Step aside Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, Africa has delivered the world a new superhero: Adewale “Wale” Williams, aka E.X.O. His domain should be familiar to comic book fans, the city—although it isn’t Gotham City, but Lagoon City. As with Gotham, Lagoon City is a stand-in for a real-world place: contemporary Lagos, where Wale Williams’ creator Roye Okupe was born. Okupe, who heads up YouNeek Studios in North Bethesda, Maryland, got hooked on superhero stories in the 1980s (he was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series). Over time, though, he came to realise that superhero narratives had a predictable tone.
In 2008, Okupe began working on a superhero series set in Nigeria, E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams. A brief synopsis: Williams returns to Lagoon City after an absence of five years to investigate his inventor father’s disappearance. He finds a city of massive disparities plagued by CREED, a radical organization led by a brilliant but sociopathic extremist. Wale also inherits a suit with super powers … and an everyman becomes a superhero. Okupe talks about why he developed this future-focussed story.
Cityscapes: What is it about the genres of science fiction and comic books that prompted you to use them as a way to explore the future?
Roye Okupe: I’m obsessed with superheroes and superhero stories, but I’m just as obsessed with sci-fi movies, so when it was time to tell this story there was no better way than to combine my two loves. That’s how E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams was born. The creation of E.X.O. goes way beyond that though—there were two additional reasons why I decided to do it. My first was to step out and to risk making my dream come true: I have always had a dream to create a superhero from Nigeria, where I was born and raised. The second reason was pride: I wanted to do something positive and inspirational for my country, and my continent. When people see E.X.O.—whether animated on screen or as a graphic novel—I want them to see a different side of Africa, our booming tech industry, amazing architecture, unique culture and humour. This is a side that is not regularly shown in mainstream media.
CS: Your setting for E.X.O. is “future Lagos”—a place you name Lagoon City. It is pretty grim. You have referred to Lagoon City as similar to “what Gotham is to New York”. Is this grim future your impression of where Lagos is headed?
RO: Oh, that reference wasn’t mine. It was a journalist at Forbes that said it. But in a way he is right. I made the choice not to go too far into the future. I set E.X.O. in 2025, ten years into the future. I wanted to illustrate what I truly believe Africa and Nigeria will be like in ten years time. Now, I am not saying we will have people flying around in super suits like E.X.O.’s hero does, but I believe with the boom in information technology and improvements in infrastructure, Nigeria—and Africa as a whole—will be great in ten years.
I am not saying we will have people flying around in super suits like E.X.O.’s hero does, but I believe with the boom in information technology and improvements in infrastructure, Nigeria—and Africa as a whole—will be great in ten years
In my book I share that vision because the story is heavily focused on technology, and how the people in Lagoon City react to it. The cool thing is that the story focuses on a Nigeria that has done a good job of eradicating some of its most pressing issues—the lack of stable infrastructure, corruption and crime. But, a critical event happens and the nation starts to slip back to its old ways, and our hero, Wale Williams, is thrust into the middle of everything.
CS: What would you say are the possibilities and potential of science fiction in the African context?
RO: I think the future is really bright. There are a lot of other African writers taking more and more risks when it comes to telling science fiction stories, particularly how Africans react to technology.
CS: What are your impressions of other works of science fiction set on the continent that have emerged in the last few years?
RO: I think, no doubt, the biggest imprint has been made by Neil Blomkamp, the creator of District 9 (2009) and Chappie (2015). It was cool to see the concepts of artificial intelligence robots and aliens being showcased in a city like Johannesburg. I think successes like that are crucial for independents like me, and others who want to tell compelling sci-fi stories that take place in Africa