This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Small Press Expo (SPX) in North Bethesda, Maryland. With a focus on small and independent publishers, SPX is a convention brimming with creativity and diversity. While I did not get to see Cartoon Network’s Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe, Adventure Time), I did get to speak to award-winning creators like Nate Powell (March, Swallow Me Whole) and Ben Passmore (Your Black Friend, DAYGLOAYHOLE). I will have more on those two in the coming weeks. Today, I want to focus on up and comers Amber Huff, Roye Okupe, and Ngozi Ukazu.
Based in Chicago, Illinois, Amber Huff made her SPX debut this year selling artwork, pins, and her new comic, Bad Blood. According to Huff, Bad Blood is about kids who encounter mosquitoes “that act as a barometer for sins.”
“Depending on how much blood the mosquito sucks,” she explained, “that’s supposed to measure how bad of a person you’ve been.”
Huff was inspired by a combination her own experiences at her grandmother’s house, as well as those of her parents, when mosquitoes would bite them. Once the idea had formulated in her mind, it sparked her creative spirit, and she began putting pencil to paper.
“I started it a few years ago,” she told me. “But it was a kind of on-and-off project with school and everything. I had to put it on hold, but I finally finished it. I inked it all within a month, probably, and printed it in a few days.”
Huff is a graphic designer/illustrator by trade and recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Class of 2017).
Recently featured on several mainstream media outlets, Maryland-based author Roye Okupe is a rising star. Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Okupe always had a love for superheroes and fantasy stories, but wanted to create some based on his own culture. So he did just that.
“Three years ago, I basically quit my full-time job to follow my dream of creating my own characters,” he told me. That culminated in co-founding YouNeek Studios, a platform for graphic novels and animation that hosts his three ongoing series: E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams, Malika: Warrior Queen, and The WindMaker. E.X.O. is an Afrofuturist story set in Nigeria with a more traditional superhero style. Malika is a historical fiction tale set in the fifteenth century. WindMaker is a fantasy series inspired by West African mythology.
The artwork is fantastic, too, making it all come together for a very engaging read. “That’s just a testament to the artists that I work with,” Okupe says. “I am the writer and creator of all these books, but these books would not be what they are without a team of awesome illustrators — which 95 percent of them are actually all back home in Lagos, Nigeria.”
Okupe has two goals: to expose the world to the talents of his home, and to educate people through entertainment. “I want to educate people about a side of Africa they don’t get to see in the mainstream media and mainstream news. And that’s one of the things that really drives me: Being able to show my culture and show all sides of it — the good, the bad, the ugly — and not just lean towards one narrative.”
Currently embarking on a book tour for her recently-published web comic series, Ngozi Ukazu is the creator of Check, Please! — a slice of life series about a former figure skater who joins a college hockey team and loves to bake. “It’s a really fun, quirky story,” she told me. “It deals with themes of mental illness, LGBTQ ‘coming out’ themes [the main character, Eric, is gay], and just growing up.”
A Houston native, Ukazu was inspired to write the series after developing a screenplay about college hockey during her senior year at Yale. “That was actually the same year that Yale won the NCAA championship,” she recalled. “As soon as I graduated, I had all this leftover knowledge about hockey and I wanted to do a project.”
Ukazu cited many influences, with some of her favorites being Bruce Timm (Justice League Unlimited, Batman: The Animated Series), Darwyn Cooke (DC: The New Frontier), and Chris Samnee (Daredevil). She also noted her SPX peers Gale Galligan and Carey Piestch, among others. Her humor, she tells me, is inspired by The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants. She’s also a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and My Hero Academia.
Ukazu is a basketball fan as well, expressing sadness at the state of the Los Angeles Clippers (she loved the 2016–17 team). She enjoys players like DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, and Joel Embiid. In the future, she would love to write a series inspired by her favorite NBA players. But, for now, her focus is on the book tour.
Stay tuned for more from SPX in the coming weeks!