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Review of E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams Part Two

By Fiona Farnsworth
Okupe, Roye. E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams Part Two. YouNeek Studios, 2016.

The second instalment in the E.X.O. saga is a vibrant follow—up to Roye Okupe’s mapping of an unlikely hero’s path to redemption. Like its predecessor, this volume is situated in Okupe’s Youneek Universe: a new cosmos created to house an “eclectic selection of superheroes” (Digital Comics), and an explicit effort to address the racial bias entrenched in an overwhelmingly white comics canon.

Okupe’s central concern in the creation of E.X.O—from its Kickstarter origins to this highly—commended sequel—has been to “put Africa on the map when it comes to telling superhero stories” (AWPNetwork). While the lack of diversity in the comics medium is not addressed directly within the narrative, Okupe’s implicit political message gains traction in the very fact that this is a superhero story which happens, quite simply, to take place in Africa. Characters speak in Nigerian dialect throughout this volume: Wale mutters “Ahn ahn how far?” (Okupe, 73) in exasperated response to oncoming attacks during E.X.O training, and this is accompanied by an approximate English translation (“<Really?>”); in the same scenario, Wale calls himself “Begbe”, again followed by its English meaning “<Idiot>”. As we see here, these instances of dialectal phraseology are always accompanied by a translatory approximation in English, in an effort to make the text accessible to its widest possible readership. However, their presence is an important step in a diversification of narrative strategies; they act as textual signposts of the culture in which Okupe’s work is set without alienating readers outside of this immediate situation.

Characterization receives a greater degree of attention in this volume than in its predecessor, which suffered at times from the necessity of introduction and scene—setting. Wale Williams is certainly comparable to more established heroes: the EXO alter—ego is ensconced in the tragic loss of Wale’s parents in a creative move that echoes the Batman origins, and readers familiar with a more traditional comics “canon” will easily identify parallels between the Endogenic Xoskeletal Ordnance suit and Iron Man’s armour. However, to focus entirely on Wale’s similarities to the legacies of his heroic forerunners is to disregard the wider implications of this superhero who does not fit the standard Eurocentric mold in terms of representation and relatability

Zahra/Fury is also a standout here as an emblem of the text’s feminist narrative track. Fury is literally dynamic in her own right: the suit she wears is powered by the kinetic energy her movement generates. This second volume opens with a short episode in which she executes a successful intelligence mission solo. However, the text’s treatment of Fury’s gender is further evidence of its narrative diversity, since her presentation as female does not hold any implication for her strength or her capability in the field. Rather, Fury and EXO are consistently equal participants in the comic’s action. They care fiercely about each other, they use their “super” abilities to save each other, and they accept in each other even the most self-evident character flaws (of which their shared stubbornness is perhaps the most pertinent example). Even apart from her alter—ego, Zahra’s physically imposing stature and the acerbic intelligence she deploys at regular intervals ensure that she is positioned on equal footing with the story’s male characters.

Similarly, while the setting of E.X.O does not break the mould of traditional superhero narratives, it does demonstrate their hitherto underrepresented global reach. Situating the story’s action in a pseudo—Lagos of the future invites comparison with the seedy criminal undercurrent of well—established locales like Gotham City. For example, the Youneek Studios website describes EXO as “the hero Lagoon City has always needed” (E.X.O.). Okupe’s Lagoon City is rife with corrupt officials, unequal wealth distribution, and a disenchantment that percolates throughout the city, finding its expression from unassuming civilians to the radical Oniku. In fact, one of the “good guys,” Benji notes ironically that “cash is king bro” (Okupe 49). The immense disparity in wealth distribution is, furthermore, an implicit refutation of stereotypes of a (homogenised) poverty-stricken “Africa”: while the city itself is bloated with affluence, as are the upper echelons, poorer civilians suffer from the attention of these “greedy degenerates” (33) to “[their] pockets” rather than to the wellbeing of the country at large. As such, Okupe demonstrates that similar processes of urban alienation are mappable across cities far beyond those of the all—American Marvel and DC multiverses.

Technology is vastly important in driving Okupe’s narrative, evoking capitalist “progress” and the urbanisation that accompanies it. Apart from the futuristic capabilities deployed by Prytek, the C.R.EE.E.D, and Wale and Zahra’s fathers, social technology has become ubiquitous in Lagoon City. In some lines of postcolonial inquiry, non-Western countries have been problematically excluded from attributes such as “progress”, “modernity” and, by extension, “technology”. Foregrounding the omnipresence of technology works to undermine this: Okupe’s characters inhabit a self—evidently interconnected world, in which news is televised in live broadcasts, and characters communicate via smartphone. As such, allusions to aspects of Nigerian culture such as “a babalawo <witch doctor>” (Okupe 49) are never fetishized for their traditionalism but are incorporated instead as narrative markers of the story’s geographical situation. Technology is treated thematically with a similar lack of esteem, however, in spite of the text’s lauding of the capabilities of both the EXO suit and the artificial intelligence entity which acts as Wale’s guide and mentor in the absence of his father. Both Oniku and Wale are in possession of futuristic machinery with extraordinary potential for both destruction and redemption. Rather than identifying this technology itself as an innately positive development, then, Okupe affords greater import to the essentially human qualities of those who operate it. 

In visual terms, E.X.O Part Two is an invigorating combination of panel—to—panel transitions, splash panels, and perspectival variation, which allow the artists to move with relative ease from aerial cityscapes to character portraits. Okupe’s eventual aim is for these characters to develop into an animated series, and this aspiration is reflected in the very design of the piece: EXO and Fury explode from the page in glorious technicolour, and the rendering of character movement and temporal progression is quasi-cinematic. This is particularly effective in action sequences, but also in Wale’s training montage. Even classic comics onomatopoeia receives extradiegetic attention to the point of four—dimensionality, as representations of audio effect such as “VEEEEEEM” (Okupe 8) break through the panel as a containing entity and into the gutter. One consequence of this vibrancy is a weighty emphasis upon the comic’s images which results, in combination with sometimes—stilted dialogue, in an occasional sense of disjunction between the verbal and visual narrative tracks. However, the portraits in which facial features are foregrounded reveal aspects of character that dialogue alone does not. This, along with the aesthetic appeal of the work as a whole is undeniable.

The resonance that E.X.O has found throughout Nigeria and the African diaspora at large is paid homage through the “fan art” splash pages in the breaks between chapters. Just as Okupe’s subject matter and his sourcing of Nigerian artists for his creative team address a very real need for a greater degree of cultural representation across comics as a medium, incorporating readers’ creative responses is a sleek, understated means of emphasising the importance of breaking down homogeneity in comics narratives. The result is a finished artefact that registers collaboration and community as fundamental aspects of the medium as a whole.

As a standalone comics narrative, E.X.O Part Two is not an exercise in reinvention: it situates itself within well-worn dialectics of bravery and cowardice, hubris and humility, and ordinary and extraordinary. However, these organising thematic concerns are rendered through the prism of well-drawn, sympathetic characters and vibrant design. Okupe’s work is laudable both for the resonance and aesthetic appeal of its content and as an extradiegetic contribution to diversifying the ranks of superheroes. For this delicate balancing act alone, E.X.O Part Two is a valuable addition to the global comics community.


Works Cited

AWPNetwork. “I Am On Mission To Create More African Superhero Comics” – Roye Okupe talks to the AWP Network. 1 May 2015. 22 Mar 2017.

Digital Comics. n.d. 24 Mar 2017.

E.X.O. n.d. 24 Mar 2017.

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