Award-winning creator Roye Okupe sat down with CBR to discuss diversity and representation in comics and his formation of YouNeek Studios.
Award-winning creator Roye Okupe is no stranger to the world of comics or the need for representation and diversity in the medium. As the founder of YouNeek Studios, the Nigerian creator has made it his mission to create comics from an Afrofuturistic perspective, and one of his acclaimed creations, Iyanu, Child of Wonder, is currently being adapted into a television series for the premier top-tier streaming service HBO Max. Okupe was also recently nominated for the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics, which was created to honor excellence and inclusion within the medium. He recently signed a ten-book deal with respected independent publisher Dark Horse Comics.
CBR had an exclusive conversation with Okupe, in which the creator spoke at length about the need for diversity and representation in the world of comics. He also shared a few details about the upcoming HBO series based on his work, as well as the effect the recent revitalization of DC’s Milestone Comics has had on him and other traditionally marginalized creators.
CBR: What led to your founding of YouNeek Studios?
Roye Okupe: Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, I was a huge fan of superhero fantasy stories. But I always felt like it’d be even more special if somebody told these stories from an African perspective, taking place in Africa. When I moved to the United States in 2002, there was this explosion of superhero films that took the medium mainstream to a wider audience, and I thought the time was ripe to present the type of stories I wanted to do for a global audience. That was how the idea for YouNeek Studios began.
I didn’t do anything with the idea until 2014 when I decided that if no one else was going to do it, maybe I should find a way to do it myself. A year later, I started YouNeek and launched my first Kickstarter for E.X.O. The Legend of Wale Williams. I haven’t looked back since.
CBR: The recent resurgence of the DC imprint Milestone Media and the subsequent push of the Milestone Initiative has paved the way for creative diversity. How do you feel you have personally contributed to and benefited from this movement?
Roye Okupe: I think I’ve benefited from not just the Milestone movement but everybody in the entertainment industry who has gone before me. Dwayne McDuffie is a perfect example of this. There are so many great things he did, not just in comics but in animation as well, and one of the biggest highlights of my career was being nominated for the diversity and inclusion award that was named after him. He and Milestone paved the way for a lot of us, and I feel like I have a responsibility to contribute to the narrative and help the next generation.
For me, this means not only producing excellent stories but also continuing to be authentic in those stories and being as supportive as I can in the community. In service of this, I have a podcast called The YouNeek Show in which I talk about things like how to start a creative business and how I got a deal with HBO Max. Giving back is very important to me, as I personally have been a huge benefactor of what Milestone and others have done before me. It’s my job to return the favor and help the next generation in any way I can.
CBR: Iyanu-Child of Wonder is currently being adapted for HBO Max. What is this series about, and why should our readers be interested?
Roye Okupe: Iyanu: Child of Wonder is an action-adventure fantasy story that takes place in Yorubaland, the home of one of the main tribes in Nigeria. This is also my tribe and a part of my heritage, which makes this story very personal for me. The story follows Iyanu as she goes on a journey to discover where she’s from and who her parents are. While on her journey she discovers that she has powers derived from the gods. These powers are the only hope her people have against a force called the Corrupt, which has turned all the animals against humanity.
While the story of Iyanu has plenty of awesome action and fantastical elements that we all love to see in these types of stories, it’s also grounded in the idea that there is greatness in all of us. I think that’s something that every single person can relate to. I believe that there is a measure of innate ability in each and every one of us that should be shared with the world, but many of us don’t put it out there because of fear, doubt, and a lack of self-confidence. We are essentially afraid to take a chance. Iyanu is a representation of that. She’s a Child of Wonder, but she just wants to be a regular kid. Soon she realizes that she has to accept being extraordinary and that a normal life isn’t in the cards for her. She has to take on the mantle and responsibility of using what’s inside of her for the benefit of the people around her.
A lot of times, we make the mistake of believing that our talents and gifts are for us. I’m a strong believer that they are instead meant to inspire those around us. This is what Iyanu represents — not just as a graphic novel, but as an individual character in this massive world around her. She is someone people can identify with and root for, and reading the books now will give a head start on the story before the series begins on HBO.
CBR: Why do you think that at this particular moment in history, audiences are so interested in diversity and representation?
Roye Okupe: I think that people have seen the same thing over and over again and are ready to see something different. Let’s take traveling as an example. People like to go to different places because they want to experience different cultures, broaden their horizons, and see how other people do things. Entertainment is no different. People want to see how other cultures interpret superheroes, horror movies, and animation. I think we’re just wired that way.
We’re not monotonous creatures who just want to experience the same thing in the same way. I think we’re starting to see the results of that, and people are excited to experience something different in all these mediums. Whenever a show or comic offers something different and is done the right way, it allows audiences to view a story authentic to a culture, and that is usually a success. So I think people basically are ready to see something different, and they’re excited to see more.
Originally published in cbr.com