African-American superheroes, but we’re talking about African, like, apart from Black Panther, no one can really name anyone else. Unless you’re like, hardcore into the industry, you know, Storm’s like African, but she’s saving people in the U.S. Black Panther is based in Wakanda, but he’s always with the Avengers in the U.S. So as much as, yes, there were characters, I just didn’t feel that there were characters that were actually representing the culture, being African in Africa and saving people in Africa, experiencing African problems.
PCU: And even when you read someone like Black Panther, do you feel like they really get what African and even Nigeria specifically are like?
Roye: You know, it depends on the author. The Christopher Priest run [on Black Panther] was really good. Some of the stuff that Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing is really actually pretty excellent as well. So it really depends on what run you’re reading. Some people get it right, some people, not so right.
PCU: What’s your art background? You’ve got a computer background, you were a fan of animation, but how did you start?
Roye: I can’t draw to save my life. (Laughs) So I’m a writer and creator, and I wish I could draw, but all my artists are actually based back home in Lagos, Nigeria, and that’s part of my motivation to start this. To expose Nigerian talent, African talent, on a global scale. Because a lot of times people read my books, they can’t believe that it was actually done in Nigeria. People go, “oh wow.” When you actually flip through the books, it has a quality that you see in a Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse. So that’s one of the things that I’m proud about, and something that I really want to keep going.
PCU: Do you still have family back in Nigeria that you keep in touch with? Where are you finding Nigerian artists to work for an author in the United States?
Roye: I do have family back home, I go back every year at least once. Obviously, there are Nigerians here too. But I really wanted to get artists that actually stay in Nigeria to write up a book that’s actually based in Africa.
PCU: Why don’t you tell us about the two titles you’ve got here.
Roye: We have the E.X.O. series Part I and Part II, and that’s a superhero story that takes place in a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria. And then Malika: Warrior Queen, it’s a historical fantasy that takes place in a pre-colonial West Africa. You get to see what West Africa looked like in the 15th Century, before the colonial period, see what an African queen looked like, how she rules the Empire, how she dealt with threats both inside and outside the Empire. So, pretty great story all around.
PCU: If I’m not mistaken, you had a Free Comic Book Day offering with her, and you have a Halloween Comicfest issue coming. Since Halloween Comicfest is coming up in a month, what can you tell us about the sampler that’s coming. Is it going to be a reprint, or is it going to be a new story?
Roye: No, it’s a completely new story, which basically has Malika going toe-to-toe with dragons. That’s all I have to say for now. (Laughs) Please check it out when it comes out.
PCU: Is it mostly kids reading your books, is it adults, is it a mix?
Roye: It’s actually a mix, and that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of, is that I write my stories that are true to my culture. But I make it accessible to pretty much anyone that enjoys a great story. So, kids, adults, people in their sixties, people from Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, like, everyone, pretty much anyone that enjoys a story.
PCU: Where can people get copies of these books?
Roye: You can get them on my website, YouNeekStudios.com. You can also get it through Barnes & Noble, Comixology, Amazon Kindle, Apple Books, basically anywhere they sell books, you can get it.
PCU: Any upcoming stories you want to tell us about?
Roye: Yes! Malika Part II will be coming out next year, I’m still working on that. Can’t get into it too much because I don’t want to spoil Part I, but again, these characters are all in the same universe. So you can get to see connections between E.X.O. and Malika in Malika Part II.
PCU: So she’s in the 15th Century, he’s in the future, and somehow, they’re going to team up.
Roye: Yes, they’re going to meet up in Malika Part II.
PCU: Any last tips or pointers? Any hope of these guys becoming TV shows or movies?
Roye: Yeah. There’s always the hope for that. But one thing that I always like to add to every interview is that I always like to inspire people to chase their dreams while I’m living mine. So if there’s anything you want to do that you find in your heart, you want to be a writer, a comic book artist, whatever the case may be, if I can do it, you can. Keep pushing, keep hustling, while believing in yourself, take a chance on yourself, and you’ll be surprised at what happens.
PCU: Oh, and one last question. Small Press Expo is next week, and then Baltimore Comic-Con in two weeks. Are you going to be at either of those?
Roye: I’ll be at Baltimore Comic-Con but not SPX because I’m going to be at Brooklyn Book Festival next weekend.
PCU: We’ll keep an eye out for you at both of those.
Roye: Please do.
Thanks, Roye Okupe, for a great interview, and we’ll see you around the DC-Baltimore area.