By Patrick Tedder
Historically, minorities in comics have been portrayed in grossly demeaning ways, if they are featured at all. Even as the big two in the industry—D.C. Comics and Marvel—catch up to the 21st century, racism and the need for diversity in comics is still an issue.
Cue indie comic writer, Roye Okupe. Okupe has created E.X.O., a superhero fighting wrong in Africa in the year 2025. The series as it stands, features all black characters and has the potential to put a non-stereotypical depiction of Africa on the map within the comic industry.
Unfortunately, there are growing pains. For starters, while it’s hardly uncommon for the comic industry to practically steal character ideas to have their own “rival” Batman or Aquaman, the concept of E.X.O. rings a bit too close to Iron Man with very slight shades of Batman. What differences there are certainly aren’t an upgrade to Marvel’s mech creation.
There’s also Wale Williams, the young man behind the suit. While it’s interesting that he’s a character with faults, too often his impetuous behavior comes across as head scratching to a distracting degree. It’s never clear what Williams’ intentions are supposed to be, and as such, he’ll say and do things that on more than one occasion had me questioning if I had missed an actions splash or page of dialogue.
While the start of the graphic novel opens with E.X.O. in full hero form, most of the graphic novel forces us to put up with the growing pains of him becoming a hero. It’s not like we’re beaten by an overwrought origin story, but there’s a lot of “I need to learn how to use this suit” before clobbering bad guys without issue. There’s also the tired trope of Williams not wanting to be a hero.
Other characters don’t fare any better. While it’s tricky coming up with a brand new set of sidekicks and villains in an age where so many ideas have already been thrown against a wall, I wasn’t impressed with the assassin “Twoshots”. Is it cool that he needs to take two shots to kill someone? Is it supposed to be a reference to “one in the chest, one in the head?” I was equally unimpressed by the evil mastermind Cobra Commander . . . I mean “Oniku.”
The female ninja “Fury” peaked my interest though. While she’s a bit sexualized, it’s clear that Okupe wanted to make sure she wears an outfit that that one would actually use for battle. The “Dreds” robots are also interesting enough as more common bad guy fodder for our heroes to beat up on.
Now back to the could-be-better aspects of the comic. Sunkanmi Akinboye’s visuals are as mixed a bag as the characters. For the most part, it’s smooth sailing, but when visuals aren’t average, they are laughably distracting, bringing the narrative to a halt. Too often facial expressions feel wooden or exaggerated. Odder still is the decision to sometimes focus on these facial expressions, forcing the reader to battle with the artist to stay invested in the story.
I did enjoy reading this novel and feel that it’s important to celebrate more writers like Okupe because we need diversity in practically every art form today. However, there’s no denying that this is a comic that simply hasn’t reached its full potential, assuming that there is improvement to come. Minority integration is not a silver bullet. Non-white male uber heros are a breath of fresh air, but without something new to bring to the table, it’s going to be hard for any writer to make a meaningful difference.
E.X.O The Legend of Wale Williams is $14.99, Rated T / Teen. www.youneekstudios.com