Nige­ria’s comic book ex­plo­sion: Why La­gos is the new Gotham

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Move over New York, Gotham and Me­trop­o­lis… La­gos is the new place to find su­per­heroes. David Bar­nett finds out about the rise of the Nige­rian comic book in­dus­try Growing up in the cap­i­tal city of Nige­ria, Roye Okupe didn’t have many su­per-pow­ered role mod­els. Comic books were few and far be­tween in La­gos, and those that he did see - im­ports from the US - didn’t have many black main char­ac­ters.

He loved an­i­ma­tion, and from be­ing a small boy had an am­bi­tion to work on his own car­toons. “I al­ways thought it would be cool to do a su­per­hero story based on a Nige­rian char­ac­ter,” says Okupe.

In 2002, Okupe moved to the United States to study com­puter science at the Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity, and af­ter grad­u­at­ing with both a Bach­e­lor’s and a Mas­ter’s de­gree, he started work as a web de­vel­oper. But the dream of cre­at­ing his own su­per­heroes never left him.

Okupe, now 32, re­calls, “One morn­ing when I clocked into work for the day, I sat down at my com­puter and stared at the screen for about one hour do­ing noth­ing. In­stead of work­ing, I was day­dream­ing about the dif­fer­ent sto­ries and com­pelling char­ac­ters that would be the ge­n­e­sis of what I would even­tu­ally ti­tle the ‘YouNeek YouNi­verse’.

“It was then I knew that I had to take a risk. I had to bet on my­self no mat­ter how scary the path that lies ahead was. So in June 2015, I quit my full-time job and started YouNeek Stu­dios. A com­pany that would al­low me to cre­ate comics, graphic nov­els and an­i­mated sto­ries fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters that were in­spired by my cul­ture.”

Ini­tially in­spired by the be­gin­nings of the movie su­per­hero craze - this was about the time of the Spi­der-Man movies, star­ring Tobey Maguire - Okupe wanted to cre­ate his own an­i­mated se­ries, but found it tough to get into the in­dus­try. It was then that he hit on the idea of trans­fer­ring his char­ac­ters to the comic-book for­mat.

His first out­ing was EX O - The Leg­end of Wale Wil­liams. The first chap­ter fea­tur­ing this Iron Man-es­que pow­er­suited hero, set in a near-future La­gos of 2025, was ini­tially re­leased as a free in­ter­net down­load in early 2015. The teaser chap­ter got Okupe a lot of in­ter­est, and he used the crowd­fund­ing plat­form Kick­starter to raise $10,000 (£7,500) to fi­nance a phys­i­cal graphic novel of the en­tire story of E X O.

“It was im­por­tant for me to cre­ate sto­ries in which African read­ers could see them­selves,” he says. “But I think that’s im­por­tant for every kind of reader, no mat­ter where you’re from. Africa is so rich in cul­ture. So for me, while it’s im­por­tant to cre­ate sto­ries that peo­ple of African de­scent can see them­selves in, I also see a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity to insert fresh and highly com­pelling sto­ries and ideas into an in­dus­try that’s in des­per­ate need of some. And this goes for Hol­ly­wood as well.”

Okupe isn’t a lone voice in the bur­geon­ing Nige­rian comics in­dus­try. In 2013, the pub­lish­ing com­pany Comic Repub­lic was set up in La­gos. Its CEO Jide Martin says: “There was a moral vac­uum in the present gen­er­a­tion, a gen­eral lack of icons. Peo­ple stopped be­liev­ing in the in­sti­tu­tions of old.

“To fill this gap, I went back to my child­hood and I re­mem­bered that I used to re­flect on what Su­per­man or Bat­man would do when I wanted to make de­ci­sions. So I de­cided to use the same medium to give this and the next gen­er­a­tion some­thing to be­lieve in.”

Like Okupe, Martin was dis­ap­pointed in the lack of pos­i­tive por­trayal of Africans in comics at the time. “I don’t think Africa and Africans are well rep­re­sented in main­stream West­ern comics,” he says. “That is why we are here... to give us a place in this genre and to show the world what Africans are ca­pa­ble of.”

Comic Repub­lic pub­lishes a range of ti­tles in­clud­ing Guardian Prime, a Su­per­man-style cham­pion and a team of he­roes who have been dubbed “The African Avengers”. The di­ver­sity of life in Africa in­forms the char­ac­ters, and YouNeek and Comic Repub­lic both mine the rich his­tory and myth of the con­ti­nent as well as look for­ward to the future.

Okupe says: “I’ve pub­lished three graphic nov­els: ‘EX O - The Leg­end of Wale Wil­liams’, parts one and two, and the first part of ‘Ma­lika - War­rior Queen’, a his­tor­i­cal fan­tasy epic set in a 15th-cen­tury West Africa.

“I’ve also pub­lished an art book ti­tled ‘WindMaker - The His­tory of Atala’. It serves as a com­pan­ion book to ‘Ma­lika War­rior Queen Part One’ and it’s in­spired by West African mythol­ogy. These are sto­ries that you wouldn’t reg­u­larly see in comics. They stand out com­pletely. And that’s a good thing.”

At the end of Oc­to­ber, Okupe is launch­ing a Kick­starter ap­peal to fund the sec­ond vol­ume of Ma­lika, and says that the way comics are tak­ing off in Nige­ria is “crazy”. He adds: “La­gos Comic Con, prob­a­bly the big­gest geek event in Africa, just wrapped up its 6th year. That event in it­self is proof of the enor­mous po­ten­tial of comics in Africa. It’s a growing in­dus­try yes, but boy is it growing at a re­mark­able rate.

“An­other thing to watch out for in African comics is the tal­ent. 95 per cent of the artists that work on all our books, prints and con­cept art live in Nige­ria. And if you take a look at our stuff, you can tell that these guys are amaz­ing. Part of our mis­sion here at YouNeek Stu­dios is to show­case African tal­ent on a global scale. And so far, mis­sion ac­com­plished.”

The Nige­rian comics ex­plo­sion isn’t just con­tained in La­gos, though. The rip­ples are be­ing felt all the way back in New York, home of Marvel Comics. It was an­nounced last month that the pub­lisher is bring­ing out a ti­tle in its Spi­der-Man-based “Venom­verse” world, which will fea­ture a num­ber of shorter sto­ries… one writ­ten by Nige­rian-Amer­i­can au­thor Nnedi Oko­rafor, and set in La­gos.

Al­though Marvel has long had its African su­per­hero Black Pan­ther, shortly to come to the big screen as part of the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse, that char­ac­ter’s home coun­try of Wakanda is en­tirely fic­tional. Oko­rafor’s new su­per-pow­ered char­ac­ter Ngozi is a teenage girl, and her story is in­spired by the ab­duc­tion of 220 school­girls by Boko Haram in the Chi­bok re­gion of Nige­ria in 2014.

Oko­rafor, more well-known for her science fic­tion nov­els and short sto­ries, told Reuters about her story Bless­ing in Dis­guise, which was re­leased this month: “It was an im­por­tant de­ci­sion for me to base Ngozi on the one of the Chi­bok girls. They were nor­mal girls who sud­denly had to deal with a huge change in their lives ... and their story of per­se­ver­ance is so pow­er­ful. Like many Nige­rian girls, Ngozi comes in a small pack­age but is strong­willed and de­ter­mined.”

Thanks to the home-grown in­dus­try and Marvel’s recog­ni­tion of a wider Africa be­yond the one usu­ally por­trayed in West­ern comic books, La­gos is well and truly on the map for comic fans - and be­yond the comics world.

Roye Okupe was re­cently named as one of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial Africans by NewAfrican mag­a­zine for his comics work. “I al­most col­lapsed when I heard it!” he says. “It is un­doubt­edly one of the great­est honours that have been be­stowed upon me and I do not take it lightly at all. I can only hope my jour­ney to this point can in­spire oth­ers who just like me have a dream, that burn­ing de­sire in­side them to do some­thing, to add some­thing to this world, to take a leap of faith. My goal is to in­spire peo­ple to chase their dreams while I live mine.”

Just like, in fact, the best su­per­heroes…

E.X.O, from You Neek stud­ies

Avonome, from Comic Repub­lic.

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