Stan Sakai needs little introduction. For three decades, the legendary creator has chronicled the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi in the pages of “Usagi Yojimbo,” which stands as one of the great series in comics history. A gifted artist and a writer with a gift for incorporating research into his comics, Sakai has produced not just an epic story, but an incredible resource for those interested in Japanese culture and history.
To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the character, Dark Horse Comics has begun publishing Sakai’s newest miniseries “Usagi Yojimbo: Senso” in addition to an art book, “The Stan Sakai Project,” and “The Usagi Yojimbo Color Special.”
Sakai joined CBR News for a discussion of his long, celebrated career, including his desire to undertake new challenges and endeavors, taking his work in new directions, evolving the series over the course of 30 years and much more.
CBR News: Mr. Sakai, this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Usagi. Just to start, how did you first become interested in comics?
Stan Sakai: I grew up reading comic books. My mom took me took me to a supermarket when I was five years old and that’s when I bought the first comic book that I can remember. It was the adaptation of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and it was twenty-five cents for eighty pages, I think. That was my first comic book. I remember buying “Fantastic Four” #2 off the racks because it was still a dime and DC had just raised their prices to 12 cents. I go far back.
When did you become interested in making comics?
I grew up in Hawaii and at that time you pretty much had to be in New York or the East Coast to be in comic books so I had no aspirations to become a comic book artist. I wanted to become a commercial illustrator in Hawaii but circumstance arose and I moved to the mainland. At that time fax machines were around, FedEx was around and you could be almost anywhere and still be doing comic books. Jack Kirby was on the West Coast. Fanzines — when I was growing up they were called fanzines but now they’re independent comics — were getting started. Through connections, I learned that Steve Gallacci in Seattle wanted to do a comic book, “Albedo,” but did not have enough material so I sent him an eight page story, “Nilson Groundthumper,” and it got published. He contacted me and said, “I’m doing a second issue, what else do you have?” So, I sent him my first Usagi Yojimbo story. That was in 1984 and I’ve been doing Usagi Yojimbo ever since.
I was fascinated to read the “Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy” book and learn in your introduction that you had this epic story planned and Usagi would be a supporting character.
The story wasn’t just going to be about Nilson. It was going to be a huge series. I had envisioned it to be 2500 pages long with a beginning, middle and an end. It would pretty much tell the story of why there are funny animals — or intelligent animals — why there are regular animals like horses and beasts of burden, and the rise of the human population. It was going to be an epic story and Usagi was going to make his appearance in about page 1000, but I did my first Usagi Yojimbo story and I fell in love with the character. The Nilson story fell by the wayside.
You called them funny animals, which is a term people don’t really use anymore, but what do you like about drawing funny animals?
I had aspirations to be more of a superhero artist. I studied anatomy, I did life drawing, but I started doing funny animals for some reason, and I loved it. I could do much more with the expressions, exaggerate expressions as well as postures. It was a lot more fun. I have been doing more with human characters. I did “47 Ronin” last year. I did a “Rocketeer” story. I’ll dabble in human characters but mainly I draw animals. And I call them funny animals because that’s the term I grew up with. I guess nowadays the term is anthropomorphic.
I’ve read many of your books in recent weeks and you really seem to enjoy drawing landscapes.
I do. Japan is a mountainous country and the countryside is so beautiful. I like to have Usagi walk around in landscapes because it gives more of an epic feel. It had a serenity. I’m interested in the serenity of the piece as well as the warfare so I try to put a lot of time into the landscapes and seascapes. I try to do as much research as possible about the buildings and temples but also the landscapes. When I go to Japan I’m always surprised by the diversity of landscapes there. You’ve got bamboo forests mixed with pine forests and I was surprised by the types of foliage in one area.
People may remember “Yokai,” the story you made a few years ago which was in watercolor. Do you paint a lot?
I enjoy watercolors. I was a fine arts major so I studied oil painting and acrylics but those take a long time. I’ve been doing a lot more watercolor painting now. I’ve been posting watercolor sketches on my Facebook account — mainly character sketches and commissions. Watercolors are something that I’m self-taught in but something I really enjoy. In the case of “Yokai,” it was the 25th anniversary of Usagi and my editor, Diana Schutz, and my designer, Cary Grazzini, got together and Cary had suggested that I do a complete story in watercolor. Diana said, “What do you think?” I said, “Sure, I’ll need at least three months to write and draw and paint everything.” She said, “I’ll give you two months and it better be in by then.” I got it in two days ahead of deadline and I was so proud of myself. It was fun.
I’ve always wondered — how do you chose which animals a character will be?
Well in some cases, it’s very deliberate. I make sure to choose an animal that compliments the character’s personality. Other times, it’s about contrast. In the case of Inspector Ishida, who is a police inspector, at first I thought of him as being a very heroic character and on the cover of the comic book, which is made three months ahead of the story, I had the inspector as a rugged hero. As I was drawing the character, it didn’t seem right so I made him the opposite. He’s very heroic but he’s also soft-spoken and a very diminutive character in stature. I gave him huge wooden clogs. It works out well. I’ll draw an animal that compliments a character. Gen is big and burly so a rhino fits him perfectly. Most of my characters I draw just because they look good. Some characters I just a draw a generic figure and put ears on it. Most of the primary and secondary and tertiary characters have very deliberate designs.
I know that you do a lot of research now, but when you started the series did you know how much research would be involved? Did you have a sense of what you were you doing at the beginning?
Not to the extent that I’m doing now, as far as the amount of research. I just thought I’d be doing stories of things I liked. It wasn’t until a story called “The Kite Story” that I started really doing research. That occurred because I bought a book on kite making and I found it really interesting, so I incorporated a lot of the behind-the-scenes of how people made Japanese kites back then how the bamboo was weakened, what type of paper was used — the entire process. I did research on kite festivals. I put that all in the story and I enjoyed doing it and I got a lot of positive response from that. I’ve been doing research ever since. Not all of my stories require that amount of research but some do. In the case of “Grasscutter,” that took about five years to research and I had the basic plot in mind but getting the behind the scenes details, the history of the Japanese civil war, all that had to be researched. I had to change the story a lot because of the research that I did, but it turned out well and I’m really pleased with that story.
Many of the “Usagi Yojimbo” stories are great primers into that period and bushido. For example, there’s that great issue which centers around the tea ceremony.
Yes, it showed the tea ceremony step by step. That’s one of my favorite stories. It was very different from the regular Usagi stories in that there’s no violence at all. It just shows the Usagi and Tomoe performing the tea ceremony together and at the end he leaves. I thought it was very nice, very poetic. I got a lot of very positive responses from that. Again, it’s one of those where up to the last minute I was doing research. After I sent it in I found that he brought his swords in with him and I immediately e-mailed Diana and said don’t run the story I have to redraw a page. I redid the page with Usagi leaving his swords outside the teahouse. I know if I had not corrected that, people would have caught me on it. I’ve been caught before.
There’s one story where Usagi plays a game of Go and I used to play Go as a kid but what I played was Gomoku — the same board, same game pieces but the strategies are different. I had said, this is a game of Go and people caught me from as far as Germany saying, that’s not Go. Fortunately I was able to change that for the trades. Not only is it corrected but the position of the game pieces were the exact positions as they were in this famous game that took place in the Fifteenth Century. It was one of the most famous games in history. No one’s ever complimented me on that, but I know it’s there. [Laughs]
A long time ago, you had planned a 2500 page epic for Nilson Groundthumper. Do you plan a lot for Usagi? Do you know where the story is going?
I have certain big epic storylines in mind. Tomoe’s wedding, the Tengu Wars, and a few others. Those are really big stories, but it’s the smaller stories that fit in between and build up to these longer epics [that are] really hard. Fortunately, whenever I write one story, it becomes a springboard for others; or research that I’ll do for one story will be a springboard for other stories. I like to do research. I’ll read a lot. … I did a story about how they made soy sauce. I came across a mention that was literally one sentence about ice runners, where in summer there would be couriers that would get ice from the mountains and would run it [about] 500 miles to the lord in the middle of summer. They would start out with huge blocks of ice and at the end they would have a small ball of slush. I thought that’s a neat story. There are so many aspects of Japanese culture and history that are really quirky and make great springboards.
But you don’t have a plan for Usagi? Whether he’ll wander forever or settle down?
I don’t know.
“Senso,” takes place 15-20 years in Usagi’s future and he is serving Lord Noriyuki. He is part of the Geishu Clan now. So that’s one route that he might go. I really don’t know. Right now, the most obvious thing is that he would stop wandering and become part of the Geishu Clan. Or he might go the way of the original Miyamoto Musashi, who is the historical figure that inspired my rabbit character. He became a hermit and goes into a cave and becomes a philosopher and writes a book. I really don’t know.
I loved the first issue of “Senso” and do you think of this as canon or an imaginary story? I love that phrase, imaginary story, but I think you know what I mean.
Yes, all the stories are imaginary. [Laughs]
When it gets printed it won’t be part of the “Usagi Yojimbo” numbered volumes. It will be its own book, “Usagi Yojimbo: Senso.” So in that sense, it’s not canon. I guess it is an imaginary story. It’s not part of the Usagi storyline. The Usagi storyline is based on Japanese culture and history. Martians invading Japan is not part of history. [Laughs] That’s what it is.
The premise of “Senso” is that I took H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” which is a Martian attack on Victorian England, and if the Martians had sent scout ships to Earth two hundred years before H.G. Wells’ chronicle and what if the Martians landed in feudal Japan. You have giant tripods and the octopus-like Martians and heat rays and they’re battling ninjas and samurai armies in full armor. It was a lot of fun to do. I’ve wanted to do this story for about ten years. I just never had the opportunity. Now, because I took a break to do “47 Ronin,” this seemed like the ideal time. It’s a fun story. It was a nice transition after taking a break from Usagi to coming back to doing Usagi again.
It starts off with Usagi and Gen as part of the Geishu clan. It’s the final battle between the Geishu and Lord Hikiji, the ultimate evil in Usagi’s world. Everyone’s in full armor. I enjoyed drawing that. And in the middle of the battle, Martians attack. It’s fun. You have the tripods destroying Japanese cities and castles. I enjoyed drawing the armor. One thing I don’t like to draw is horses. That why Usagi walks all the time. In this one I had to draw a lot of horses. And I actually had fun drawing them.
“47 Ronin” was a different project for you. What did you learn from that project that informed how you worked on “Senso?”
First of all, I grew up on the story of “47 Ronin.” I knew it since I was in grade school. What was an eye opener for me was that how much of the story is historical, how much is speculation and how much is fabrication. The account of that incident was not written down until about fifty years later. It turns out that the villain of the story was not quite the villain he was made out to be and the hero of the story is not quite as pure. That was a big eye opener for me. The big change with “47 Ronin” is that I was just the artist. I was not the writer. Mike Richardson was the writer and at first I was a bit skeptical but when we were talking I saw that he did his research. Mike knows a lot about the “47 Ronin.” He’s wanted to do this story for twenty years. I was really impressed with the research he had done and how much he knew. It was a different way for me to work.
When I sent in the first issue of “Senso,” Mike emailed me saying the artwork is very different from the old Usagi and he thought that working on “47 Ronin” changed my approach to drawing Usagi in some ways. I didn’t catch it, but he thinks that “47 Ronin” had a big influence on how I approach Usagi.
I don’t know if you want to say anything about what’s to come. It’s six issues and aliens land in the first issue. I don’t think that spoils anything.
I have recurring characters, some of Usagi’s friends and foes in it. It was originally going to be five issues, but then I talked to Diana and we decided it had to be six issues. Some things I have hinted about in current storylines I resolve in “Senso,” such as Tomoe’s wedding and how that turns out. Usagi’s son Jotaro is now part of the Geishu clan as well and a big dilemma in the current Usagi is whether he should tell Jotaro that he’s really his father or not. I address that. There are a lot of issues in the contemporary Usagi that I will deal with is Senso which again takes place 15-20 years into the future.
It sounds like “Senso” is a must read for fans.
Yes and even if you’re not a fan and have never read Usagi before, you’ll get into the story. I think it’s very accessible to anyone.
I think it’s some of the best artwork and storytelling I’ve done in a long time. I’ve been having so much fun with this. After “Senso” I’ll be continuing the regular “Usagi Yojimbo” series picking up exactly where I left off. I think I’ll start off with a longer story. I’m looking forward to that.
Besides “Senso,” Dark Horse is putting out new collections of Usagi.
Yes, the Omnibus editions, which is three of the Usagi books in one volume. They look great. I mean, Usagi is meant to be read as a long narrative so collecting the books this way makes sense.
There’s also “Usagi Yojimbo: Color Special” which just came out, which the recent review on CBR called “a perfect comic.”
[Laughs] Thank you. The “Color Special” is a reprint of various pieces from “Dark Horse Presents” and the Dark Horse website. It turned out really nice. I enjoyed it. I especially like the way the last story “The Artist” was made. It was a combination of computer coloring and watercoloring. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it worked beautifully.
“The Sakai Project” is also in stores now, and it collects many different artists’ interpretations of Usagi and the rest of your characters.
Yes, it’s a beautiful hardcover book of Usagi artwork from creators from around the world.
We could not commission these artists to draw Usagi for this book, but they did it all for free. My wife had some severe health issues and there were a lot of costs that didn’t insurance didn’t cover. Friends of mine asked artist friends for art donations that they would auction on eBay and we just expected maybe twenty-five pieces of art from close friends but we got more than four hundred pieces — many of them Usagi drawings specifically done for these auctions. We had so many great pieces that they approached Dark Horse, who wanted to publish them as a book. Dark Horse is not taking any profits from the book. All the profits go to Sharon and me to help pay for her medical expenses. It’s a beautiful book and the list of creators involved is just tremendous. Not only from the US, but internationally. I was surprised at how many Europeans and others wanted to be involved in this. We are still getting artwork in which will not make it into the book. The amount of support we’ve been getting from professionals and fans form around the world is just staggering. We’re overwhelmed.
Besides doing Usagi for thirty more years, do you have other plans or ambitions?
No. I’d like to do Usagi more. I took a hiatus from Usagi for a year so I’m anxious to get back. Actually right after I finished the first issue of “47 Ronin,” I was itching to get back to Usagi and when I started “47 Ronin” I made it a point whenever I drew a human figure to count their fingers to make sure they have five fingers. Then when I started drawing “Senso” I had to go back and see hey this character has five fingers! I just got into the habit of drawing five fingers for a while.
So fans should be on the look out for five fingers in “Senso?”
I went back and looked to make sure everyone has the proper four fingers like everyone should.
I like that, “the proper four fingers”-like “imaginary stories.”
[Laughs] I’m having such a great time with “Senso.” Anyone who picks up the book will be very pleased with the story and the artwork.
I wanted it to have an epic feel to it and I think it did. There’s a lot more large panels and the last issue I think will blow you away. I loved it. With “Senso,” I chose bigger panels because I wanted to give an epic feel to it. I think it worked. Diana commented that it feels like a big story.
“Usagi Yojimbo: Senso” #1 and “The Sakai Project” hardcover are on sale now.
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