Stan Sakai’s rabbit ronin continues to stand up for the helpless and punish the gangs that terrorize the countryside in a stylized feudalistic Japan, more than twenty five years after his first appearance. In October, Fantagraphics – the first publisher to offer an ongoing “Usagi Yojimbo” series – will release “Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition,” a two-hardcover slipcased collection of the original run, currently available as seven trade paperbacks. Meanwhile, Dark Horse, Usagi’s current home, continues to publish the adventures of Sakai’s anthropomorphic hero monthly, in what are mostly one or two-issue self-contained stories. Last year saw the publication of the fully-painted “Yokai,” the first original “Usagi Yojimbo” graphic novel and the release of the long-awaited Usagi plush doll. Next year marks Usagi’s 200th issue, a testament to the longstanding success of a 1980s indie comics darling. CBR News spoke with Sakai about the deluxe collection and what’s coming next for the regular series.
Sakai told us Fantagraphics first approached him about doing a special deluxe collection of the original material in conjunction with Usagi’s 25th anniversary in 2009, but the project was eventually pushed back to 2010. “It’ll be all the Fantagraphics stories in a two-volume slipcase hardcover edition. I’m looking forward to it,” Sakai said. “It’s also going to publish all the extras that were only in the hardcover [collections], with the exception of the full-color story that was published in the book 4 hardback, because that was reprinted recently in [Dark Horse’s] ‘The Art of Usagi Yojimbo.’ But this is the sketches and covers and things that were included with the hardcover editions. So it’ll be a lot more, plus it’ll be about the same price as buying them in the trade paperback.” The slipcase edition will also reprint an early interview with Sakai, updating it with additional commentary which the author composed in recent months, and Usagi’s crossovers with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, some of them rarely seen.
While the “Usagi Yojimbo Special Edition” collection will be presented in a limited edition not to be reprinted, Fantagraphics will continue to offer paperback collections of its “Usagi” material. “‘Usagi’s always been a good seller for both Fantagraphics and Dark Horse, so they’ll both continue the trade paperback collections,” Sakai said.
The most recent issue of the ongoing series, #131, was part two of the “Return to Hell” story arc, which saw Usagi make a second voyage to the aptly-named town to save the villagers from the local gang lord, Boss Higa, who also caused some conflict for Usagi and the noble swordsman Kato. “For 131, it’s an all-out-action kind of story, it’s mostly swordfighting,” Sakai said. “I’ve never really done a story like that before, where the action really overshadows everything else. It was really fun to do.”
Next month begins the two-part “Taiko” story, which sees Usagi doing his best to protect a temple and the townspeople it serves. “Taiko are traditional Japanese drums,” Sakai explained. “I wanted to do a story about taiko for a long time. With ‘Taiko,’ I basically tell how they made those drums. Some of these drums are huge, like nine feet across. Taiko were not used as a musical instrument, they were used as a prayer to the gods. In this case, the area’s suffering a drought, so they make this huge taiko drum. The thunder god – the raijin – is always depicted with a taiko drum, because that’s the sound of thunder. They make him a drum, but the local mob is extorting the townspeople, saying, ‘Pay up or we’ll destroy your temple and your drums,’ and it’s up to Usagi to defend them. I’m pretty happy with the story.
“After that, I’m doing a story called ‘Toad Oil,'” Sakai continued. “Toad oil is a traditional Japanese folk remedy used to cure cuts and any type of injury. I came across the story just by reading. There’s a mention of a certain province that’s known for its toad oil. That’s intriguing, when you find these bits of tantalizing information. So I did some more digging and I came up with a story called ‘Toad Oil,’ and the focus of the story is Kitsune.” Kitsune is a spirited thief and ally of Usagi who has appeared in several stories, including the first Dark Horse issue, which was recently reprinted as part of the “#1 for $1” line. “She’s a bit of a rogue, and also a good person at heart,” Sakai said.
Not yet solicited but teased on Sakai’s web site, after “Toad Oil” in #134, the next one-shot story features the return of the enigmatic Lord of Owls. “The Lord of Owls was only in one short story, but he’s become a favorite of a lot of Usagi readers. He has appeared once, more than 100 issues ago. He’s very mysterious – supposedly, he can see the death of people,” Sakai said. “Usagi bewildered him – there’s death around Usagi, but he’s not sure if it’s Usagi’s death or his own death. Usagi’s a bit of a puzzle for him. So the Lord of Owls makes a return and some questions get answered, but there are more questions than answers when he appears.” Following the Lord of Owls story in January, there will be a two-part arc called “The Red Scorpion,” in which “Usagi goes against a gang who are terrorizing the entire area.'”
Sakai also noted that #141 will be the 200th issue of “Usagi Yojimbo,” taking into account its runs at Fantagraphics and Mirage as well as several specials.
Next year, Sakai will be the subject of an exhibition at Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum. “2011 will be the Year of the Rabbit, and they want to do a retrospective of my work on ‘Usagi,’ Sakai said. “In conjunction with that, they’re doing a little documentary about me. They started filming at San Diego con, so they got interviews with Sergio Aragones, Scott Shaw!, Mark Evanier, Stan Lee and a whole bunch of others. It’s kind of neat. You get to hear your eulogy even before you’re dead!”
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