Matt Frank and Tsuburaya Productions’ REDMAN
Matt Frank turned his love of giant monsters into a career. He first became known to fans on the DeviantArt website, creating redesigns of famous Japanese monsters and sharing his passion for the great tokusatsu and live-action superhero franchises of earlier eras in Japan. He became known as a premier artist for Godzilla on projects for IDW Comics, and he drew the wildly compelling Redman: The Kaiju Hunter manga series in association with Tsuburaya Productions. Most recently, an alternate cover by Matt Frank graces the new Marvel Comics, The Trials of Ultraman #1. Ultraman Galaxy editor-in-chief EJ Couloucoundis caught up with Matt and conducted this exclusive in-depth interview.
Your work has had a big hand in getting a lot of people into tokusatsu, in the last several years especially. What were the works that got you into genre?
Matt Frank: A lot of it ties back into being a kid in the ‘90s, getting whatever scraps of the genre crossed the Pacific into the US before the internet. First and foremost, it was Godzilla, which I got into because I loved dinosaurs as a kid. You see Godzilla, and you go, “Oh, it’s the biggest, baddest dinosaur I’ve ever seen!” After Godzilla, it opened up this door to all these adjacent properties. I remember getting a VHS tape called Legend of the Dinosaurs, which is a ‘70s Japanese tokusatsu film, and at the end, there were all these trailers for something called Gamera, which I lost my mind over, of course. And then, Power Rangers hit in 1993, and that just blew the lid off of the genre in the west, and spun out into stuff like VR Troopers, Masked Rider, and all these other “America-toku” franchises.
However, I remember hearing about this thing called “Ultraman” around this time, when I saw a commercial for the action figures for Ultraman: Towards the Future, the Australian series. I remember being like, “Oh my god, it’s a Godzilla-sized superhero!” No robots, not another monster; it was a giant superhero, and that was an idea that was very novel to me when I was a kid. However, it would be years until I was able to find actual episodes. I’m jealous of the people who can just get the Mill Creek Blu-rays these days. The final blow, so to speak, was me getting ahold of G-Fan magazine, and that was my bible. Every time I got a new issue, I’d learn more and get deeper into the genre, and that’s something that’s stuck with me and only gotten stronger as I’ve gotten older.
Matt Frank Ultraman Trading Cards
What were your artistic influences when you were younger? Who do you admire now, and what are they doing?
MF: I kind of have to boil that down, or I’d be talking about my influences forever. I’ll focus on three artists who have inspired me over the course of my life in major ways. I would say one of the first was Art Adams, whose work I discovered over the Dark Horse Godzilla comics, which he did a lot of the covers for, as well as at least one of the issues; the Color Special, I believe? The way he drew Godzilla was just deeply inspirational for me, and of course if you look at my work now, I’m certain you’ll see a lot of his influence. [Editor’s Note: Art Adams is also doing a number of covers for Marvel’s Ultraman comics, including one for Trials of Ultraman #1!]
MF: After that, I’m actually going to go way, way back to when I was in art school, where I got super into the works of Gustave Doré, a print artist who made these extremely elaborate illustrations that were heavily inspirational to the art of the original King Kong. The background painters and the people working under Willis O’Brien, as well as O’Brien himself, were all influenced by Doré and this incredible depth of field and atmosphere he employed.
Finally, my third will be Shinji Nishikawa, who I had really become familiar with when I got out of college. But his work has been inspiring me since I was a kid without me noticing, since he was the concept artist for all the Godzilla movies from 1989 to 2004. He’s also worked on Ultraman and a bunch of other tokusatsu franchises, as well as anime like SSSS.GRIDMAN. I’m fortunate enough to have developed a friendship with him in the last few years. He’s even come to my birthday a few times when I’ve been in Japan! Nishikawa hasn’t just inspired my style; but has also taught me learn how to work quicker, which has helped me a lot in my career.
Speaking of Art Adams, he is also doing a number of Ultraman covers. How does it feel to be working in parallel with someone you consider an influence?
MF: It’s a huge treat, and it’s not the first time we’ve worked together. Back on IDW’s Godzilla comics, Art did a cover for the first book I did interiors on, and he did a couple of covers on other books I’ve worked on. We got to meet for the first time a few years back at DragonCon, and I was amazed that he knew who I was and what I did. He was very complimentary of my work, which made my little fanboy heart flutter, since he’s such a huge inspiration. The covers he’s making for The Trials of Ultraman are absolutely stellar too; I’m sure they’re going to be a big hit.
Matt Frank’s alternate cover for The Trials of Ultraman #1
Speaking of that, tell us your background specifically in working with the Ultraman brand, and how you got the cover job for Trials #1.
MF: Where to start… A lot of this is going to be about Redman. [Laughter] So, I had been doing some work for a Japanese publisher called PHASE6, based out of Tokyo. Their specialty was actually localizing English-language comics for Japanese audiences, and their first big get was IDW’s Godzilla: Rulers of Earth, which I did worked on. Those books ended up being so popular that I was invited to do a signing at the Godzilla Store in Tokyo last February.
The boss over at PHASE6, Andrew Hall, found out about Redman. He knew that I had been wanting to do something with Tsuburaya for years before that, but it was just a pipe dream for me. He saw Redman on YouTube, because Tsuburaya had been uploading chunks of episodes, and said to me, “Dude, we should totally make a comic about this!”
I was skeptical, but he said he had gotten a meeting with the Tsuburaya team, so I put together some sketches and sent them along. A week later, Andrew got in touch with me, and just casually mentioned, “Oh, Tsuburaya totally wants us to do a Redman comic.” I was stunned! My first reaction was, “What, really?” and my second was, “Oh crap, now I have to make a story out of this!”
So, I had to sit there and start working stuff out, and thankfully some of the people at Tsuburaya were already familiar with my work. I remember I had stopped over at their office once, and someone busted out a few copies of my Godzilla comics to sign, and I was super flattered. To clarify, Tsuburaya has a lot of heroes beyond just Ultraman, and Redman is one of those second-string heroes from the 1970s. We were given a good amount of latitude with the character and it really turned out nicely.
Our contact at Tsuburaya has been an advocate for doing more with the company, and actually the first official Ultraman piece I did was for a sketchbook back in late 2018, where I did a bunch of sketches of Tsuburaya characters. I paid the company a licensing fee and got to sell it, and that was my first official Ultraman art! I did another sketchbook a year later, just in time for TsubuCon (Tsuburaya Convention), and started establishing myself as a westerner who knows tokusatsu. It’s funny; that year’s Tokyo Comic-Con was when Marvel announced that they were doing Ultraman comics, and I was on the show floor. I had a bunch of fans asking if I was going to work on it, and I was like, “Uh, maybe! It depends if I can get anybody on the phone about it!” And, well, here we are!
In your cover for The Trials of Ultraman #1, you’ve got this absolute killer’s row of cool classic Kaiju from not just Ultraman, but Ultra Q. Monsters like Geronimon, Alien Baltan, Gomess, with the centerpiece being Ultraman delivering the mother of all knockout punches to Gango. Why pick those monsters specifically?
MF: Well, the short version is that I had a different initial composition, with a lot of other mainline monsters, like Pigmon, and Red King, and Gomora, and originally, the Kaiju getting punched by Ultraman was Bemular. The idea was to use Ultraman’s classic “Rise” pose in a new way, since I’d only rarely seen it used for something different before, like, connecting with someone. Originally, I was picking Bemular because it’s one of my favorites, and Ultraman’s first foe. However, Tom [Brevoort, Marvel’s editor on the series] pointed out how many places Bemular was being used already — including Art Adams’ cover for Trials #1. I didn’t want to lose the look on Bemular’s face that I had drawn, though, and that’s when I got reminded of Gango, who was made from Bemular’s suit! It has Bemular’s face. So, I swapped it out, and honestly, the expression was even more fitting on Gango.
From there, I started looking at the other monsters, and decided to take note of Kaiju that had shown up on covers already. [Adams] did a great cover back on The Rise of Ultraman that had so many notable monsters on it, so I decided to try and add in some less notable ones, as well as some of my absolute favorites. Jirahs got switched in for Gomess, for example. Kemur too, was a must-pick, as he was one of the first suit roles ever played by Bin Furuya, who would then of course be the suit actor for Ultraman. Alien Baltan stayed, though because Baltan’s my wife’s favorite! She actually has an Alien Baltan collection she’s picked up over the years, and for our anniversary, I actually bought her a Baltan Kigurumi, and that’s her favorite. [Laughter] But yeah! That’s the reasoning for the monsters I chose.
For fans who are first getting into Ultraman with the Marvel comics, what would you personally recommend as a next step?
MF: I would say that the most obvious next step is to go and get those Mill Creek Blu-rays or go onto MovieSpree and crack into some of the Classic ULTRAMAN shows. That’s the meat and potatoes of the series, of course. If you really want to know where it all comes from, try the original Ultraman. It’s a lot of fun. It’s definitely a series of its time, but it has a lot of charm, and is worth seeking out. If you want something more modern for your palette, I’d personally recommend either Ultraman X, or Ultraman Z. X is on Blu-ray, and Z’s been airing on YouTube, and is starting back up again. [Editor’s note: At the time of this interview’s posting, Ultraman Z is up to Episode 5! Check it out when you can.]
And, you know, I’m waiting personally for the triple punch of Ultraman Nexus, Ultraman Max, and Ultraman Mebius, because those three series from the early 2000s are, in my opinion, some of the best that Ultraman has to offer. Those are my big recommendations!
Matt performed as the voice of Ultraman Belial for a videogame!
One last question, and this is a fun one. Which Ultraman is YOUR Ultraman, and why?
MF: Uuuuugh, you’re going to make me choose? That’s not fair. So, I’m going to give you four, and I’ll give you the big answer at the end.
My first Ultraman was Ultraman Great, from Ultraman: Towards the Future. That Ultraman means a lot to me, and he was my first real exposure to the series. I had his action figure, and his leg broke, and I cried. (I was a child, I swear!) [Editor’s Note: It was actually 2 years ago.] I’ve met Dore Kraus, the original actor, a few times, and he’s super nice and very cool. I first met him at a con, and I told him that he was the person there I was most excited to meet, and he said he’d never heard that before. It was super nice.
After that comes Ultraman Tiga. Tiga means a lot. It was a very formative Ultraman show and the first I saw in English, when it aired on the Fox Box channel. Man, that theme song ruled. The first time I ever saw Tiga I was stunned, because I didn’t realize how different Ultraman could be from the one I knew. He was so cool, even to my ‘90s kid sensibilities.
After that, Ultraman Zero is just the best. I love the character, and his voice actor, Mamoru Miyano is just an incredible talent. He was also the lead in the Godzilla anime movies, and in my wife’s favorite anime ever, Ouran High School Host Club, which is hilarious. Miyano clearly loves the character of Zero, and as a result Zero’s one of the Ultras most bursting with personality. It’s funny going back to watch Ultra Galaxy Legends The Movie [Zero’s first appearance], where he has a little bit of that personality, but is still kind of stoic and buttoned up, but as he goes through appearances further on in the franchise, he really grows and gets more and more entertaining to watch.
Lastly, and I think this is going to have to be my Ultraman — I would say Zero, if it weren’t for a little somebody named Ultraman Belial. Belial is already awesome from moment one. He looks like what happened if the Venom symbiote latched onto an Ultraman. He’s really fun, deliciously evil. But the real reason I have to give it to him is because I am, in one capacity, the English voice actor for Ultraman Belial. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this.
So, a couple of years ago, when I was in Japan for one of my signing tours, Andrew at PHASE6 came to me and said, “Hey, I have a surprise for you.” Their company had been hired to do the translation for the English version of the Ultraman Fusion Fight arcade game. It would only be in Indonesia and Malaysia at the time, but they were hired to do the English translation, and asked to grab anyone they could who could speak English to voice the characters. Andrew asked me if I wanted to do any voices, and of course I said yes, that sounded like a ton of fun.
So, we all went into the recording studio, and met with some reps from Bandai. I ended up staying there all day, half-directing, simply because I was the only English-speaker who had a firm grasp on the characterizations of the various characters getting lines. When someone would ask me how “Maguma-Seijin,” for example, would sound, I would tell them to try something more thuggish and cockney, or the like. At the end of the session, everyone had been taken except for Belial. (I had done Ultraman Orb Dark as a southern dandy before this.) I asked to take a crack at him, and I gave him this scratchy, gravelly voice, and they kept that first take! You can actually find me voicing him somewhere on YouTube. But that’s how he’s wormed his way into my heart.
Matt Frank art for the videogame Ultraman: Kaiju Kombat