Stan Sakai took the stage amongst a dedicated group of Usagi Yojimbo fans on Sunday at Baltimore Comic-Con, unloading a plethora of artifacts onto the table including original art, single issues and uncolored covers. On the right side of the stage was a large white sketchpad on an easel. As Sakai approached the microphone, he told the audience the goal of the panel. “I’ll tell you who I am, what I do and how I do it.” Sakai then regaled the audience with stories both about Usagi and his origin, as well as incredible stories about his life and the connections he’s made.
“I’m very fortunate because I grew up reading comic books,” said Sakai. “Comic books gave me a love of reading in general. I’m very blessed. Not only do I get to create comics, what’s really neat is that I’ve gotten to meet my heroes. I know Stan Lee, he’s a good friend of mine, I’ve worked with him for 25 years. I knew Jack Kirby. Will Eisner wrote an introduction for me, so it’s really neat. Last night, I was sitting next to George Perez. I’ve known him for years!”
Sakai then opened up the floor to questions, one of the first of which was about the role of the rabbit in traditional Japanese folklore. “The rabbit is very prominent in Japanese myths and legends, such as the legend of the Rabbit and the Badger,” said Sakai. “The badger is a trickster animal. In this case the badger kills the farmer’s wife and tricks the farmer into eating his wife. The brave rabbit then gets revenge for the farmer. In American tradition, there is a man in the moon. In Japanese tradition, it’s a rabbit eating mochi rice.”
But why make Usagi Yojimbo a rabbit? Sakai, a native of Hawaii who used to go to the movie theater to see old samurai movies as a child, based his character on the 17th century samurai, Miyamoto Musashi. He drew a picture of a rabbit with a traditional samurai topknot and called him Miyamoto Usagi, usagi meaning rabbit in Japanese.
Sakai’s excitement and thrill at being in comics was a driving force during the entire panel. Even as a longtime industry veteran, Sakai was still incredibly excited to tell the story of his first contact with Stan Lee, who had recently drawn Sakai a 25th anniversary present of Usagi dressed as Spider-Man. “He called me on the phone and said, ‘Hi, this is Stan Lee! Is Stan Sakai around?’ and it was so cool!” said Sakai.
The inevitable question regarding the possibility of a feature film based on “Usagi Yojimbo” came up during the panel. “The option just ran out about three months ago. We’ve gotten two offers for both a movie and a TV series,” said Sakai. “The deals have usually fallen through because I don’t like the direction they were going. I always try to take control of Usagi. One instance I was really hoping would go through was with Henson. Henson wanted to do a Usagi feature like they did with ‘The Dark Crystal,’ with puppets. I asked them if I could have an Usagi puppet.” Henson is still currently one of the companies Sakai is talking to in order to produce an Usagi project, but Sakai has gotten a few oddball pitches as well. “Usagi was pitched to me once as a live action drama set in modern day Los Angeles,” he said. “I kind of rejected that outright.”
Sakai went on to reveal why the main antagonist in “Usagi Yojimbo” is human. “I drew him in one panel as a human. I kind of regretted it, [but] not so much that I would go back and actually fix it,” he said. Sakai then revealed that Usagi was conceived as a part of another story involving a connection between Feudal Japan and Feudal Europe. The story would have involved another rabbit, named Nelson Groundthumper, and revealed the how and why humans and human-like animals inhabited the same world. “It was going to be 3000 pages long, and it would have had a definite beginning, middle, and end,” said Sakai. “Usagi was going to be part of that story, and Usagi would come in at page 1000. You would have loved it! Usagi was going to die a glorious death, everyone was going to die, the world was going to explode, it was going to be great!”
Sakai then went into Usagi’s appearance in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles universe and the fact that Usagi Yojimbo once had an action figure produced under the Turtles license. “The first action figure of Usagi paid for the remodeling of my house!” said Sakai. “When the Turtles started getting a TV series and merchandising, Peter Laird and I were sitting at a table in San Diego con and he said, ‘You want a toy?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘Okay, have your people call my people,’ and I didn’t have any people! So, they gave me some of their people. For a while we had the same people. Usagi still does appear in the current animated Turtles TV show.”
Although Sakai was up at the front of the room for the entire panel, he still found a way to reach out to the audience. While describing his process and demonstrating the concept of thumbnails on the easel, Sakai asked one fan named Emily to describe her day. The creator then did an oversized thumbnail of Emily’s day up until that point. He drew the convention and a figure of Emily running around the convention show floor saying, “I’ve got money! Who wants my money!” The thumbnails ended with Emily in the panel room watching Sakai speak as she exclaimed, “Stan Sakai is a Genius!”
In addition to his work on “Usagi Yojimbo”, Sakai does lettering work for the “Spider-Man” comic strip, produces work for Bongo Comics, and, most recently, Marvel’s “Strange Tales” title, where he contributed a story about Samurai Hulk. “I got a call from Marvel. ‘We’re doing an anthology called Strange Tales. You can do whatever you want to any of our characters!’ I said, ‘I want to do the Samurai Hulk!’ ‘Great!’ ‘I’m going to kill him at the end!’ ‘Great!'” Sakai’s story places the Hulk mythos squarely into the heart of Japanese folklore.
Sakai closed out the panel with some advice to all aspiring artists and cartoonists. “”Know your anatomy, know your perspective, know your composition. After that it’s draw, draw, draw,” he said. “Get the basics out of the way, draw, and the most important thing is to show your work around. No matter how good you are, if you don’t show your work around, you won’t be noticed. Learn to take feedback and learn to take criticism.”