Malika Warrior Queen Volume One
Malika–Warrior Queen is a suspense-filled graphic novel that tells the story of trials, travails, and triumphs of a fictional sixteenth-century African Queen, Malika (MA-LIE-KAH), and her Empire, Azzaz. The story is inspired by the history of the great African Empires and Civilizations of the Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Kanuri, Mandara, Nupe, Mande, and Kongo. The fictional Azzaz empire encompassed most of what is now Nigeria, and its friends and foes spread across West and Central Africa and as far as East Asia. Authored by award-winning Nigerian filmmaker, author, and entrepreneur, Roye Okupe, in collaboration with fellow Nigerian creatives–Chima Kalu and Raphael Kazeem, this is the first of a two-part graphic novel featuring a female super-hero under the imprints of Dark Horse Books.
A princess by birth, Malika used her wits and will to transform the divided kingdom she inherited into an empire and became Queen Malika of Azzaz. She achieved this feat by defeating her aggressive neighbor, Songhai Empire (named after a historical fifteenth- and sixteenth-century empire in West Africa), and other foes. A brilliant war strategist and dazzling warrior, she was also a visionary and compassionate leader. Her military credentials and political sagacity remind us of those warrior-rulers of the sixteenth- through early seventeenth-century West Africa. But they were not all men. There were also women among them, and none was as famous as Queen Amina, who ruled the Hausa city-state of Zazzau ca. 1576-1610. This novel is inspired by the exploits of Queen Amina, on whom the character of Queen Malika is modeled. The fictional empire comprised six regions: Azzaz, the center of power, and five provinces: Fon, Kano, Bornu, Mandara, and Nupe.
The 328+ page novel is divided into eleven chapters, with extras that explain the book’s characters, costumes, contexts, and the creative process. The story is dominated by Malika’s unwavering determination to maintain her authority and the independence of Azzaz in the face of external aggression, internal rebellion from a wing of the army, and insubordination and intrigue by the all-male provincial leaders—the Council of Five. The source of the external aggression was a renegade Ming Dynasty military general. General Cheng and his army of thousands of soldiers were sent on a mission of friendship, spying, and collaboration to the island Kingdom of Atala. But the General went against his emperor’s charge. He wanted to take Atala for himself, and he mounted aggression against the kingdom. Going against the advice of the Council of Five and her mentor and Chief Adviser, Abdul-Nasser, Queen Malika gave the king of Atala (Bass Kazaar) military support. The two also fell in love, although they kept the affair a secret. Her hardened stance to support a neighbor in need and protect her empire’s autonomy invited the wrath of General Cheng and the disaffection of the Council of Five. They all plotted to dethrone and replace Malika with her estranged sister, Nadia.
This action-filled graphic novel is an intricate, multi-layered, colorful story of sibling rivalry, love and hate, deception and loyalty, domination and resistance, compassion and indifference, forgiveness and revenge, honor and opportunism, loss and recovery, crisis and resilience, courage and fear. The book raises many compelling questions about leadership, ambition, the love of country, and what it means to be great, but without providing easy answers. It allows the reader to contemplate the relationship between the art of war and the art of governance and to ponder the virtues and limitations of consultative leadership style versus dictatorship.
The ingenuity and brilliance of Okupe and his collaborators as creatives and storytellers shine throughout the novel. The superb design and layout give a feel of an on-screen story adapted to a graphic novel. This is not surprising. Roye Okupe is a filmmaker and storyteller. Raphael Kazeem’s color palette is rich, and Chima Kalu’s art is gorgeous. Together, they give us a stunning novel with a magical quality. The characters’ costumes, designed by Godwin Akpan, are also splendid and inspired by West African motifs. The galloping horses, the dazzling and fiery sword fights, the acrobatic combatants seemingly defying the laws of gravity, and the beautifully rendered diverse landscape put all the senses on alert. There are some colorful pages with arresting scenes but without text. The creatives succeed in slowing down the reader to take the time to “read” and enjoy the images as part of the story being told. Here and there, they demonstrate that a picture could indeed say more than a thousand words. In some of the color-loaded pages, all the texts you have are “whoom,” “twoom,” and “whoosh.” Any of these could be the sound of a blade cutting through the air or the grunt of a spiraling warrior landing a blow on an enemy as warriors clashed for honor, redemption, and control. The sounds are the same whether motivated by greed or generosity, love or hate. The novel was a very slow read for me, as I tried to follow the intricate but captivating storylines. The several detours and the collapse of past and present may be tasking at times for the reader, but the author’s introduction of each chapter with historical contexts helped me navigate the multiple characters and scenes.
Since Okupe burst onto the global sci-fi scene in 2015 with his critically acclaimed E.X.O., The Legend of Wale Williams, he has become a celebrity in the growing world of Afrofuturist graphic novel and film production. With the female super-hero protagonist in Malika, Okupe is not leaving anyone in doubt that he is taking Afrofuturism to a greater height. Malika—Warrior Queen is for both teenagers and adults. This creative aesthetic uses African history, myth, and geography to reimage the past and reimagines a new future of African autonomy and self-realization. I enjoyed reading this novel, and I know my two teenage boys will have fun reading it, perhaps much more than they enjoyed E.X.O.
Akin Ogundiran, Ph. D., University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Published in Africa Access Review (December 24, 2021)
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