Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Malika: Warrior Queen’ volume 1

“So don’t lose track of where you’ve been and where you’re going now”

Dark Horse has partnered with YouNeek Studios to bring out their comics, and Malika is the first of what creator Roye Okupe plans as a connected universe of comics spanning centuries. It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure (and so far, it seems to be working), but let’s just stick with this book for now. Okupe is joined by artist Chima Kalu and colorist Raphael Kazeem, with color assists by Osas Asemoto, Collins Momodu, Omotuyi Ebota, and Stanley Nweke, while the lettering is by Spoof Animation.

In our age of “political correctness” and its antithesis, there’s been a backlash against so-called “historical revisionism,” which simply means changing what we know about history based on new evidence coming to light. Nobody says the heliocentric model of the solar system is “scientific revisionism” (although given our distrust of science these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if James Imhofe or someone of his ilk starts taking up valuable time on the Senate floor to convince us that the Earth is still the center of the universe), but whenever we discover something new about history, people (usually white people) get their panties in a bunch because they aren’t ready to accept that maybe – just maybe – white people aren’t the greatest group of people in the history of time. Back in the 1990s, one of the things people were talking about was how Cleopatra was black, which made some people upset. It doesn’t really matter to me whether she was “black” or not – she was Greek with (probably) Persian ancestry, so the likelihood of her being a very dark-skinned person was probably small, but it also doesn’t really matter – but what made me grumpy was that people of African ancestry (who were claiming Cleopatra as “one of their own”) didn’t need to do it, because there are plenty of brilliant African civilizations that they could “claim.” Sub-Saharan Africa was, for centuries, a cradle of civilizations – the Malian empire, for instance, was a powerful empire for a few hundred years from the 1200s to the 1600s. Just because Africa was later colonized by Europeans and in history books, we get a very Euro-centric version of African history doesn’t mean those civilizations didn’t exist. So people who want to take pride in African history don’t need to reach for Cleopatra (even if she was dark-skinned, which she probably was … or at least darker than Elizabeth Taylor was), because they have plenty of examples of actual “black” people to be proud of. And that’s today’s history lesson from the white dude.

I bring this up because Okupe and his collaborators obviously know the history of the region (Okupe was born in Nigeria) and they use it deftly in Malika, which takes place during the 15th century. He creates a fictional empire, Azzaz, but various chapter breaks explain what historical things he based the empire on, which is interesting. The “bad guys” in the book are the Chinese (only their leader is really a bad guy, though, but they are at war with the main characters, so there’s that), and while that might seem a bit odd, I assume Okupe based the Chinese presence on the voyages of Zheng He, the great explorer of the early Ming dynasty, who definitely reached East Africa in the early 1400s and who might, as Okupe postulates, have provided an entry point for the Ming rulers to expand into West Africa. It’s fictional, of course, but it’s not as crazy as it might seem at first glance. Okupe tells the story of Malika, who is shown in a prologue as a precocious youngster who already knows a great deal about battle strategy, then as a queen who has united various provinces and tribes into an empire but is dealing with a rebellion among some disaffected members of her society. She governs with the advice of a council, which is made up of the chiefs of the five provinces, but they chafe under her rule and plot against her, while the Chinese and their leader, General Cheng, menace her from without. Cheng proposes an alliance against Bass Kazaar, the king of an island right off the coast, but it turns out that Malika secretly married Bass, so an alliance against him isn’t really an option. Malika’s sister, Nadia, who’s older than she and is therefore the supposedly rightful heir to the throne, returns “from the dead” (I’d say it’s a spoiler, but it’s not too, too surprising, and it really does inform the second half of the book), and she becomes the main antagonist, as she’s bitter about Malika displacing her and thinks she herself should be queen. In other words, the plot itself is nothing too surprising. Malika is on top until she isn’t, and then she needs to figure out a better way to live in order to defeat her sister, whose idea of rulership is far more brutal than Malika’s. There’s some supernatural stuff, too, as Okupe brings in some African deities who have some influence on the world, but in general, he sticks to tried-and-true plot devices: the sibling rivalry, the enemy at the gates, the stab in the back. The story moves along nicely and there are a lot of moving parts, but it’s still not earth-shaking. Okupe focuses on Malika, naturally, and makes her an interesting character who’s trying to do things that are best for her people while not being trapped in the past. She and Bass make a good couple, as he calms her and she protects him. Malika needs to learn to rule without rage, which Bass can do, and she becomes a better empress thanks to his philosophy. On the other hand, she doesn’t need him to be a great warrior, so the relationship is an interesting one – he’s a good fighter in his own right, but his kingdom is far weaker than her empire, so he’s in an inferior position but doesn’t mind because he loves Malika. Nadia is Malika’s opposite, the spoiled princess who never learned how to rule because she simply thought it was her right to do so, and so while it’s obvious that she’s not a good queen, Okupe does a good job showing why she might be able to take over and why the people of Azzaz wouldn’t automatically reject her. In many cases with a despot in comics, the writer has to show some reason why that person can stay in power (Dr. Doom is a good example, as writers over the years have gone out of their way to show how well he treats the Latverians who don’t piss him off). Okupe does a pretty good job with that. He gives us an odd ending that ties Malika’s world into the modern one (where, apparently more YouNeek books are/will be set), but it doesn’t contradict the rules of the world he’s established, so there’s not anything wrong with it, it’s just a bit odd. All in all, this is a good story that sets up many “universe” possibilities.

Kalu is not a bad artist, it’s clear, although I do have some problems with the way he presents the story. He does a good job with the people – he gives them all interesting appearances, and in a book full of big emotions, he’s able to show those emotions quite well on their faces. His Malika and Nadia are fascinating, as they resemble enough to make us believe their sisters but Kalu draws Nadia as a bit haughtier than Malika, as her eyes are more imperious and she stands a bit more rigidly. But even with that, Malika is still regal, as Kalu makes it clear that despite her differences from Nadia, she’s still a queen and “above” most of the others in the book. It’s a subtle thing, but well done by Kalu. Their hair is also indicative of their personalities – Nadia has a superb ‘fro, which crowns her magnificently but also is inflexible, while Malika wears hers in braids, which means that when she’s been beaten up by Nadia, she can wear her hair down and she becomes more relatable because she’s not put together as regally as she is in the early parts of the book. Kalu has some issues with the battle scenes, as they’re not always blocked out coherently, so some panels are messy because it’s unclear where everyone is and what they’re doing, but in general, the action in the book works pretty well. The biggest problem I have with the art is the scenery, as Malika’s empire looks far too indistinct and drab. The ground is often simply dirt, and while I don’t expect too much, it would be nice to see that the land everyone is fighting over is a bit more interesting than this. The cities of the empire, one of which is supposed to be a giant trading emporium, aren’t all that interesting, either – it doesn’t appear too many people live in them, and they don’t seem to be designed in any logical way. Kalu certainly can do it, as the tents where the Chinese hold war councils, for instance, are sumptuous and detailed, and it’s not the most necessary thing in the world as much of the action doesn’t take place in cities, but it makes Azzaz feel a bit less real, which is too bad because both Okupe and Kalu obviously do good work with the characters who live in it. Maybe it’s just a “me” thing and others don’t care about this kind of absence, but I love fictional worlds that feel real, and Azzaz, in some annoying ways, does not feel like that.

I feel like I’m being too critical, because for the most part, this is an entertaining comic. It tells a rousing story, and there are certainly plenty of avenues for future stories, both focusing on Malika or others in this comic (there’s one coming up about Bass, for instance). The focus on African history is inspired, and it opens up the possibility that more people will become interested in, say, Sundiata, the founder of the Malian empire, which is never a bad thing. Even if that doesn’t happen, simply by focusing on African lore rather than familiar (to white Americans) European mythology means that we can get new and exciting ways to look at stories, and that’s also not a bad thing. While I like this comic but don’t love it, I admire Okupe and his collaborators for taking this plunge. It’s pretty keen.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆


  1. Edo Bosnar

    Malika looks similar to some of the sword & soul prose by Charles Saunders (his Imaro and Dossouye stories). I wonder if Okupe has read and/or was inspired by Saunders.
    Anyway, you’ve definitely got me intrigued. I just visited YouNeek’s site and I see they’re also producing an Afrofuturist title among other things. *heavy sigh* More stuff to add to the want list…

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