Every superhero has an origin story that explains how he or she obtained superpowers, and sometimes these powers lie dormant until a challenge arises. Tom Tom Founders Festival writer-in-residence Roye Okupe didn’t know he had the power to write until he had no choice but to try. With a background in animation and an important story to tell, he sought a writer willing to help him. After sending out many requests he came up empty. “It put me in a position where I was actually forced to learn how to write, and I found out I had a skill I didn’t know I had,” Okupe says. “So sometimes in life when you get rejected and things don’t go your way it’s just because the universe is trying to direct you to something else.”
Last week Okupe spoke to the Charlottesville Boys & Girls Club about how he came to be a graphic novelist who spends his days immersed in a universe of his own making. He asked the kids to raise their hands if they had heard of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Then he asked if they could name a superhero from Africa. “Black Panther,” a few small voices responded. They had not yet heard of E.X.O., the first superhero in Okupe’s YouNeek Universe. Okupe, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, told the kids, “When I was about your age there were no superheroes that looked like me.” There weren’t a lot of comic bookstores in Lagos then, and most of his exposure was through TV shows imported from the U.S. “‘Black Panther’ came out in the ’60s but it wasn’t very popular so it wasn’t really something that crossed over all the way to Lagos, Nigeria,” he says.
In fact, Okupe wouldn’t learn about Black Panther until he moved to the U.S. in 2002. As a child, he says, “I saw [the absence of African superheroes] as an opportunity. Like, ‘This would be so cool if we had a superhero from Nigeria. No one’s really doing this.’ I couldn’t understand why it didn’t exist.”
Now at age 32, Okupe is able to live his dream full-time. While earning an undergraduate and graduate degree in computer science from George Washington University, he learned skills that eventually helped him start his own business, YouNeek Studios. He says his first book in the E.X.O. trilogy is “an allegory of sorts for my journey. I feel like it was the power from within me that actually willed what I’m doing right now to come through.” He returns to Nigeria at least once a year and has the satisfaction of seeing his books in stores. It’s inspiring, he says, to be part of the solution. “One of the reasons why I love superheroes so much and was drawn to them as a child is because our world is filled with so much negativity. And you don’t always get to see the good guys win.” And even though the hero struggles in the middle of the story, Okupe says, he always overcomes. “You may be down and under, you may be going through some things. But you can still pick yourself up and win at the end of the day.”
The YouNeek Universe
Lagoon City, Nigeria. 2025 A.D. Wale Williams inherits a Nanosuit with superhuman abilities and uses it to fight a corrupt government and a radicalized group named CREED.
Malika Warrior Queen
The kingdom of Azzaz, West Africa.
5th century. Malika, a prodigy warrior and commander, must protect her expanding kingdom from enemies within, as well as the Ming Dynasty.
The kingdom of Atala, sometime
during the Ming Dynasty. Bass Kazaar,
a kung fu master, finds the Wind
Stone, which gives him the power to manipulate the wind. He uses it to reclaim his kingdom from the oppressor Cheng and his forces.