In many ways, Wale Williams is your typical superhero. He begins life as an ordinary, utterly insignificant young man. Until, in the year 2025, Wale’s genius father mysteriously disappears, and Wale, in his search to find him, discovers a suit his dad left behind that gives the wearer special powers. When a villainous army of skeletal drones invades shortly after, the twenty something uses his newfound powers to — spoiler alert — save the city. He is a protector of the innocent. Defender of the helpless. Destroyer of all evil. You get the picture. Tell us, though, where does that boy in your mind’s eye come from?
The answer: Wale Williams is Nigerian, with dark skin, strong cheekbones and piercing eyes. His hometown, Lagoon, is to Nigeria’s Lagos what Gotham City is to New York, and the malevolent overlords looking to destroy the world take their cue from the terrorist group Boko Haram. As it turns out, Wale descends from a new lineage of African superheroes, dreamed up by an emerging cadre of African authors and animators, writing from various cultural and mythological perspectives. On the continent and beyond, their homegrown works are getting play.
This summer, Roye Okupe sourced enough money on Kickstarter to publish E.X.O. — The Legend of Wale Williams, Part 1 on Amazon and Jumia, Nigeria’s version of the online marketplace. The comic sold out on both platforms in less than two months, creating a buzz online and among African urbanites. Wale is also getting noticed in the United States, where superheroes tend to adhere to the comfortable, white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, hetero-male archetypes. Comic book and graphic novel sales shot up $65 million between 2012 and 2014, creating an industry worth $935 million, according to trade publications. What’s more, superhero tastes are diversifying, as readers satiate their palates with a wider array of fantasy.
In the past, the typical agent’s response to a Wale Williams series pitch would be that there’s not a big enough market for it. Now, with crowdfunding and digital-publishing platforms, authors can take to the Internet masses to prove otherwise. Wale Williams defeated his nemesis on the page, but now the question is: Will the bigwig publishers be able to see beyond U.S. borders?