Why the world needs an African superhero

Last year, Marvel Comics announced that American writer Ta Nehisi Coates would be penning the upcoming Black Panther comic book series. Marvel has been criticised in the past for their lack of black characters and for not hiring enough writers of colour.

But long before Marvel roped Coates in, Nigerian animator Roye Okupe was working on making comics more inclusive.

Roye Okupe has always been a fan of superheroes. As a child, he’d camp in front of the television and feast on cartoons – Batman, Superman, Ironman and what have you – while life in Lagos, where he was born and raised, went by with no wahala (worries). Roye grew up and went to university in America, where he took computer science at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. There his love for animation intensified. What also crystallised during that period (early 2000s) was the desire to make an animated superhero film set in Lagos, made entirely by Africans.

Years later, and after much thought and thorough research – not to mention tonnes of self-doubt – Roye, always hip to what’s next in technology innovations, got onto Kickstarter to raise money for his passion project. Roye hasn’t made it onto the big screen, yet, but there’s a recently published novel, “E.X.O: The Legend Of Wale Williams”, which is a direct result of saving up his own money; begging family members for extra funding; and raising the extra US$3,500 in two days through the Kickstarter campaign (he kept it going until he raised US$10,000).

“I’m a big advocate for people chasing their dreams. Human beings have a burning passion and desire to accomplish a certain thing because it’s unique to them, and this is inside everybody,” he says.

We spoke to Roye about navigating a predominantly white industry, self-belief, and what he listens to when devising E.X.O’s exploits in near-future Lagoon City.

Take us behind the conceptualisation of E.X.O – moving from fan to creator?

I’d always thought it would be cool to do a superhero based on where I grew up. When I came to the US, the superhero genre started to explode with all the movies. That’s when I decided, I wanted to do a character that’s not just African, but written by Africans, with the art done by Africans, and from an actual African perspective.’ Animation was the main goal, to get either an animated series or an African movie. But animation is so tough as an industry. Nobody’s going to give you money, especially if you’re an African. I had one person telling me that an animation based on an African character would never be successful. What I decided to do was put the animation on hold. I said ‘let me see what I can do in terms of a graphic novel.’ It still requires a lot of money to create, but at least that I can fund it by myself. So I transformed the script that I wrote for the movie and turned it into a graphic novel.

What has it been like navigating the comic book world as a black person of Nigerian origin in America?

It’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. Black characters aren’t very popular when it comes to superheroes. And then you’re not just talking any black character, but you’re talking an African character, a Nigerian character. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. Trying to find your voice in a genre that is saturated by predominantly white characters, white creators, white writers, it’s very difficult because no one wants to listen to anything you have to say, and no one wants to get behind you. Thankfully, I’ve been able to use some creative ways. Through hard work and a relentless nature to not give up, [I’ve been] able to get it to a point where, it’s not like it’s the most popular thing right now, but at least a lot of people know about it.

How does the Lagoon City of 2025 differ from Lagoon City 2015?

One of the reasons I decided to set the book in the near future is because I wanted to touch on some aspects of what I believe Africa can be like in 10 years. You still get to see some of the things that you would see today in Lagos. There are monuments in there, different buildings and things that people who live in Lagos will immediately recognise. It’s not so far in the future that you’ll see flying cars and things like that. It makes it more believable, and it makes it more achievable in terms of what a beautiful city could look like.

What’s your headspace when creating? Are you listening to music?

When I’m writing, I don’t have anything on - nothing. It’s just me, my keyboard and computer.

Good guy or bad guy?

Definitely good guy!