By the time he graduated from George Washington University with a degree in computer science (while also studying animation at the Art Institute of Washington), Okupe was shopping around an eight-minute animated trailer for an African superhero. Years before “Black Panther” would go on to make $1 billion at the box office, Okupe received little interest from the TV world. One producer told him his ideas might work if he changed the race of his heroes.
But Okupe never lost confidence in his dream, and in 2015 he decided to introduce his heroes to the world by self-publishing comic books.
Now, in 2021, Okupe’s dream will become mainstream.
Oregon-based Dark Horse Comics, the legendary home of “Hellboy,” “Sin City” and “The Umbrella Academy,” is acquiring the rights to republish the comics from Okupe’s company, YouNeek Studios, and publish new tales in the future. The deal makes Okupe one of the rising stars of a comic industry that has made efforts to diversify over the last decade — and opens up a whole new world of potential Hollywood possibilities.
For Okupe, who’s 35 and based in Millersville, Md., the deal is a culmination of a plan that began with a leap of faith. He quit a reliable job as a Web developer and cashed out his 401(k) to get by.
He steadily built a dedicated fan base to fund his comics through Kickstarter. He also sold them online and via conventions. Now the worlds he’s created will be part of a comic industry titan that has been around for 35 years.
“I think the immediate impact with Dark Horse’s legacy is that you’re going to have a lot more people paying attention” to YouNeek Studios, Okupe said. “It’s also going to shine a light on the African continent and what it has to offer when it comes to the entertainment industry, specifically comic books.”
Okupe wrote all the books in the “YouNeek YouNiverse,” as he calls it, but he hopes this new deal will highlight the many African artists he collaborated with. “Malika: Warrior Queen,” about a 15th-century superhero, was illustrated by Chima Kalu and Sunkanmi Akinboye and colored by Raphael Kazeem, Etubi Onucheyo and Toyin Ajetunmobi. “Iyanu: Child of Wonder,” about a superpowered teenage orphan, is illustrated by Godwin Akpan, and the Afrofuturistic “E.X.O. was illustrated by Akinboye and colored by Kazeem, Ajetunmobi, Onucheyo and Tarella Pablo. Dark Horse will roll out these titles on Sept. 7, Sept. 21 and Oct 19, respectively.
Okupe and Dark Horse editor in chief Dave Marshall first crossed paths at New York Comic-Con in 2019. Marshall admired Okupe’s understanding of the market and his success in creating his universe through graphic novels that had complete stories, instead of splitting them into monthly issues like Dark Horse, DC Comics and Marvel Comics typically do.
“I was impressed by what Roye had accomplished having built YouNeek from scratch,” Marshall said.
Okupe sent him home from the convention with a stack of graphic novels to read. “Exciting artwork, compelling stories — just good comics,” Marshall added.
The current king of Black superheroes, the Black Panther, has resided at Marvel Comics for over half a century, and DC Comics has had an entire universe dedicated to superheroes of color since the early ’90s — Milestone Comics, which is set to return next month after a hiatus of over two decades.
But YouNeek’s new wave of original heroes, drawn by a network of African talent, made an industry hungry for diversity take notice. Dark Horse CEO Mike Richardson sees the merger as a chance to tell the type of stories that have yet to be told in mainstream comics.
“YouNeek Studios is unlike anything in American comics today,” Richardson said. “I hope to see the YouNeek acquisition prove to comics that there is absolutely a market for these stories, told by creative teams that have the knowledge to tell them right, and I see more publishers picking up books like these in the future.”
Of the utmost importance to Okupe when finalizing his deal was maintaining the rights to his works. So he can now negotiate his own deals for adaptations in television, movies, animation or streaming.
Okupe is keenly aware that his comics now reside with a publisher that has years of success with live-action adaptations, from multiple “Hellboy” movies to “The Umbrella Academy,” one of Netflix’s top streaming series, which was recently renewed for a third season.
Multiple trips to Los Angeles to talk with producers have Okupe confident that his comics have Hollywood potential, but he isn’t interested in just making a sale. Okupe is a student of the superhero movie genre, especially the résumé of Kevin Feige and his decade-long success closely overseeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and would want to be just as involved if Hollywood brought his own universe to the screen.
“These are the things that I’ve had to carefully [plan] as I’ve made this transition,” Okupe said. “I would be lying if I said that [Hollywood is] not something that I think about.”
Dark Horse’s acquisition has the look of other recent deals to help diversify media in the wake of the racial uprising of 2020. But Okuye’s talks began in 2019 — “before it was in style,” he said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t give them credit for taking that step in 2019 when they weren’t under the huge pressure that some other brands are under right now.”
As Okupe and YouNeek Studios settle into their new home, he says that being at a publisher that “believes in the material and the why of the material” will be the key to a seamless transition for himself and his heroes.
“To me this is an unprecedented deal. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner,” Okupe said. “I’m just really excited to see what’s to come.”