Pop Comic Review – Malika: Warrior Queen, Part 1

‘Set in fifteenth century West Africa, Malika: Warrior Queen Part One follows the exploits of queen and military commander Malika, who struggles to keep the peace in her ever-expanding empire. Growing up as a prodigy, Malika inherited the crown from her father in the most unusual of circumstances, splitting the kingdom of Azzaz in half. After years of civil war, Malika was able to unite all of Azzaz, expanding it into one of the largest empires in all of West Africa. But expansion would not come without its costs. Enemies begin to rise within her council, and Azzaz grabbed the attention of one of the most feared superpowers the world has ever known: the Ming Dynasty. As Malika fights to win the clandestine war within the walls of her empire she must now turn her attentions to an indomitable and treacherous foe with plans to vanquish her entire people.

The story takes place in the same universe (the YouNeek YouNiverse) as the E.X.O. series roughly 500 years before the events of Lagoon City.’

Written by: Roye Okupe

Art by: Chima Kalu (inks), Raphael Kazeem (colours)

Publisher: YouNeek Studios

Released: 6 June 2017

YouNeek Studios

 

This one was released a while ago, but didn’t make my short list at the time (I think Kazarn made that week’s review) thanks to time constraints, since this is a full graphic novel containing six chapters. Not five issues; like other titles from YouNeek studios, this is specifically published as a couple of graphic novels, to make it easy to jump into the connected universe of the different titles. Anyway, I actually came back to this thanks to the recent release of follow up extra Malika: Dragon Trials, which reminded me of the earlier volume – I went back to read it and thought it was pretty darn cool.

While the central character of Malika herself isn’t based on any particular historical person (though there have been well-known historical queens in West African), the places, while technically fictional, are based on real kingdoms and places from West African history, which was interesting. The start of each chapter included a short passage about the different regions of the empire (which helped keep track of them when talked about during the story, something I greatly appreciate) and included a note about the real historical place each one was named after. The historical basis of a lot of the basics of the plot are good – the Ming Dynasty visiting Africa? They sure did; in 1417 a ‘treasure voyage’ (highly militarized) landed as far south as modern-day Somalia and Kenya. Although they only landed on the East coast and didn’t actually invade, it was still amazing to find out. I love comics that get me researching stuff I never knew (tangentially, I got to look up what ‘enfoeffing’ means).

The actual plot is good too, following the trials and tribulations of Queen Malika after her unification of the empire following civil war, fighting rebels and generally wielding her battle prowess as an iron fist to control the empire, despite wanting only what’s best for her people and being popular with the general population. The juxtaposition of her use of force to quell any uprising against the monarchy while often speaking of freedom for her people is touched on, and hopefully examined further in Part 2, although the specification that she outlawed slavery puts more layered meaning on ‘freedom’. The storyline mostly covers the battle to fend off both the approaching Ming army, and the dissension from her councillors who believe the enemy General’s offers of the empire being left alone in return for Malik’s help in subjugating the neighbouring kingdoms; mixing political and military conflicts can create information overload fast for the reader, but the storylines here are kept tight and do not to introduce too many characters.

I really enjoyed the characterization of Malika herself. Her talent for fighting and strategy ensured her upbringing as a warrior, and the plot helps bring out the mix of great pride in her abilities (including always leading her soldiers into battle herself), a belief that strength and power are the only way to rule and gain respect, and sadness that war has become her defining trait in life. In the course of the plot, her alliance with the king of a recently invaded kingdom who is battling to retake his territory comes into play, and they create a really interesting reversal of gender roles: he counsels diplomacy and mercy, representing gentleness (despite his own fighting abilities), while Malika can see no other way than force and her sword, despising the risk of showing weakness, representing the primal warrior base. Themes of different kinds of leadership are lightly discussed, making this a more thoughtful story than the amount of fighting scenes suggests.

Malika’s representation of traditionally masculine qualities is also interesting in context – she was raised by her Queen mother who was also a warrior, and was in competition for the throne with her sister. Having a number of women naturally in power was cool to see, with minimal conflict against other characters suggesting that any of them shouldn’t be there because they’re women. However, they’re the only female characters I can remember seeing at all except for background women in the crowd; despite establishing that women – not just an exception-to-the-rule lone woman of the ‘ass-kicking token girl in the fighting group’ trope – can be perfectly good soldiers and leaders, every single other character in the political and military arenas is male. While it is more historically accurate that women were kept out of these roles unless born into ruling positions and then fighting to stay there, it’s a bit of a disappointment when the main character and brief flashback scenes with her family are the only exhibitions of such power; after all, the point of fiction isn’t complete historical accuracy, and unintentionally promoting that ‘exception to the rule’ attitude to women (and other minorities) in power can hinder the publisher’s stated goal of increasing visual diversity overall.

YouNeek Studios

 

Did I mention the dragons? There actually aren’t any in this comic, but they’re part of the world-building mythology; in amongst the interesting realistic military and political shenanigans are a pair of magical swords created by ancestor gods using the spirits of five dragons, and that king I mentioned before has magic powers too, from the same source. I’m impressed that these more fantastical elements, while given their important place in the plot and used appropriately, aren’t overused. It can be hard to not over- or under-use magical stuff in a realist setting when they’re not the major plot point, but I think it’s really well done here. It’s obvious they’re going to become more major to the plot, but Okupe has handled the gentle introduction of these elements and their build-up to greater significance really well.

So, after all the talk of battle scenes and magic, how do the visuals stack up? Quite well – Kalu has used a sleek professional Western style, making it an easy and familiar introduction to the series as intended. The fight scenes are well done, though the full war ones with a lot of soldiers and bodies in the mix can be a touch confusing (those kinds of scenes are pretty hard to get a good balance with depending on what you’re trying to focus the reader’s attention on). The settings are lovely and create a good sense of the mixed harsh and lush lands these events take place in. There’s a couple of extra pages in this book with some sketches of the location concept art by Godwin Akpan (who is also the cover artist), and it’s great seeing these places first imagined, before being brought to life on the page. A silhouetted simple style, played out on the side of a cave, is used to explain the history of the gods who created the dragon swords, and I love when different styles (especially inspired by traditional art/storytelling styles) are used to tell stories in-plot.

I really like the outfits and clothing which are unique to their places, come in a range of styles, and show plenty of colour. I mentioned before how Malika often represents typically masculine qualities of physical strength and power, but her feminine style of clothing and presentation in non-fighting scenes is not sacrificed. While she wears the standard soldier’s uniform and armour into battle, she’s singled out with distinctive headwear (though it can still take a second or two to find her in the crowded scenes). The different armies are given individual colour schemes, helping colourist Kazeem create some striking visuals in battles – though when it’s blue against teal it can get a touch muddied in places – and everything flows well. While there were some definite risks of characters coming across as too posed and stiff for what they’re supposed to be saying or doing (a common problem when high emotions are being conveyed), Kalu manages to avoid that pitfall, and has brought some very cool characters and moments to life.

Publisher YouNeek (based in Nigeria with a USA office) was founded by Okupe, with the specific goal of introducing more diverse heroes and making an easy jumping on point for a comics universe – he was inspired by the Marvel Cinematic Universe creating an interlocked yet free-standing group of movies that brought in people who had never read the comics, because the comics were seen as too complicated and casual fans had a hard time finding a jumping-on point. The events of the Malika graphic novels are supposed to dovetail with the events of the other titles from the publisher, creating an overall in-universe story arc; an ambitious undertaking, but if the work on Malika is anything to go by they’ve got a good handle on it and they’ve definitely got me interested in the world they’ve created (considering one of the other titles with two volumes already released is a sci-fi one, I’d love to see how our fifteenth century heroes here are involved in it).

YouNeek Studios – Malika: Dragon Trials cover

 

Full of fights, intrigue, philosophical and leadership issues, cool heroes, and a lot of ass-kicking, I recommend this one. The Dragon Trials follow up that lead me to it (a much shorter 29-page issue) covers Malika learning to use the dragon-spirit infused sword (fighting actual dragons), creating a cool little extra that – as far as I know – won’t be essential to the main story but slots in nicely, with a lot more focus on the magic and deities. I don’t know when part 2 is being released (it recently successfully finished a Kickstarter for funding), but with a commitment to keeping things lean without huge extended and complicated plotlines, there shouldn’t be many more volumes to the title, so if you find you love Malika: Warrior Queen it won’t be hard to collect the lot.

Thanks to Comixology.com for providing this copy of ‘Malika: Warrior Queen Part 1’ and ‘Malika: Dragon Trials’ for review.

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