Roye Okupe grew up watching superhero cartoons from his childhood home in Lagos, Nigeria. “To me, there’s something great about taking just one or two hours to watch a program where you get to see the good guys win. You don’t always see that in art or in reality,” he reflected. “For me, that was something I was very, very attached to as a kid.” Despite this attachment to superheroes, he didn’t see a lot that looked like him, and none that shared the experience of coming from his home continent—Africa. That lifelong fascination with superheroes as messengers of hope and punishers of evil has led Okupe away from the corporate world (he holds a Masters in Computer Science from George Washington University) and down the road less traveled as a graphic novel author. It has propelled him toward his dream of crafting superhero stories that reach new audiences, reflect diversity, and shine an optimistic light on the human experience.
Okupe has the honor of being Charlottesville’s Writer-in-Residence, a new role created this year by a joint effort between the Virginia Festival of the Book and Tom Tom Founders Festival. As part of this residency, he will be participating in community workshops, book signings, and panel discussions for the programming of both festivals. Sarah Lawson, the Festival of the Book’s Program Associate, explained the collaboration between the two festivals as a way to share resources and deepen the impact of both events. “Roye was a natural fit for the residency because his work provides a variety of access points,” she explained. “Not only do Book Festival audiences love graphic novels and comics, but we continue to focus on providing a platform for work by and about underrepresented individuals.”
I really like to get involved with youth, to tell them that their dreams are valid, to tell them that their goals are valid, because I feel like that’s one thing I didn’t really see growing up.
Thomas Hendricks, Art Manager for the Tom Tom Founders Festival, echoed Sarah’s sentiment that the Festival Writer Residency collaboration has infused an extra sense of energy and excitement into the events this year. “Promotion and programming are the fuel and the engine behind any good festival. This writer in residence program gave our festivals more of both.” Since Tom Tom celebrates individualism and the entrepreneurial spirit, the unconventional trajectory of Okupe’s career, as well as his dedication to following his dreams, made him an obvious choice for the Festival Writer-in-Residence position. “Roye has worked to carve a name for himself in his industry and there’s not a lot of precedent for the work he’s doing,” Thomas said. “With a master’s degree in Computer Science, Roye could have easily ‘sold out’ and gotten a good, cushy, boring job. Instead, he’s put work into his studio and is receiving well-deserved critical acclaim because of it.”
YouNeek Studios is the company that Okupe founded to disseminate his tales, the mission of which is to diversify the superhero milieu and tell great, character driven stories through animation, graphic novels, and digital comics. Riding on the blockbuster success of superhero films like the Batman and Ironman franchises, he was inspired to follow his dream of representing African stories in the superhero universe. “I discovered it was a big opportunity to be able to create and spin off the genre,” he said. E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams, a futuristic tale full of nanobot exoskeletons and shady corporate overlords, is his biggest title to date, one that is set to soon launch another spin-off series called Malika: Warrior Queen. “To be able to introduce these African characters and these African superheroes saving the day within the African context …” He paused for a moment, then posed a question to illustrate his point: “What does it mean to be an African superhero?” After letting that query sink in, he continued, “I felt like exploring that brought about a different perspective, a different narrative that the world hasn’t seen before.”
During his residency, Okupe will be participating in a community program at the Boys and Girls Club in Charlottesville. He’s particularly eager to interact with kids who are just as excited about superheroes as he was growing up. “I really like to get involved with youth, to tell them that their dreams are valid, to tell them that their goals are valid, because I feel like that’s one thing I didn’t really see growing up.” He continued, “I didn’t really have anyone to tell me that you can do this for a living. You can actually start a company that revolves around superheroes, which to be honest, sounds like a pipe dream, but that’s actually what I do,” he laughed.
Sharing that sense of wonderment with his audience, making sure to emphasize one’s ability to accomplish dreams that might seem far-fetched, is a goal of Okupe’s while in residence. “That’s one of the things I love most about being an author,” he enthused, “being able to talk to people about where I’ve come from, and being able to give back to people who also want to chase their dreams.” When it comes down to it, Roye is still that little kid, fascinated by the superheroes flying across his television screen. Through his writing and entrepreneurial endeavors, he hopes to ignite that same feeling in others, “I want to give people hope,” he said. “Even if it’s just for that one hour when you read my book, I want you to be inspired by what you see. I want you to be able to see good triumph over evil.”
“You don’t have to be into superheroes,” he was sure to add. “It’s all about spreading hope and inspiring people.”
Roye Okupe will be speaking at the Tom Tom Founders Festival on Saturday, April 15. The talk, entitled Writer-In-Residency: Roye Okupe, will be held at Telegraph Art & Comics at 4:00 PM. See full schedule of events at tomtomfest.com. See more of Okupe’s work at youneekstudios.com.
Photography by Erica Tappis