We got to sit down with the amazing TJ Sterling of REA Comics to talk about their flagship comic series OKEMUS. If you love Super Sentai Series like Power Rangers you are going to love this comic. Here is the link to their site and have fun checking out the interview!
Spencer: Okay, so, today we are interviewing a fantastic comic book creator. If you can go ahead and introduce yourself, that would be awesome.
TJ: Hey guys, what’s going on? This is president and lead artist TJ Sterling of RAE Comics. Pleasure to be here.
Spencer: Yeah yeah. So we were looking around at different independent creators that are putting out really fantastic work that kind of blends the two worlds together. Can you talk about your most recent comic book that’s coming out, that I think you’ll have a really really successful Gofundme, or is it – what’s the crowd sourcing that it’s going through?
TJ: Yeah, Kickstarter, actually.
Spencer: Oh, cool.
TJ: Yeah,so if everybody who’s listening who hasn’t heard of me or heard of what we’re doing at RAE comics yet, Okemus is our flagship comic series. It’s a sci-fi martial art action story about a young guy that has a latent superhuman ability that could potentially save the human race. And he’s being pursued by four warriors from a future, like a deathly dark future that want to actually extract this power that the main character has. So lots of drama, suspense, action. And some twists and turns that not everybody expects. So I’d love for you guys to check out the series through our Kickstarter which we just finished about a week and a half ago. We raised over 20k within one month for our very first Kickstarter, and we have all the issues of Okemus available through that Kickstarter. It is currently ended but I am taking post-Kickstarter orders. So if you do want to get all of Okemus from zero all the way up to number four, as well as some of the toys and t-shirts and other cool things we have available, we’re open to do that as well.
Spencer: Yeah, yeah, so I actually found out about the comic when I was taking a look around at different creators that are online that were putting out really new work that is anime sort of adjacent. And I think that the thing that really caught Blake and I’s eye is that it’s kind of a play off the super sentai, and that’s a lot of the anime people around will know that that is. But my first thing that was introduced to me on it was like the Power Rangers inside of the United States, and can you go on a little bit about how that’s sort of a riff on that or just like playing into the genre?
TJ: Yeah, absolutely, I appreciate you asking. And the first thing when I was looking at your guys’ show I could see that you’re huge anime fans. And you know people aren’t watching their screen emoji, you can tell that these guys are legit fans. I’m a huge anime fan. I grew up in the 90s loving comic books, anime, gaming. And when I first got introduced to anime I think it was maybe 1992 and that was when the wave was just getting ready to kind of hit the United States with everything from all the original video animes, the OVAs, to the series that were coming on TV, whether it was Dragon Ball Z or Gundam and Toonami. There’s, again, anime was like this huge wave that was about to hit the US pretty crazy. So the first anime I ever watched was The Guyver. That was probably my first and favorite anime out of all of them. And I just loved that genre, because The Guyver was a sentai genre type thing and then I went on to watch shows like Ultraman 6 and Beetleborgs and VR Troopers and Kamen Rider.
Spencer: Nice Beetleborg reference.
TJ: Yeah, I mean, dude, like, it was literally the same show. You know, kind of just in a different – like I said, it’s the same concept, the sentai genre is a concept that encompasses over thirty – well, started in the 70s and it’s still going on to this day. So it’s a pretty successful, unique genre that I think a lot of people love. And for me, I loved it a lot because I always thought the concept of a warrior in a suit of armor fighting a monster or fighting other characters like him was just a really cool thing. And that to me goes back to like, you know, King Arthur and you know the knights in England and stuff like that. And just how that was just a really cool thing.
TJ: So for me, I was extremely inspired by the sentai genre as well as the 90s overall. And i wanted to kind of coalesce all those cool things that inspired me in that decade into one comic book series that I thought was really cool. So it’s got a little bit of all that stuff in there but it’s also extremely different and extremely unique and it’s nothing like anything that you’ve seen online before or on TV.
Spencer: Yeah, Yeah. One of the things that really stuck out to me about it is that it breaks a couple of different molds from sentai genre. One of the big and obvious ones when you first look at it is that it is strongly powered by people of color inside of this world. And I think that that is an underrepresented group of people, especially inside of this genre. And I think that that’s – it doesn’t seem like it’s, you know, defining what the comic book is, but it’s also one of those things where it’s breaking a lot of barriers that I haven’t seen another sentai genre going into that. Was that like a conscious choice or were you just drawing, like, you know, I want people that are like you as a creator?
TJ: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s, for me, like, I – so I always kind of had this interesting perspective on this. Because you’ve had, you have writers that are not of a specific ethnicity trying to write a character that they completely do not understand. And I think that’s why writers like Brian Michael Bendis have come under fire for years for trying to write characters of ethnicity even though he has no – well he’s not of that ethnicity, excuse me.
TJ: And see the thing for me is like I think that the strongest writing comes from a place that you understand completely and intimately. So I guess it was never a thing where I sought out like man I want to make stories that feature POC and you know heroes. It just was because that’s who I was, I was a person of color, and that was the environment that I was in. And you know all of my friends are from different places all over the country. You know, I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and It was a very small town but it was very very culturally diverse. So you know I had friends from India and I had friends from Africa. One of the characters in the book’s based on my good friend Jim Yu is a six-three guy from China. So these are the people who I grew up with. And you know that was my world, and I think as I was creating Okemus and the concept of what it was, it was very reflective of my personal world.
TJ: So I wanted it to be authentic because I honestly could not write about a character like Superman, because I just, again, don’t really understand that walk as well as someone else might.
Spencer: Yeah, you weren’t raised by parents from Kansas.
Spencer: And I think that – I really think that that’s an interesting perspective to have coming into it, is that just writing what you know. Which, it’s one of those things that I think should be talked about more like when you go out and see people that are doing, like, voiceover calls and people that are doing these different callouts for it. Focusing on giving other people, you know, opportunities inside of this field –
Spencer: – is just, it’s so, so important. And I think that the biggest reason why people are like, “Well, you’re trying to write for this,” and it’s just like, no, you just have been living in a place that has not given the opportunity to these people enough. So that you’re just not , you’re not seeing as much of it. But it’s, I think we’re gonna be in like a sort of, I don’t know, I think there’s a renaissance coming of it. Where it’s just, you know, people, everybody getting an opportunity to, especially, do this comic books and this anime universe. And being able to do this kind of stuff. And when I saw your work I was like, not only is this fantastic –
TJ: Thank you.
Spencer: – I spent some really quality time looking through everything. The artwork, if you haven’t looked it up yet, is just astounding.
Spencer: Which is one of the reasons I think that you probably hit that Kickstarter so fast. And it looks like you kind of pressed past it.
TJ: It helped.
Spencer: But I think that a lot of people are really hungry for stuff that represents people that look like them. You know? And it’s not just the same 40 white superheroes on screen that you’re seeing all the time, you know?
Spencer: I think that that’s why that Justice League that came out, I guess that was in the early 2000s, where they – was it, John Jones? – as the Green Lantern that was represented there. And a lot of people were like well this is groundbreaking, and it’s just like, well, he’s just the Green Lantern. It’s like, you know, he happens to be of a different ethnicity, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not the exact same hero for everybody else as well. I don’t know.
TJ: That’s right. Yeah, I mean, I think that it’s one of those things that there’s nothing wrong with some of the legacy characters. I do think that they have their time, I definitely think that they have had tons of amazing stories, I just think that now – cause, see, what ended up happening was a lot of people have become hip to the square on this, like, they understand that when you’re only writing, you know, for a specific demographic – and again the majority of people in the comic book demographic are white males from ages I believe ten all the way up to fifty. And if you’re just writing for men you’re excluding women of all races, you’re excluding, you know, LGBTQ community, like, you’re excluding Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, you’re excluding so many with just writing for that demographic. Now again that is still a core demographic of comics and it’s still cool. It’s just that you have to, again, as a company, in my mind, what these bigger companies need to be doing is hiring more diverse writers that have chops doing other things – whether it’s novels or whatever – and writing those stories and weaving them into the universe and creating cool stuff and not just derivatives of a legacy character like an Asian Superman or a Black Iron Man. Like you know again the concept is there and again I do like a lot of the designs and the art, it looks very cool. I just think that let’s create something new that’s really awesome, there’s so many powers that we could –
Spencer: Oh yeah.
TJ: -We could come up with, there’s so many different things that we could do.
Spencer: There’s so many genres that are just like completely open. That’s just like, you know, I can’t say enough that you should definitely pick up this comic.
TJ: Thank you, thank you, appreciate that.
Spencer: Yeah, for sure. Okay, so I wanna go into the next bit, which is: I think something that’s really gonna catch people’s attention that are super interested in anime, and they’re just like, “Well comic books I haven’t really jumped onto yet.” Can you please tell me where you started from with the villain and the armor creation? Because the different – the villain designs and the creature designs are super interesting and unique. And I just kind of wanted to go a little bit deeper into that.
TJ: Thank you, and you read issue zero correct?
TJ: Okay great. So what I can tell everybody is that we did – we try to tell nonlinear stories to RAE comics. We try to, you know, instead of, you know, giving you a typical origin like he was a kid and he was, you know, some skinny and weak and picked on and he got a power and now he’s a superhero. We try to do something a little bit different and flip that paradigm, flip that expectation on its head. So, Issue zero you actually see the main character, Cale, as an older man like in his late forties where he’s basically a seasoned hero and he is kind of at the end of his journey. And he does fight this large, you know, Mechai creature. Now, just so people know, Mechai is kind of like a cybernetic human machine hybrid creature that lives in this desolate future landscape that I was speaking about earlier. And again you see the main character Cale in that landscape fighting for that last bit of information about the Okemus combine, because Okemus is not a person, it’s an actual place that’s kind of shrouded in mystery that’s said to be the origin of a lot of these characters. So with issue zero, again we kind of get to a point where – and I don’t want to ruin anything – but the main character has to beat this boss and he kind of levels up at the end in a really big way. So for me, I always love – i mean my favorite video game is Mega Man X. I’m a huge fan of the whole highlander type thing. You beat a boss and you absorb that energy and that power and you level up your self with a new suit of armor or another power set or you get younger, whatever it is. I always like the concept of that. You gain something from the experience physically and mentally. And that’s kind of what we explore a little bit in issue zero with Okemus.
Spencer: Mmhmm. Yeah, like, the armor set is so cool to me inside of these comics. I just, I love that not only do they have that kind of, like, nostalgia feel for me, but they also have that just like completely badass sword fighting aspect to them.
TJ: Thank you.
Spencer: Where it’s just like, yeah it’s cool that you can see them battling monsters that look really – I think the one that struck me the most is seeing a character that kind of reminded me of a little bit of like an Onslaught-esque character.
Spencer: Where you have that body that is just like insanely powerful but also like folding forward to this crazy spiked-fanged face. But you also have these characters that have just like – I really wanted them to at some point form a Megazord. But you know you can’t always get that.
TJ: Yeah I don’t think we’ll be doing any Megazord action or Voltron action in Okemus, unfortunately. But, yeah man, I love, like I said again, my whole thing was, is I love the biomechanical suit of armor. And again I really was inspired heavily by The Guyver and Ultraman growing up, which are probably my two favorite things that came out of Japan. But you know the world that – you know I’m a huge post-apocalyptic movie buff, too. Like I love seeing what the world would look like if things go wrong. And you know it’s interesting to me because I wrote this story in, I think 2014 I wrote the original story for Okemus issue zero, and there’s people walking around with respirator masks on because it’s too polluted to go outside, and this biomechanical armor is very functional in terms of the fact that it actually protects the person who wears it from extreme cold, extreme heat, fire, ice, all the elements. And it also filters out the air, it keeps their eyes safe from, like, sunlight or anything like that. Cause in this particular environment there’s no – what is it called? – ozone layer, so that the sun really burns things, like for sure. So I wanted to make the armor as functional as possible. And then now we’re in this space, you know, the pandemic timeline here in 2020 where people have to wear respirators and masks all the time just to stay alive so it’s – there’s something poetic in there to that, where I think we all kind of thought about, and it just hits now comics is telling that story. It’s pretty wild.
Spencer: Yeah man, I definitely again want to point out that there’s a really good mix of action inside of the comic book but there’s this – I harp on this all the time inside of the anime universe, but there is a really solid world building inside of it as well. So if you’re one of those people that just likes to be dropped into the center of this world and just be like where am I? I’m having to figure out what everything is. This is definitely one of those comic books for you, too. And I left after reading it not only wanting to pick up more but also wanting to get like a, you know, if I could get an anime adaptation of this within the next, you know, five years that wouldn’t be so bad.
TJ: Dude, That would be, wow, I mean, we’re talking about it. We’re planning for it. I mean, The cool thing about the Kickstarter is, is that we got so much more exposure and people really got a chance to get to know more about me as the lead of this company and also RAE comics and what we’re about, and i think so many people have echoed that sentiment, that they want to see this as an anime, they want to see it done in that. Cause the thing is for me, is like I love anime and to me I almost would like an anime more than a big budget movie because, you know, you can spend about half that budget. Well see this is the thing, animation, for anybody who doesn’t know, is actually very expensive to do.
TJ: When you have a manga in japan that’s very very successful like My Hero Academia or One Punch Man, and it becomes an anime, they’re spending millions of dollars on this anime to make it as cool as they possibly can.
Spencer: Oh yeah.
TJ: It’s like the big leagues in Japan. They don’t necessarily need to make it into a movie, because they know that we can do more with an animation. So my feeling has always been, oh this would be great if we could do an animated version of this, this would be so cool. So I’m putting it out into the universe and I’m waiting for it to happen.
Spencer: Yeah. I recently I was watching God of High School, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to watch that yet.
TJ: Not yet.
Spencer: But I was like if I could just put this inside of the animation quality from like something from God of High School, I would be like – just, that would just be perfect.
TJ: Yeah. I mean, I think we’ve just now gotten to the point where movies have caught up to the level of quality that you could get in an anime, like in terms of, you know, when I think of like epic movies and some of the amazing things they’re able to do, you think of Avatar, but I also think of like Avengers: Endgame and how much, how realistic some of the ships and the creatures and all that stuff look. And obviously a lof of this is on blue screen and a lot of it is completely fabricated, but it looks incredibly real. And I think now you can do a fully fledged superhero epic that is not Marvel or DC with a movie studio. You just have to have the funding, and I think that starts with clearly building that audience from the grassroots and up.
Spencer: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Okay, cool. Well I don’t want to keep you too long. I know I’ve eaten up some of your time today. But I mean, I definitely think that this is one of those comic books that can really kind of meld the genre between people that are obsessed with anime and manga and wanted to jump into, like, a, you know, a western feel moreso. I think this one is kind of like a good bridge gap. And you can especially support not only somebody who is putting out new and interesting stuff, but it’s also an indy creator that is building something, so you can be a part of that as well. And I know that a lot of people are interested in that kind of stuff. So again if they are interested in getting a hold of the comic books, if they’re interested in just finding out more about it, where should they be looking?
TJ: Absolutely. So, it’s super easy, if you want to grab the comic books, you go to raecomics.com. We have issues zero all the way up to number three. Issue four has not touched our website just yet, but – cause we’re still in the process of fulfilling kickstarter orders, we’re going to be fulfilling for the next month and a half if not two months, right into Thanksgiving and possibly Christmas. But what I suggest everybody does is also jump on Kickstarter and google Okemus.. And you’ll see our campaign and see what some of those rewards are. And if you want to take part in some of those rewards that are available, like some of the exclusive t-shirts or some of the exclusive toys that we have, or you want to just grab issue four, you can easily just drop me a line through the Kickstarter platform and let me know like, “Hey I want issue four too” or “Will you put it on your website eventually?” Just, you know, if you have any questions at all please feel free to jump on and message me, because I am honoring anybody who wants a Kickstarter reward. Right now you can still actually get it, and that’s the cool thing because fulfillment hasn’t began so you want all of issue zero, I’m sorry, you want all of Okemus, it’s only $35 plus shipping which is about 45 bucks, and you actually get five comic books and four free art prints for that. So they’re super cool ways to get into the entire story and all you have to do is message me, I’ll take care of you.
Spencer: Yeah, get in on the ground floor you guys. It’s been wonderful again talking to you, and I don’t want to take up too much of your time. Do you have anything else you wanted to talk about before you went?
TJ: Oh, nah, that’s it, man. Like I said I’m just happy I had a chance to get on and talk with you. Tell Blake I said hello, hopefully next time we do this we can all be on together.
Spencer: For sure.
TJ: But yeah man, had a great time. I appreciate you having me on.
Spencer: Yeah man, for sure.