Roye Okupe on being Nigeria’s next big star on Hollywood’s animation scene

Okupe has been attracted to comics for a very long time, since watching superhero cartoons on TV. But it was Nigerian stories he wanted to tell.

For those not paying attention, it might look like Roye Okupe, the Nigerian creator behind the 2020 graphic novel Iyanu: Child of Wonder, which Cartoon Network and Max commissioned a series based on in 2022, has come out of nowhere.

But Okupe is anything but an overnight success. He arrived in the United States when he was 16 to study Computer Science at George Washington University while also studying animation at the Art Institute of Washington.

In 2008, with the advice and blessings of his father, he quit his nine-to-five and started self-publishing his comics. He took a part-time job, and then a full-time job. At some point, he held multiple jobs to push his work forward.

Everything he made from book sales went back into salaries and payments for animators and other creatives who worked on his comics. He made comics, he made graphic novels, and he made animated films.

He made Iyanu from the $36,000 he was able to raise from Kickstarter, his biggest crowdfunding yet.

In 2021, Dark Horse Comics, the publishers of Hellboy and The Umbrella Academy acquired the rights to republish his works. That was the first time he got a paycheck from his career in the animation space, after more than a decade of work. He made the animated film, Malika – Warrior Queen which now has more than 800k views on YouTube.

It’s been a long experience but a very rewarding one. I think everything that happened along the way has prepared me for the role that I’m in now,” he told Pulse Nigeria in an interview.

Okupe has been attracted to comics for a very long time, since watching superhero cartoons on TV. But it was Nigerian stories he wanted to tell.

I always felt the urge to do what I’m doing now, which is create my own characters inspired by Nigerian culture for a global audience,” he said.

ALSO READ: All you need to know about Max & Cartoon Network’s Nigerian animated series ‘Iyanu’

But there were consequences for snubbing what had for a century dominated mainstream Western comic and animation spaces for stories from Nigeria. What would his career have looked like if he had made another superhero based on Greek mythology or from a destroyed planet?

It would have been much easier. But what’s the point of doing that?” he said. “At least from my own perspective, there’s already enough of that. To me, I felt like I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t try to do what as a child, I wanted to see somebody else do,” he said.

For him, the wait was worth it. But over the years he has been able to reflect and reassess how his rise to the top might have been different.

I’ve made a lot of not-too-smart decisions. That’s my good way of saying I was very stupid in some of the decisions I made earlier on. But you learn from your mistakes. If I had a chance to do it again, there are some things I would try to do differently. There’s been moments where people that I’ve trusted have taken advantage of me. There have been moments where I could have been more patient and not signed certain deals that set me back. But ultimately, everything that has happened has brought me to the point that I am right now,” he said.

It was the producer, Erica Motley, who is now an executive producer on the Iyanu series, who first told him to consider making the book into a show.

How Roye Okupe became Nigeria’s next big star on Hollywood’s animation scene

So both of us started taking this around to different people,” he said.

Later they partnered with Lion Forge Entertainment, the only black-owned Oscar-winning animation studio (for Hair Love, 2019).

I think it gave us a lot of the credibility that we needed and the financing that we needed to get the project to the point where Cartoon Network felt like it was a no-brainer for them to come on board,” he said of the partnership.

One might assume a lot of oversight towering over Okupe as a creator working with a major studio for the first time. But he said that has not been the case.

They’ve given me a lot of liberty to tell the story that I want to tell and to tell it the right way because there’s a lot of very culturally sensitive things that come with telling a story about Yoruba culture. It has always been very important for me that it’s done the right way, that it’s done in a way that Nigerians can watch and be proud of it,” he said.

It still is very important that I had certain creative licenses to tell the story that I wanted to tell in a way that our people can be very proud, but also a global audience is not excluded from the experience as well. I think it’s our job to tell a story that a child from England or a child from Morocco, or even the adults as well from all parts of the world can relate to.”

Nigerian animated series, ‘Iyanu,’ coming to Cartoon Network and Max [Instagram/royeokupe]

On Iyanu, Okupe is working as a producer, writer and director. In April 2024, the all-Nigerian cast, including Ike Ononye, Adesua Etomi-Wellington, Blossom Chukwujekwu, Stella Damasus, and Shaffy Bello was announced. But the creator says the work has “not been challenging” for him.

In the past few years, Hollywood animation studios have invested in content inspired by cities and myths from Africa. There have been Iwaju and Kizazi Moto, both from Disney. Okupe joins Shofela Coker, Ziki Adeola, and Tolu Olowofoyeku in the league of Nigerian creators who have made big-budget Hollywood animation.

How does he manage the pressure?

I’ve tried to elevate myself to a different level of excellence to be able to respond to the pressure in the appropriate way and not in a way where I’m panicking or I’m afraid,” he said “But in a way where I’m acknowledging the pressure and allowing it to build something inside of me that can respond appropriately and grow and get better, not just as a creative person, but even as a human being as well too. But I feel it every single day.”

But he is not being too precious about the project either.

ALSO READ: With the arrival of ‘Iwájú,’ is Nollywood finally ready to turn its gaze on animations?

“I can’t as a creative person. I can’t do that to myself. I don’t subscribe to, ‘Oh, this is so precious that oh no, I can’t try this,” he said. However, he said, “Sometimes yes, you want to be conservative about certain things, especially for me when it comes to things that are culturally sensitive.”

Okupe joins a very long list of Nigerians in the diaspora who have attained success in the West in Hollywood to the Afrobeats stars that have continued to earn Grammy nominations. He says that he has spent some time thinking about why this is happening now.

How Roye Okupe became Nigeria’s next big star on Hollywood’s animation scene

This is something I felt should have happened way, way earlier. But obviously, everything happens for a reason and at the appropriate time. I think the world is getting tired of seeing the same thing over and over again.

Okupe has been attracted to comics for a very long time, since watching superhero cartoons on TV. But it was Nigerian stories he wanted to tell. Read More

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