It’s been two years since a new issue of “Usagi Yojimbo” was released. Granted, Eisner Award-winning cartoonist Stan Sakai has been working on plenty of projects since then, first drawing “47 Ronin” for writer Mike Richardson and then writing and illustrating the epic miniseries “Usagi Yojimbo: Senso.” Along the way, he also celebrated thirty years working on “Usagi,” recognized by many fans and critics as one of the great contemporary comics series.
In May, Dark Horse will release of “Usagi Yojimbo” #145. The next few months will also see the release of a new collection, the third volume of Dark Horse’s Saga volume, and a paperback edition of Fantagraphics’ Special Edition. Sakai sat down with CBR News to talk about returning to his legendary series, while sharing an exclusive look at his first issue back.
CBR News: I’m very excited for “Usagi Yojimbo” #145 in May, though I have to admit, I don’t remember exactly where the story left off in #144 —
Stan Sakai: That was about two years ago, and I don’t remember offhand! The next book collects the “Two Hundred Jizzo” story, and that’s about where it ended, with the soy sauce story. Usagi goes to a soy sauce manufacturer. I researched soy sauce.
Issues #145, 146 and 147 is a three part story. It features Usagi, Kitsune, the thief and Chizu, the ninja. They’re both women, and their personalities are completely different, so they clash. They’ve never met before, but they know Usagi and right from the start, it’s like dogs and cats. It’s funny, just because their personalities are so different.
You’re jumping right back into things.
Exactly. It picks up right where “Usagi” left off. It’s a three-issue story, and then I’ll do a couple short stories. I’ve already finished with four issues. #145 comes out in May, so I’m pretty good as far deadlines go. However, there is a lot more Usagi stuff coming out.
As you say, it’s been two years and you’ve been very busy, but have you always been thinking about what to do after this time away?
No. Once I put “Usagi” on hiatus, I concentrated solely on “47 Ronin” and “Usagi Yojimbo: Senso.” I just had a lot of fun with “Senso.” I worked with Mike Richardson on “47 Ronin.” Mike wrote the story, and gave me full scripts. That was the first time that I worked with a writer for such a length of time. He was a pleasure to work with. His scripts are just great, and he was very open to whatever suggestions that I made.
You’ve made two miniseries, both with epic scopes. At any point, were you consciously thinking, “Now that I’m back to ‘Usagi,’ I want to do something small, with just a few characters.”
Exactly. I did a couple of really epic stories, and now I want to go back to more intimate stories and focus on characters more than situations. A lot more culture or history-based stories, where I concentrate on one aspect of Japanese culture and work a story around that. That’s my intention for the next few issues, and then I’ll develop a longer, more epic, multi-issue story. I should also mention that #145 is coming out, and we’re pretty close to #150. We don’t know if we’re doing anything special for #150. Probably not. But “Usagi” #150 from Dark Horse will be out soon.
You’re very good at alternating between small, self-contained stories and larger stories.
I like both. Smaller stories are great, and they’re also a good jumping on point for new readers. Whereas with the longer stories, the more epic, there’s more chances for character development and going into the backgrounds of various characters.
Before “Senso” came out, you mentioned that there were two larger stories that you wanted to develop. One was Tomoe’s wedding.
I’m still doing research on how they did arranged marriages back then. It’s very formal. That does involve a lot of research, and I’m still in the middle of that. Another longer story that I had wanted to do is called “Tengu Wars.” Tengu are the mountain goblins. I’m still not sure exactly what it’s going to be about, but it will involve a lot of the mythical monsters of Japan of folklore and creatures of mythology. I’ve always loved stories like that, like “Yokai.” “Tengu Wars” would involve a lot of that.
You’ve spoken about “Grasscutter” and others stories, some of which you were thinking about and researching for years. What are you reading now?
Right now, I’m not researching anything. I haven’t read a book for quite a while; I’ve just been so busy. I’ve generally been watching documentaries. I’ve been reading a few magazine articles. That’s about it. I haven’t been doing much in-depth reading, but I’m working on the next story now for #149, I think, and I still haven’t come up with a plot yet. [Laughs] It’s due in a couple of months, but I’m sidetracked because I have a lot of projects that I’m working on. One is a short story for this anthology for the 65th anniversary of “Peanuts,” and smaller projects like that. While I’m doing those ,I’m thinking of new plots for “Usagi.”
Can you say anything about this “Peanuts” anthology?
It has not been announced yet, but it’s a hardcover coffee table book. They’re getting various creators to submit either pinups or short stories. I’m doing a short story about Charlie Brown being lost in Tokyo. I’m having a great time with it. It’s a lot of fun. I knew Charles Schulz, and he left such an incredible legacy. It’s a purely fun project for me.
You say you haven’t figured out what will happen in the next issue. Is that how you typically work?
Ideas pop up out of anywhere. It comes from sketching, it comes from watching TV, reading. One phrase or a couple of sentences spark an idea. The biggest incentive is my deadline, because the books have to come out on time. I try to get my work in before deadlines. That’s the biggest incentive for me. [Laughs]
Do you have a sense of time passing in the comic?
I don’t. For a while, I was keeping track of dates — actually, there was a fan that had picked up on all the little hints that I had put in, and he had sent in a timeline. He had fixed Usagi the years that his adventures occurred almost to the exact month because I put in specific dates or alluded to certain events, and he picked up on all those things. Right now, Usagi’s adventures take place roughly in 1610 or so.
You’re not keeping track, though.
Not any more, no. I have played with the timeline. I talked about the origins of the kabuki theater and the kabuki theater did not officially begin until 1649, I think. I’m going to introduce a Chinese character, a doctor from Mainland China who goes to Japan to seek out new herbs. That idea is based upon a real person, but the real person existed two hundred years after Usagi’s time. I do play with the timeline, but I basically have an idea in my head about the year that Usagi’s adventures take place. Usagi is basically a fantasy series. It is based on actual facts and cultures, but I do whatever I want with Usagi, and that’s fun.
For the most part, the series is more tied to that period rather than anything more specific.
Exactly. The period and also whatever interests me.
You mentioned that one character coming up is based on a real person. As many know, Usagi is inspired by Miyamoto Musashi. Are many of the other characters based on or inspired by real life figures?
Inspired by, yes. Characters are inspired by figures from Japanese history as well as pop culture. As you said, Usagi is inspired by Miyamoto Musashi. Tomoe Ame is based on Tomoe Gozen. There’s also characters that were inspired by popular culture. Lone Wolf and Cub became Lone Goat and Kid. Zatoichi the Blind Swordman became Zato-Ino, the blind swordspig, which I thought was good. Pigs have a great sense of smell, so where the blind swordsman had this amazing sense of hearing, mine had an amazing sense of smell. That’s how he got to “see” things.
You spend a lot of time drawing the landscapes in the book. I don’t know if you keep a sketchbook, but what do you enjoy drawing?
I love drawing buildings. Especially when I go overseas to Europe, I love sketching buildings. The architecture is so different, especially older architecture you see in France or Spain. In Japan, I love drawing the architecture. Japanese architecture is so different from what we’re used to, so I have to do a lot of research as far as building methods or how they look or the interiors for “Usagi.” I try to do as much research as I can for the stories — to a certain point. Too much research can bog down a story, so I have to reach a happy medium between educating and, more importantly, entertaining the readership.
I’m sure there’s a point where you could spend months researching something, or you could stop and actually draw the book.
“Grasscutter” took five years to research, and most of the research I did never made its way into the story. We put story notes that talked about the aspects of Japanese history and culture, and also a bibliography. That became very popular, so now we try to make it a habit of putting in story notes. People wrote in saying, we really enjoyed learning more about how to make soy sauce or how to make pottery or the kite festivals or sword making or the tea ceremony. I try to make “Usagi” educational. It’s entertainment, but you can also learn about this.
I had a great time with “Grasscutter.” The sword was lost at seas during the Genpei War in the battle of Dan-no-ura. The legend goes that all of the samurai who were lost at that battle drowned and were turned into these crabs called the Heiki crabs. The crabs actually do look like they have faces on the backs of their shells. I had a great image of Usagi fighting these huge heiki crabs. I thought, “That will be great. One full issue will be about him being chased by crabs and fighting the crabs off.”Later, I found out these crabs are like the size of your thumbnail. [Laughs] That pretty much ruined the entire issue for me, so I had all these little crabs dragging the sword from the ocean onto the beach where Usagi finds it. I would have loved to see Usagi fighting these giant crab monsters. That’s one time where research actually ruined the story for me. [Laughs]
You have ideas for longer, larger stories you’re building towards, but you don’t really have a plan for the series. Is this how you’ve always worked?
Yeah. I have these landmark stories — the epic stories — but these little stories that lead up to them are the hard things to do. With a six-issue story arc, you know what you’re doing for the entire six issues, but if it’s six self-contained stories, you have to think of six different stories. That’s a lot harder. But I’ve been doing this for thirty years now, and hopefully I’ll keep doing it for a lot longer. I’ve been working with Mike Richardson, and I had the idea of what I wanted to do with “Senso” for such a long time, that I’ve got to flex my creative muscles again. That’s where I am again, digging up more stories to tell for “Usagi.”
Do you think working on “47 Ronin” and “Senso” affected how you work?
It’s affected me in that the idea of working with someone is a lot more attractive. I’ve written stories for people, and I’ve had people write short stories for me to draw, maybe eight pages at most. This was the first time I worked with someone for the course of a year, with Mike, and I really enjoyed the experience. As far as “Senso” goes, “Senso” has been on my mind for the past ten years or so. I’ve been talking about this project for a long time. When Mike Richardson saw the first issue of “Senso,” he said my approach to the drawing had really changed from the regular series, post-“47 Ronin.” He said there was a definite change, and I think there is. I don’t know what it is. It could be more detailing, it could be the way I’m telling the story, but I know there are changes in there.
The new issue is out in May, and the “Senso” hardcover comes out in May as well. The next volume of the trade collection, “200 Jizzo,” comes out in June. The omnibus editions continue. The third “Saga” volume comes in June as well. Also, Fantagraphics is putting out the Special Edition which collects all seven of the Fantagraphics books into two trade paperbacks. It came out as a hardback five years ago and sold out immediately.
There’s a lot of “Usagi” coming out this year!