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WonderCon’s 25 Years of Usagi Yojimbo panel was held off the beaten track in the San Francisco Moscone Center. Down a hallway and around a corridor, a beaming Stan Sakai let grateful fans into his process and discussed the history of his long-running Dark Horse comic book “Usagi Yojimbo”; its inception and his process in producing the book, all the while doing what he does best: drawing.
“How many people here want to be cartoonists?” Sakai asked the crowd. “How many know where the word cartoonist comes from?” Sakai told the crowd that “cartoon” came from the Italian word “cartone” – pasteboard, a sketch of a planned drawing or painting done on heavy paper. The person who prepared the full-scale design for a master artist like Michelangelo then developed into the conception of “the cartoonist.”
All of this did relate to Sakai’s most famous creation: the samurai rabbit Usagi Yojimbo, who is now celebrating his 25th anniversary. Sakai has been producing “Usagi Yojimbo” since 1984, when the character graduated from a sketch in his notebook. Sakai told the crowd he was considering a series about Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai/renaissance man from Japan’s feudal period. Musashi was more than just a warrior, he was a philosopher and an artist as well. Then Sakai did a doodle in one of his notebooks of a samurai rabbit with his ears pulled back in the feudal-style, and his famous rabbit warrior, Miyamoto Usagi, was born.
Usagi began his printed life in the Fantagraphics animal anthology “critters.” At the time, black and white comics were not terribly profitable, but after Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s series “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” blew up, copies of “Critters #2” (Usagi’s premiere) were suddenly selling for $200. But Fantagraphics changed to more adult fare with books like “Love and Rockets,” and at that point, “Usagi Yojimbo” was offered a home at Mirage and then later found its place at Dark Horse.
Sakai addressed what it was like when Fantagraphics dropped the book. “I sent out seven inquiry letters to comics companies asking if they would like to publish us. I received eleven replies saying yes… so that was nice.”
In addition, Sakai said he’s had more or less the same deal at every publisher. “I own Usagi,” he said. “Whatever I send them, they have to print.”
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As a result of this creative freedom and Sakai’s incredible attention to detail with historical research, the series has garnered three Eisner Awards.
Sakai also addressed the success of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and how it has helped “Usagi Yojimbo” over the years. “Well, Usagi and the Ninja Turtles came out at the same time. Roughly the same month,” Sakai said, re-iterating that before TMNT blew up, nobody was interested in black and white comics. “Then I was at San Diego Comic-Con with Peter Laird. After the show started and he turned to me and said: ‘you want a toy?'”
Sakai, of course, did. But he was perplexed when Laird told him to have his people call Laird’s people. “I didn’t have any people,” Sakai said. “So they gave me some of their people. So for a while, we had the same people.”
That was how Usagi ended up in a two-part episode in the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series and how a Usagi Yojimbo and Space Usagi toy were created. Years later, when the new turtles series, “TMNT,” came out, Sakai got a call from Laird. “He said ‘you want to do it again?”
This lead to Yojimbo’s appearance in the four-part “Battle Dome” arc and in a subsequent episode where Leonardo ended up in Usagi’s world. This was something special for Sakai. “Because it wasn’t just Usagi, it was a lot of my characters in that episode. And there were actually more, which we had to cut for time.”
One fan asked, in light of those appearances, whether Usagi might one day earn his own TV series. Sakai said that Usagi had been optioned many times over the years and that it was currently optioned for both a film and TV series. However, the cartoonist cautioned fans that this meant nothing at all in Hollywood. “Don’t believe anything until you see it on the screen.”
Both Sakai and Usagi had been involved in interesting experiences in Hollywood. “The most interesting option was from Oliver Stone,” Sakai said. “That would have been an interesting Usagi film. The ninja in the grassy knoll.”
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After some drawing and a sample thumbnail he titled “FanFan’s California Adventure,” Sakai asked for questions from the audience.
One fan asked about the relationship between Usagi and his son Jotaro and whether they would ever reveal to each that they know they are father and son. “Usagi doesn’t tell him because he doesn’t want to ruin his relationship with Mariko,” Sakai said. As for revealing the truth, he was unsure.
One fan asked about the origin of “Usagi In Space.” Sakai revealed that the series came from his desire to draw more dinosaurs. His choices were either do a Usagi story in the Jurassic period or do a Usagi story in space with a dinosaur planet. There have been three “Space Usagi” miniseries so far. “I have one more six-issue series that I’d like to do,” Sakai said.
Sakai announced he had another alternate universe Usagi story he wanted to tell, set in the world of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” “It would be set two hundred years before Wells’ time and would involve a very old Usagi fighting a Martian tripod,” Sakai teased. “So yeah, ninjas and tripods.”
The cartoonist also revealed that he once planned to produce an anthology of alternate universe Usagi tales by different artists, but that the project was scrapped for time. His favorite of the stories? “A 1920s descendant of Usagi… a pulp hero… Shadow of the Rabbit.”