The Indie Team Behind Beast Heart! Strikers Tells Us About Bringing the Tokusatsu Spirit to Comics

The Indie Team Behind Beast Heart! Strikers Tells Us About Bringing the Tokusatsu Spirit to Comics

Tokusatsu is, by its very nature, a practical medium. It’s people in Spandex and rubbery monster suits, it’s special effects, it’s models of cities being blown the hell up by Kaiju. But despite being a genre ripe with superheroic figures — from Super Sentai teams, to Kamen Riders, to Ultraman — it’s never really been a form that’s had much influence in superheroes’ most beloved medium: comics.

It’s not like there haven’t been attempts, of course; Boom Studios’ Power Rangers comics have been some of the best takes on that esteemed franchise’s heroes in years, Marvel just launched its own official Ultraman miniseries, and there have been more Godzilla books than you can shake a radioactive tail at. However, it’s rare to see the particular kind of style and ethos behind these kinds of shows really permeate superhero comics unless it’s in the indie space — and while Magical Girls got a killer spin in Dark Horse’s Zodiac Starforce, Sentai and its Power Rangers successors have recently gotten a turn in the form of Swordshark Press’ Beast Heart! Strikers.

Written by Lan Pitts and featuring art and colouring from Joe Hunter and Hank Jones (and lettering by Frank Cvetkovic), Beast Heart! Strikers follows five young people — maybe, perhaps, with some level of attitude — after they’ve been chosen by the mystical sorceress Lady Khardia to become the new generation of Beast Heart Strikers, transforming warriors whose destiny is to confront Lord Zelgus and his melonhead legions. So far, so very toku — and to find out more about creating the series and their influences ahead of the book’s second issue, we spoke to Pitts and Hunter over email to learn more.

The Indie Team Behind Beast Heart! Strikers Tells Us About Bringing the Tokusatsu Spirit to Comics
Image: Joe Hunter

Check out the interview (condensed and edited for clarity) below, as well as concept art from the series and a preview of Beast Heart! Strikers #2.

James Whitbrook: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Power Rangers and its tokusatsu roots. What got you into the genre in the first place?

Joe Hunter: So I was basically raised on superheroes as a kid. I loved the old Adam West Batman and literally taught myself to read at like four by reading comics from the convenience store up the street from my grandmother’s house. Then MMPR premiered and it was like “Oh cool, superheroes with a cool arse robot!” and ended up watching religiously-ish up through Lost Galaxy. By that time I was “too old” or whatever and hooked on anime, but I’d pop in and out of the series through the years — and then I got into watching Super Sentai with Gokaiger after a particularly nasty job layoff and then I got really into Kamen Rider Fourze and…things kinda went downhill from there.

Lan Pitts: Yeah I’m going to echo Joe here for sure. I grew up on Batman ‘66 and Zorro on the Family Channel as my first superheroes to really make an imprint. Then came Masters of the Universe, and the Super Powers Team, then Batman: The Animated Series and Pryde of the X-Men on VHS. I have to tell you though, being a 10-year-old in 1993 and seeing that trailer for Power Rangers, it hit me like an Ultrazord attack.

It was my new obsession and my mum, bless her, made sure I got all the Zords every holiday. When my neighbour got the last Dragonzord, I was over at his place all the time! Masked Rider [Saban’s attempt to do for Kamen Rider what Power Rangers had for Super Sentai] I wasn’t really into though — it was weird but they were doing their best to capitalise on Power Rangers. I mean that’s how we got VR Troopers, Big Bad Beetleborgs, and Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills. Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog, anyone? Obviously I watched all of it!

Whitbrook: What brought you together for Beast Heart! Strikers as a project?

Hunter: I had done this warmup sketch of Ninja White from Ninja Sentai Kakuranger and chucked it onto Twitter. It ended up getting traction, for some reason, and so then Lan followed me on basically every piece of social media, we became friends and decided to work on a thing together and…Beast Heart! Strikers ended up being that thing.

Pitts: Yeah, pretty much. We had a lot of mutuals at the time , and still do obviously and even more now, and I checked his Instagram and just was wondering why the hell we weren’t friends already. You know? Loves wrestling. Loves sentai stuff. It’s like that Step Brothers moment of “Did we just become best friends?” I was working on the WWE comic at the time over at Boom and trying to get into the Power Rangers office and it hit me, why not make something of my own? Joe was the perfect person to collab with. Still is.

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Whitbrook: Let’s talk about how you brought the BHS team together, aesthetically. Was there an iterative process for their theme and designs, or was the animal squad concept there from the get-go?

Hunter: Oh jeez, I think the very first thing we talked about was doing like a Gatchaman sort of thing, where everyone was just “a bird?” That felt too limiting. So we came up with doing the animal theme, and I suggested that the powers of all the “cool” animals that you’d really want were lost or destroyed in a terrible war thousands of years ago and the Strikers were like the B-team who got stuck with the “weird” powers that survived like “Narwhal” and “A Big Deer.”

Design-wise, the suits are kind of a mishmash of different Sentai suits I like and maybe a little Voltron. Go-Busters [the season currently being turned into Power Rangers: Beast Morphers] is definitely the biggest influence, along with a tiny bit of Maskman.

Pitts: God, I can’t believe you actually remembered the original concept! But it’s true! I wanted to make almost like a Jetman series, and Gatchaman is my go-to for inspiration for a lot of things. The original concept idea was called Iron Talon, Strike! and visually it was Silverhawks as Power Rangers, but yeah as he said, he suggested let’s get weird with the animals. So the first one he came up with was Ryan, our Pangolin Striker. That was the very first one designed. Then as the days followed, he designed them all. I think I was the one who suggested a narwhal because I wanted somebody with a horn, and I’m a sucker for water-based attacks. Joe gave them all names and personalities — I gave Ryan his last name, Matua, but originally he was going to be named Joe too because he’s Samoan. The “joke” writes itself but Joe had suggested we not have a character with a name of one of the creators. I can’t remember why I chose Ryan, but I think it suits him.

As for the name [of the team] itself, my brain went to Battle Beasts but then quickly remembered no, no, you’ll get sued. I concentrated and focused on their transformation and went backwards. Joe had done this weapon sheet with their “heart changers” and I told him that was clever, but he didn’t realise the name was a play on words. “Change of heart” and all that. I knew I wanted “Strike” still in there because it’s a) awesome, and b) not really used? Once the name was settled on, the themes and how they transformed, and the magic or magic-science behind it fell into place. Joe was essential in bringing in Frank Cvetkovic as our letterer and he’s been a king among men with handling design and giving me input on improving the look of things. I brought on Hank Janes with the flats, and he’s super good. I personally think we’re a great unit.

Whitbrook: What about Zelgus and his Hidden Army goons? Was there a particular style or aesthetic of monster designs you wanted to ape for them, what was that process like?

Hunter: So the creative process on Zelgus and company was literally just “Hey so since the good guys are animals, can the bad guys be cryptids?” I like spooky mystery stuff, and that seemed like a fun way to squeeze that in there. Zelgus is Mothman, Devil Bird is a cryptid from Sri Lanka, we had a Goatman…who was sadly eaten by Chupacabra between issues. His wife and his kids from his first marriage have been locked in a legal battle over his bridge for months now and it’s gotten nasty.

As far as design, I’d read an interview with Guillermo del Toro around the time Pacific Rim came out where he mentioned that the kaiju were designed as if they could be played by a person in a rubber suit, and I kept that in mind during while doing working on our villains, trying to design everything as if they could be done as like…practical suits or effects? Like in my mind, Live-Action Zelgus and Devil Bird are people in suits and Live-Action Dr. Kraken and Chupacabra are sort of these weird, mildly creepy foam rubber puppets.

Pitts: Zelgus also went through like three or four different names. I don’t even think I remember where I got it now, but it’s probably a rearranging or shortening of a moth genus or something because I’m easy like that. I know originally he was Lord Acheron, but it didn’t sound alien enough. I got that name not from the river, but because Acherontia is the death’s-head moth’s genus.

The only thing I wanted out of Zelgus was like a military look. He’s a soldier, a general, a warlord; he should look like one, right? Joe did the initial designs, but I think we have like four different looks for Devil Bird before leaning into the one she has now. Zelgus has this Captain Harlock vibe to him, almost dignified but you know what he kind of looks like underneath it. It’s a balancing act with designing these weirdos because as Joe said you want to make them seem almost plausible and practical. Almost, anyway! We can get away with so much more obviously, but playing with that idea of who could be in a suit and who could be a puppet is the fun part.

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Whitbrook: Naturally there are big Power Rangers influences throughout these issues — is that the sort of comfort zone you want to keep BHS in going forward or could we see some other potential tokusatsu influences later down the line? Do you have any plans for, say some…masked heroes? Who like to ride bikes or other things a lot?

Hunter: No concrete plans, but I may or may not have doodled a few ideas for a Cricket Striker who may or may not ride a dirtbike, yes.

Pitts: I don’t have any plans either, but I have seen this design. We have this policy, or I guess “policy,” where we basically approve each other’s ideas in the form of the quote “it’s in the movie” from the Gremlins 2 sketch from Key and Peele. I think we might have vetoed each other’s suggestions maybe…twice? If even that. So obviously if there was a way to incorporate this guy, he’s in the movie.

There is a sixth Striker as we hinted at in the first issue, and they’ll be sprinkled in before their big debut. God, their weapon is the coolest!

Whitbrook: One thing I loved about these first two issues is that we actually don’t really spend all that much time with the heroes fighting bad guys and saving the day — we get to spend a lot of time with them just as ordinary people. As the book progresses, what can we expect out of the more personal lens we see the team through?

Hunter: Well, we’re going to be introducing some of the team’s friends and families in the next few issues. We meet Ryan’s Hot Dad in the second [issue] here, and we’ll be introducing Rebekah’s parents in issue three. They’re kinda weird, and I love them? [It’s] a lot of your usual “Young adults trying to find their way in the world while dealing with monster attacks and the terrible puns that come with them.” Basically we want them to just be like, you know, people.

Pitts: Right! Exactly! I feel like we kind of have to, right? For the first issue, we know basically nothing about them — and that’s on me as I wish I could have put in two pages to expand on their characteristics — but we broke it down to five panels. That’s what happens when you have to pay for every page. It sucks, but [in Power Rangers] I feel like we never really knew the Rangers outside of them really being Rangers, especially in those first seasons. We never really meet their parents, outside of Kimberly’s mum and French stepdad. Zordon was the closest thing these kids had to parents from an audience perspective. The Strikers are no different.

Their mentor, Khardia, never assumes that paternal role though for a couple of reasons. None of which I’ll reveal now, but I want to show their real, actual family and their day-to-day. That’s sort of important to me, and I think it is to Joe, too. He basically crafted our kids and we gave them personalities that maybe shine through 20% when they’re fighting monsters. When they’re alone in their rooms facing imposter syndrome, or trying to impress their crush, or having a helicopter parent, how they deal with that is who they really are. When they’re inside the Striker armour, it’s who they have to be. With how we’re doing it, each issue is balancing who they are in, and outside, of the Striker uniform. I think with the second issue, we start to get an idea of who these people are, and in the third, while it does focus on a blossoming romance, we see why Rebekah leads the team. Mild spoiler, but it’ll make sense when you get there.

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Whitbrook: We’ve got the Power Rangers comic being a big hit at Boom, we’re about to see Ultraman at Marvel, but beyond that — why don’t you think we’ve seen more toku-inspired superhero comics in their wakes?

Hunter: Tokusatsu is great, but in the grand scheme of things, I think it’s kind of a niche within a niche, and it’s kinda looked at as being a bit cheesy. Like, don’t get me wrong, it’s super cheesy, but there’s this earnestness that’s almost refreshing now, with how cynical a lot of media is anymore. It’s nice to see good beating evil once in a while.

Pitts: That’s actually a really good question, because I don’t get it either. I think Joe nailed it by saying the cheese factor is something not a lot of people can digest. Even some seasons of Super Sentai were self-aware and parodied itself — if it can have a good time laughing at itself, why can’t you? As a guy who loved Sailor Moon, Ronin Warriors, Ultraman, and Super Human Samurai Syber Squad as a teen, I think something like tokusatsu is that perfect balance of delicious cheese and spicy meats. Just like a charcuterie plate.

Whitbrook: Finally, just why is it so good when superheroes shout their names, transform into cool costumes, and/or get into giant combining robots?

Hunter: The aesthetic, man. It’s theatre and it’s rad as hell. And who doesn’t love giant robots?

Pitts: Yeah, Joe said it. What isn’t cool about this?

Beast Heart! Strikers is now available on Comixology.

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