Earlier this year, Dark Horse Comics announced a partnership with YouNeek Studios that will see the publisher release ten graphic novels of existing and new material from the studio featuring original superheroes based on African history and folklore. The first of those books, Malika: Warrior Queen Volume 1, arrived in stores earlier this month. Written by YouNeek Studios founder Roye Okupe with art by Chima Kalu, colors by Raphael Kazeem, and lettering by Spoof Animation, the new edition of the previously-released graphic novel contains new backmatter material from the creators about the development of Malika and her place within the larger world of the YouNeek books, otherwise known as the YouNiverse.
The Beat chatted with Okupe about bringing the YouNeek Studios library to Dark Horse, some of the decisions that went into how to roll the books out to a wider audience, and what he hopes readers take from the characters and stories of the YouNiverse.
Joe Grunenwald: The partnership between YouNeek and Dark Horse was announced back in January, so it’s been a bit of a road to get here. How’re you feeling now that the first of the reissued books is hitting stores?
Roye Okupe: Fantastic. I took a trip to Book-A-Million today and seeing the massive, 336-page Malika Vol 1 (Dark Horse Edition) was a sight to behold. It felt surreal holding a book that I wrote with a Dark Horse logo on it. Dark Horse is a company I’ve admired for years and to be here today, working with them on 10 graphic novels is beyond exciting. I can’t wait for people to see all the amazing stuff we have in store starting with Malika Vol 1.
Grunenwald: With the reissued titles like Malika: Warrior Queen and E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams, did you have any opportunities to go back and make changes, or to add any additional material to the books? If a reader has the original editions will they be missing out by not picking up the reissues?
Okupe: E.X.O. and Malika were two of the first graphic novels I wrote and self-published and while I’m super proud of how they came out, one of the things I always wished I could do over was the lettering. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t terrible, but in 2015/16 when I first put these books together, I lacked a lot of experience in the lettering department.
Which is why for both the Malika and E.X.O. vol 1 Dark Horse editions, I was excited we got a chance to redo ALL the lettering for both titles. That, combined with the world-class art already present in both books just made the Dark Horse editions look so much better.
But we didn’t end there, for each one there’s tons of bonus art, a sketchbook section, bonus one-shot stories as well as Q&A with yours truly where I give a deeper dive into the backstories of the characters, worlds and my motivation for creating the YouNiverse and each graphic novel series in it.
This makes for an epic 300+ page volume of books that old and new fans alike will love. If you love fantasy, sci-fi and/or superhero stories, grabbing these tomes are a no-brainer. You’ll definitely get a bang for your buck.
Grunenwald: Malika: Warrior Queen is the first YouNeek title to be released by Dark Horse, but the second that you released yourself, after E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams. What led to the decision to lead with Malika this time around?
Okupe: Great question. We just felt it was better to introduce Malika first since she’s a pivotal character that sort of touches every part of the YouNeek Youniverse. A lot of what happens in Malika Vol. 1 sends ripple effects into the future for the rest of the characters in the YouNiverse.
Grunenwald: What was your process like for developing the characters and stories for the YouNeek YouNiverse? What elements of the original myths did you feel like you had to make sure you included, even if you didn’t adhere to them strictly?
Okupe: As proud as I am of the awe-inspiring job we’ve done in bringing a world that has aesthetically never been seen before with Malika to this medium, there’s more to this Historical Fantasy epic than meets the eye. I’ve always said that as much as all our stories are inspired by African history, culture and mythology, those things are truly the icing on the cake. What I believe readers will fall in love within this series is a very deep character-driven story with a super-powered lead who is very related.
Take for instance, Malika. At its core, the Malika series explores the true meaning behind the phrase “Warrior Queen”. Why? Because a dichotomy of titles is one of the most relatable conundrums, we have in our society today. How do you balance being Mother and Business Owner? Dad and CEO? Is it possible to be excellent at both? If so, how? If not, how do you reconcile that? In Malika’s case, being both Warrior and Queen creates this very dynamic and sometimes overwhelming push and pull between when to choose diplomacy over aggression and vice-versa. Throughout the story, we’ll witness our hero, Malika, desperately try to keep the peace in an ever-expanding empire as she is consistently forced to make the choice of being Warrior or Queen. A decision Malika deems impossible.
So, for me, it’s story and character first. Once I can nail that down, then I pull out my rolodex of African histories, cultures and myths and try to figure out what the best fit is and what excites me the most at the moment. After all, everything that I do (at least for now) has its roots in African history, culture and mythology.
Grunenwald: You teamed with artists Chima Kalu and Raphael Kazeem on Malika: Warrior Queen. What made them a good fit for this particular story? How did what they bring to the table elevate the book?
Okupe: Chima and Raphael are two of the most talented artists I’ve ever met in any part of the world. And I think that’s evident in the work they were able to do on Malika – Warrior Queen Vol 1. To me, it wasn’t really about picking them specifically for this job. I had worked with Raphael in the past and knew that if I didn’t put him on Malika, someone else would swipe him up before I got the chance. So even before he was done with the previous project, I had already signed him up for Malika lol. With Chima, his work is just so epic that I felt he would be the right guy for the job (pencils & inks). For Malika, I wanted readers to feel like they were reading something that felt like a movie not just a comic. And Chima did just that. If you look at some of the epic battles in the book, I honestly can’t wrap my head around how he was able to do what he did on certain pages.
Grunenwald: What are you excited for people to see as they discover the YouNiverse for the first time?
Okupe: What we are trying to do over the next few years is create a world as compelling and immersive as Star Wars. A massive universe of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero content spread across different timelines. However, our approach is to do this from an African perspective, which, with time, branches into the larger world (and eventually even space). Is this ambitious? Yes. Is it impossible? Not at all. In fact, we’ve already successfully sown the seeds to achieve such a lofty goal. And now, with this monumental ten-book deal with Dark Horse and their impeccable history, support, and infrastructure they bring to the table, we will finally be able to achieve our ultimate goal: create, for a global audience, content that empowers African creatives and storytelling. And I can’t wait for the whole world to see how seamlessly these stories weave together as each series simultaneously maintains their own individual story arc.
Grunenwald: Finally, I know you’ve done some animation work with the Youniverse characters in the past, so teaming with Dark Horse Entertainment on that seems like a natural step. Has there been any discussion or movement on that front?
Okupe: Great question!
The new Dark Horse Comics edition of Malika: Warrior Queen volume 1 is available in stores now, with volume 2 due out in December. The next YouNeek Studios title to arrive from Dark Horse, E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams volume 1, arrives in bookstores on Tuesday, October 19th, and in comic shops on Wednesday, October 20th.
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