26 years ago, while considering a comic based on the life of legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi, Stan Sakai sketched a cartoon of a rabbit samurai with his long ears tied in a topknot. Now that character, Usagi Yojimbo, is set to appear in his 100 th issue from Dark Horse Comics. CBR News spoke with Sakai about his upcoming milestone.
The 32-page book won’t resemble your typical issue of “Usagi Yojimbo” as it features contributions by a long list of top comics talent: Jeff Smith, Frank Miller, Mark Evanier, Mike Richards, Rick Geary, Scott Shaw!, Sergio Aragones, Guy Davis, Jamie Rich, and Andi Watson. “Usagi plays a small part, but basically it’s a roast of myself and Usagi,” Sakai told CBR News.
The issue is out of continuity and issue #101 will continue the story from issue #99. At the time of the interview, Sakai had not yet seen most of the contributors’ pages, but he mentioned that Aragones’ story is about their experiences traveling together.
Technically, the issue, to be released in January, will be Usagi’s 160 th , including issues released by previous publishers Fantagraphics and Mirage. Usagi was first published in 1984 in Steve Gallacci’s “Albedo” comics. In 1987, Fantagraphics began publishing “Usagi Yojimbo,” the first ongoing Usagi series. In the early ’90s, Mirage published 16 issues in color before canceling the series. Then, in 1996, Dark Horse published Usagi in what was originally meant to be a three issue miniseries. Demand was so high, however, that Usagi soon became a regular series. There are now 20 trade paperback collections, all of which are either in print, or if not, will be re-released soon. Though Usagi was briefly published in color, Sakai says that the black and white art is “closer to the original, to my vision.”
While other creator-owned series such as “Cerebus” and “Bone” have concluded after reaching certain milestone issues, fans of Usagi have no need to worry; discussing the rabbit’s future, Sakai remarked, “I’ve plotted the story arc for 10 years.”
Usagi started the same year as the Ninja Turtles. Because both series involved talking animals, the creators frequently crossed paths. Sakai and Turtles creator Peter Laird supported each other over the years, sending fan letters back and forth, and frequently appearing on the same panels at conventions. Eventually, Laird “asked if I’d like to have Usagi on the show,” Sakai said. “I never had a particular voice in mind for Usagi. The producers considered a variety of voices, ‘everything from a thick Brooklyn accent to only Japanese with subtitles.'” Usagi appeared in the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon in 1989 and 1990 and in several episodes recently in the latest incarnation of the show. All of the episodes are available on DVD now.
Usagi has been published in countries all over the world in various languages, though not in Japanese. “There has never been an American book that made a significant dent in Japan,” Sakai said. He is a regular guest at conventions all over the world and his readers are devoted to the characters. Sakai even received hate mail after Usagi’s pet lizard, Spot, died. “That issue came out during a convention,” Sakai said. “A fan who was a teacher picked up the issue at my booth and took it back to her hotel room. The next day she came storming up and shouted ‘You bastard!'”
Though Sakai does a tremendous amount of research into feudal Japan and Japanese legends for “Usagi Yojimbo,” fans are quick to point out anachronisms and factual errors. After one issue, a parody of Aragones’ book “Groo the Wanderer,” with hidden references and caricatures of Aragones, writer Evanier, and colorist Tom Luth, Sakai received letters from people “complaining about Sergio’s Hawaiian shirt, that it wasn’t historically accurate,” he said.
Readers send in fan art, and other, weirder things. “A guy sent me a t-shirt with a 3-D Usagi head coming out of the chest, like the Alien chest buster.” Fan art can be seen on the official Usagi website, usagiyojimbo.com, which is “created and maintained by fans,” and Sakai frequents the site’s discussion boards.
Sakai, who grew up in Hawaii and studied art at the University of Hawaii, says that his art is “more European or western style than Japanese,” though he grew up surrounded by Japanese culture and cites samurai films, especially those of Akira Kurosawa, as an influence.
“Usagi Yojimbo” is set in feudal Japan, an agrarian environment in which animals were important factors in the economy, which presented the artist with a problem; if the animals take the place of people, what takes their place? The solution he hit upon was reptiles. Lizards take the place of pets, scavengers, and beasts of burden in his world. Plus, “they’re fun to draw,” Sakai said. “If there’s an empty space in a panel, I stick a lizard in and people think I’m a brilliant designer.”
Before Usagi, Sakai was a freelance artist, doing illustrations for t-shirts, record albums, books, advertising, and various other projects. and because “freelancing is such a hard life” he considered going into animation. “Animation was steady income; at that time animation had seasons. You’d work for a few months and then have a break.” Sakai thought that animation would allow him to have some financial stability and still be able to work on his own personal projects. He changed his mind after Shaw and animator Floyd Norman took him on a tour of the Hanna Barbera studio. Seeing the conditions the artists worked in, “stuck in cubicles, like a factory,” convinced him never to be an animator. “I suppose I owe Scott and Floyd a debt for that,” he remarked.
Sakai always wanted to draw, and for him, “comics is ideal.” Working from his home studio in Pasadena, California, Sakai enjoys the autonomy of a creator-owned book.”Whatever I send in is printed with no editorial input,” he said. “Dark Horse publishes what I send them,” an unusual arrangement for someone who is not self-published. Indeed, for the 100 th issue, “Diana Shutz – my editor – didn’t want to see anyone’s work until it was turned in,” said Sakai.
In addition to the monthly comic, Sakai also produces an annual Usagi sketch book which he sells at conventions, especially Comic-Con International in San Diego. These have been very popular among fans of the series, and Sakai enjoys making them. He doesn’t use Photoshop or any other computer program. Instead, he does everything in Usagi entirely by hand, including the lettering. “Lettering is relaxing,” he said. He also letters for Aragones’ books and for the Spiderman Sunday newspaper strips, “the only thing Stan Lee writes anymore,” Sakai said. Lee, whom Sakai described as “exactly the way he is portrayed,” called up and asked him to letter the strips.
Sakai has contributed to Simpson’s “Treehouse of Horror” comics in the past and would like to do another Simpsons story in the future. “Maybe the Simpsons characters go to feudal Japan,” he said. As for what else he’d like to tackle, “I’d like to do a Groo story someday,” he continued, “Groo looks like fun.” Sakai has been the regular letterer on Groo since the character’s first appearance. He mentioned that a “Groo meets Conan” mini-series, with Bill Stout drawing the Conan sequences, is in the works.
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