Artists honor 30 years of Usagi Yojimbo in Baltimore Comic-Con yearbook

Baltimore Comic-Con, being held Sept. 7-8, sports an impressive guest list of comic book creators. This year it welcomes Joe Hill, Neal Adams, Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Brian Bolland, Amanda Conner, David Petersen, George Perez, Walt Simonson, Louise Simonson, Mike Mignola, Keith Giffen, David Finch, Adam Hughes and many more.

One guest is particularly notable: Stan Sakai, whose signature creation, Usagi Yojimbo, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. To help celebrate Usagi and his creator, the convention will offer a special yearbook featuring the long-eared samurai as drawn by a variety of creators who are attending the show.

"Last year Baltimore Comic-Con started doing an art book celebrating the art of an independent creator/creation," Thom Zahler, creator of Love and Capes and the designer of the art book, told ROBOT 6. "Last year we started with Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows. This year, we're continuing that with Stan Sakai and Usagi Yojimbo. A select group of the attending artists are invited to offer their interpretations of Stan's classic character."

I spoke with both Zahler and Brad Tree, director of operations for the convention, about the project, which will be on sale at the show. I also spoke with Sakai about it; look for that interview later today. My thanks to Thom and Brad for answering my questions and for also supplying some of the art from the book, which you can see below.

JK Parkin: With this being the second art book you guys are doing for the con, tell me a little bit about where the initial idea for last year's book, honoring Frank Cho, came from. Also, how did it do at the show?

Thom Zahler: It was all [BCC founder] Marc Nathan's idea. He'd talked about doing a convention art book, but wanted to do something special. A lot of it was hatched over drinks at the bar at HeroesCon. And I remember being in the parking lot of a Target when he called and said "Hey, what if we focus on a creator?" I was honestly a little reluctant about that, but he convinced me, and I'm glad he did. Marc has a relationship with Frank Cho, so he became our crash test dummy for the project.

I believe it did pretty well. Definitely well enough to do another one. One of the other things we did that made it engaging for the fans was our Signature Quest. For various reasons, a couple pieces didn't make it into the 2012 book, so we turned them into prints. To get the print, attendees had to get the book signed by 15 or so artists. Once they did, they got the tip-in print.

I know it generated a ton of traffic at my table.

Brad Tree: While one goal of the book is to honor Stan, there is also a goal to introduce fans to artists and creators they may not know. If you are a fan of Usagi, this is a great chance to talk to Craig Rousseau and learn about The Perhapanauts, or Chris Kemple and the Red Vengeance, or another dozen guys that have their own characters that get to appear in the book with Usagi.

Besides this being the 30th anniversary of Usagi Yojimbo, why else did you decide to honor Stan Sakai this year?

Brad: This is often a combination of a relationships, a key anniversary and, in the end, it is a gut feel. Marc and I and our top guys know our fan base, and we know our potential contributors, and we think we know what will be fun to draw. In the case, Stan is a wonderful man who has been a guest of ours in the past, and with him returning, it all clicked into place.

How did you go about selecting the artists to contribute pieces? How did they react when you told them about the project and honoring Stan?

Thom: We go through the guest list and start picking people we'd like to see or think would be interested in contributing. All the people I had direct contact with were pretty excited about getting to play with Stan's Usagi Yojimbo characters. There's a lot there, from funny and fuzzy to action and drama that you can spotlight. I think it was the kind of thing that everybody could kind an artistic handhold to grab onto.

Brad: Some of our contributors started sharing with the social media world that they were working on Usagi pieces. As the word spread, a number of guys called or emailed us to see if they could contribute. That Stan was a hero and an inspiration to them, and they would be honored to be a part of the book. It was really cool to see that happen.

How closely did you work with Stan on the project? For instance, did he have any input on the artists chosen to submit pieces?

Thom: I worked with him quite a bit. One of the things we try to do is make it as easy for our honoree as possible. So, we went supplied him with an artist list, but if he had anyone he knew wanted in, or anyone he wanted to suggest, we contacted them as well.

Stan supplied the main cover art and the VIP cover (thanks to Chris Sparks, who let us use a beautiful sketch that Stan did for him as the alternate cover). I designed everything and made sure to get him to sign off on everything. Stan was nice enough to supply scans of the cover in the process stage, so I got to write the blow-by-blow account of how Stan crafted the cover art, too.

Ultimately, Stan approved anything. Unless there's a typo, in which case, that was all Brad.

Brad: Any typos or errors are completely my fault!

Are there plans to sell the original art each artist submitted?

Brad: Yes. There will be an auction Saturday afternoon at 5 p.m. at the show. We encourage all of our attendees to participate.

For fans who can't attend the show, is there a way for them to purchase the book?

Brad: Our goal is to sell all of our books while at the show, but should there be some left afterwards, we will explore ways to make them available. I would encourage interested folks to sign up for our mailing list at our website baltimorecomiccon.com!

I know it may be early, but are there plans to continue this tradition next year? Are you already scoping out other comics celebrating their anniversaries next year?

Thom: Are you kidding? I've already claimed 2016 as the 10-year anniversary of Love and Capes! So, yes, we're continuing. We're already looking at who will be the focus for next year. Obviously, we don't want to spoil anything.

Brad: This is part of the show. We have visions of an even bigger book, although I have not told Thom about that yet :) By sticking to the comics medium, and the general comics-centric spirit of the show, the book is good for the fans, the show, the honoree and for the contributors.

Check out some of the artwork from the book below, and watch for my interview with Stan Sakai later today.

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