Stan Sakai Reunites Usagi Yojimbo and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

It was 33 years ago that comics legend Stan Sakai set out to do a comic based on Japanese folk hero Miyamoto Musashi. Luckily for comic book fans, he sketched this renowned rōnin as a rabbit and Miyamoto Usagi -- the star of Usagi Yojimbo -- was born. Not that his Musashi comic wouldn’t have been awesome -- his work with Dark Horse Comics Publisher Mike Richardson on 47 Ronin basically answered that in grand fashion. Yet it's his seminal work on the Usagi Yojimbo series that has garnered him a long list of awards and accolades, and at least part of its success and visibility can be attributed to a well-established relationship with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.

When the two properties popped up in 1984, Sakai and the TMNT duo recognized that there was clearly some common ground between their characters, and began collaborating. It’s hard to deny that the tortoise and the hare have some history, as do the samurai and the ninja. Usagi has met the Turtles in comics and cartoons multiple times over the decades, and this July will see the five anthropomorphic martial artists convene yet again in both mediums, in a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi Yojimbo one-shot story titled "Namazu;" written and illustrated by Sakai, and published by TMNT license-holder IDW Publishing.

Sakai spoke with CBR to outline what we can expect from the new crossovers, as well as discussing a bevy of further topics including three unreleased Usagi projects, why there has never been a Usagi animated series and Sakai's current favorite comics. Plus, we've got the debut of two exclusive interior pages from the one-shot.

CBR: Usagi Yojimbo and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have a long history together. How did you meet Eastman and Laird in the first place? What were the first crossovers?

Stan Sakai: Usagi and the Turtles started off about the same time, in 1984… I think the Turtles were published a few months before Usagi, but basically, 1984. And at that time there were very few black and white comic books. There was Elfquest, Grendel, Cerebus, of course, and just a couple of others. There weren’t that many so we supported each other. I wrote them letters, they wrote me letters, and we became friends. They were in the East coast and I am headquartered out in California. So, we never met until the San Diego Comic-Con. It was our third or fourth meeting at Comic-Con -- they already had the TV series -- and I was talking with Peter Laird and he just turned to me and said, “Do you want to make an Usagi toy?” That was it, as far as merchandising goes.

The first crossover in comic books was a Donatello special that their studio, Mirage, published. It was just a random drawing, a quick sketch that I did. I was surprised they published it. I was a bit ticked off because if I had known it was going to be published, I would have done a much better drawing. So, we’ve always had a connection… almost from the very start. And of course, Mirage Studios 16 issues of Usagi, as well as a couple of Space Usagi [mini]series.

Bobby Curnow at IDW approached me and said, “Are you interested in doing a crossover for IDW?” I jumped at the chance. That book, "Namazu," is coming out in July.

Usagi is also going to show up in season 5 of the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. Why did it take so long?

There had been talks from the very beginning when Nickelodeon first got the series, but we never came to terms. However, this is the last season of the current incarnation of the Turtles and we just had to have Usagi in there. He was in the original 1990s series from Fred Wolf and, of course, he guest-starred in quite a number of episodes from the 4Kids series in the early 2000s. So, Usagi just had to make an appearance in the third incarnation of the TMNT on TV. We came to very good terms and we get along great with Nickelodeon. Usagi will be in a three-part story arc beginning July 23. That’s the last day of Comic-Con, by the way. It’s very nice, they take all these things into consideration.

Usagi has been to space, travelled through time… Where haven’t you taken him yet, that you would still like to?

I’m a big fan of mystery, whodunnits and that type of genre. I actually had a 21st Century of descendent of Usagi’s planned out. She’s an investigative reporter and she gets caught up in a whodunnit, Agatha Christie-style mystery called Ten Little Critters. I just drew the first chapter, but I abandoned it because I got so busy. I’d love to finish that up. There is also another descendant of his [whose story] takes place in the 1930s, and is a pulp, The Shadow-type of character. Guns blazing and everything. And I would love to do another Space Usagi miniseries and just wrap up the entire storyline.

I seem to remember Usagi had some connection to Critters from back in the day.

Well, Usagi appeared in an anthology called Critters. This is back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s and it was published by Fantagaphics Books and edited by Kim Thompson. That’s pretty much where Usagi first got his start. He first appeared in Albedo comics in a few issues and then regularly as one of the features in Critters.

EXCLUSIVE: Interior art from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai.

Tell us about the Usagi Yojimbo Dojo forum, and how they have helped you with Usagi comics.

The website has been around since the 1980s. It was one of the first comic book websites. This is even before I had access to the internet. It was created and is run by fans and they’re great support. I did a story called Grasscutter and it was a major undertaking. It took years and years to research and write. Grasscutter is a sword that was given to Japan by the gods. It actually does exist… or did exist. There’s some debate about that. But I wanted a drawing or a photograph of the original sword.

Now, it’s been portrayed in Japanese woodcuts and anime but it’s always been shown as katana, a Japanese single-edge sword but I knew it was a tsurugi, which is a Chinese-style, double edged sword. It took about three months for these Dojo members to ferret out a picture and to get it authenticated. They say it’s in a temple but it’s hidden away and it has not been seen for generations. I really wanted to make it authentic. I try to do as much research as I can within reason. And that story starts off with the creation of the Japanese islands and then recounts how Grasscutter was found in the tail of a eight-headed, eight-tailed dragon and went on to how it was lost at sea during the Gempei Wars, which is Japan’s civil war. That story won the Eisner Award. It was used as a text book in Japanese history classes on the college level. It also received the Parent’s Choice Award and a couple of other awards, domestically and foreign.

So, the Dojo members are incredible. They’re great support. I’ve traveled to foreign countries and Dojo members have taken the day off to show me around. One took a whole week off and traveled with me through France. They’re good guys.

Seeing as you include as much real history and myth as you can in Usagi stories, have you ever taken Usagi to Mount Koyasan? Or have you considered it?

I have not referenced that. I would like to… actually I would like to visit that area. I’m sure it’s beautiful. There’s a Buddhist temple at the top of the mountain and it has Japan’s largest cemetery, which ironically is supposed to be gorgeous. It’s among the trees with pathways. I haven’t done a story about that. I had written a story about Aokigahara, the forest at the base of Mount Fuji, whose trails are so convoluted that people go in and they can’t find their way out. It’s a favorite spot for suicide. That inspired me to do a section in Usagi’s world called the Tangled Skein, and that is where all the ghosts and demons and monsters of Japanese mythology exist. Once in a while some of them get out.

Have you ever included the Ainu people in an Usagi story? I can imagine you drawing them with their distinct traditional clothing.

Their clothing, their facial features, their use of tattoos… they are amazing. I have not written a story with the Ainu, however, I did reference the Yemishi, the Ainu's ancestors. They lived in a wider area during Prehistoric times but were pushed to Hokkaido. So far Usagi has not made his way to Hokkaido. Although, he does come from the Sendai Province, which is Northern Honshu. He hasn’t come across any Ainu yet. But he could. It’s an interesting culture.

What can you tell us about the story of the one-shot, and the upcoming three episodes of the TMNT animated series that will feature Usagi?

The three-part story arc on the Ninja Turtles animated show features another of my characters, Jei. He wants to capture a young prince, Kintaro the Golden Boy. Of course, Usagi and the Turtles have to escort him safely to his destination. I’m credited with writing the first part of the story arc. I also did some artwork for the flashback sequence, that I’m looking forward to seeing. It’s a really good story. The animated [series] writers really like Usagi, so they put a lot of care into the story.

As far as the IDW special, its called Namazu, which is the name of a giant catfish that lives under the Japanese archipelago. The movement of this catfish is what causes earthquakes. Now, in prehistoric times, a god had pinned the catfish with a giant stone and in my story a part of the stone is broken off and had been passed down for generations. But during that time the power of the stone has weakened, or the catfish has gotten stronger, to the point that it is threatening to thrash and destroy the islands completely. This is all based on Japanese folklore.

Jei is once again the villain. He believes himself to be an emissary of the Gods sent to destroy all evil in the land. He wants the Japanese islands destroyed because with all the people gone, he believes evil will be eradicated. The Turtles are summoned to Japan by Kakera, who is a Splinter-like character with mystical powers that flow from nature. Usagi recognizes the Turtles but these are not the Turtles he had met before. The Turtles I had drawn in early incarnations were always the ones Kevin and Peter had created, the ones with the red bandanas. These are the licensed Turtles with the different colored bandanas and different personalities. So, at first they are wary of each other and they have to overcome that. And, of course, there’s a fight between Usagi and Leonardo. The climax takes place at Kashima Shrine, where the stone is kept, in an epic fight in the middle of huge earthquake.

EXCLUSIVE: Interior art from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai.

Have you ever been approached to do a Usagi animated series?

We have been optioned for both a TV series and a feature film a number of times… anywhere from doing traditional animation to computer, to puppet, to live action. But almost everything gets optioned, so we just keep our fingers crossed.

What is your favorite character that you have created besides Usagi?

Hermy from The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy. Hermy is a guinea pig. I really like Hermy. I like drawing him and I like writing for him. Their story takes place in Europe during the same time as Usagi and at one point I had wanted to bring Nilsson and Hermy to the Japanese islands to meet Usagi. I had the story all written out but never got around to it. It just one of those projects that fell by the wayside. Just about every creator has those.

Do you still do lettering for artists other than yourself?

I just letter for Sergio Aragones on Groo the Wanderer and I still do hand lettering. I used to do it for the Spider-Man Sunday newspaper strips. I would work directly with Stan Lee and it was always fun getting to see Stan every week. He’s a terrific guy. I just got too busy and had to give that up. But I still do lettering for myself and Sergio.

Do you read comics? If so, what have you been reading lately?

I don’t read that many comics any more. I’ve been reading more novels. Some comics that I have been enjoying are Cullen Bunn’s books, especially The Sixth Gun. That series has ended but the trades are out. It’s an incredible series. Cullen is a terrific writer. Also, Black Hammer from Dark Horse is just wonderful. Anything by Geoff Darrow I immediately pick up. There are a few creators that I love to follow.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi Yojimbo one-shot is scheduled for release on July 26 from IDW Publishing.

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