Stan Sakai Interview

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(WoW #295)

Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo turns 100! Well, the book does at least. And this is something to be celebrated! Westfield's Roger Ash took this opportunity to talk with Stan about the book and what the future holds.

Westfield: Usagi first appeared in 1984. Did you have any idea that 22 years later you'd still be doing the same character?

Stan Sakai: [laughter] No, not at all. I was just happy to get next month's story done. The 100th Dark Horse issue is coming out in January, but Usagi has had two other publishers. All together, it will really be the 160th issue.

Westfield: What can you tell us about issue #100?

Sakai: Y'know, I don't know that much about it because Diana Schutz, my editor at Dark Horse, is coordinating everything and it's pretty much, from what I gather, a roast of Usagi and myself. It has a lot of guest artists and writers - Sergio Aragonés, Jeff Smith, Frank Miller, Guy Davis, Rick Geary, Jamie Rich, Andi Watson, Scott Shaw, Mark Evanier - guys I know and whose work I admire. It's very exciting for me. Even Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson has written a story.

Westfield: Was it Diana who decided on the contributors, did they come to her, or do you know?

Sakai: We talked about it. I had a list of people, friends of mine, and she pretty much got them all. They're guys whose work I admire. It's really neat.

Westfield: Can you tell us anything about your contribution to the book?

Sakai: I'm doing a framing sequence at the beginning and the end, and right now I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm waiting for their work to come in so that I can do my part around whatever they've written. Work has been coming in slowly. Guy Davis' piece is just hilarious. Sergio Aragonés did a story about traveling together, and Jamie tells what it's like to work with me.

Westfield: So this very much breaks out of the normal mold of the series.

Sakai: Yes. This is definitely not a typical Usagi Yojimbo comic book.

Westfield: What can you tell us about what comes after issue 100?

Sakai: It's pretty much a continuation of what I've been doing. I'm working on Usagi 101 right now. Usagi's poisoned by a ninja dart. He's on the brink of death. He has a fever dream. There's an assassin after Usagi and he catches up with him in 102, and Usagi has not fully recovered. Then I plan to do a story arc involving one of the most popular villains that I've created named Jei. He's a demonic spearsman. I'll delve a bit into his past and I'll take it from there.

Westfield: Even though Usagi has been around for 100 issues, do you still see this as a book that someone could pick up and understand what going on?

Sakai: Yeah. Actually it's very accessible to new readers. Also, I think there are 20 trade collections. Fantagraphics and Dark Horse keep them continually in print so it's easy to get the past books and catch up. Usagi is a pretty accessible book to jump in to. There are some places, like in the middle of a huge story arc that's difficult, but I alternate long story arcs with short stories so there are a lot of done-in-one issues. The short stories are a good place for new readers to jump in, whereas most of the older readers tend to like the longer story arcs. They delve more into characters and I do a lot more research into the stories themselves.

Westfield: If someone was just picking up Usagi for the first time, what would you want them to know about the book?

Sakai: Usagi is a samurai rabbit. He lives in an anthropomorphic 17th century Japan. It's a time of turmoil. After years of civil war, Japan is at peace now so there are a lot of warriors, like Usagi, who are suddenly unemployed. I try to do a lot of historical as well as cultural research for the book. I just did a story about the tea ceremony. It follows the ceremony between Usagi and another character. I did a lot of research, even participating in a ceremony. I have also done stories about kite making, pottery, festivals, sword making, and the great civil war. Most of all though, Usagi is a good adventure series.

Westfield: Do you have any favorite characters to work on?

Sakai: Well, Usagi of course. He's always my favorite. Jei, who I mentioned before. Usagi's friend, the bounty hunter Gen, is a rhino and I like drawing him because he's so massive. His old teacher Katsuichi Sensei who taught him what it is to be a samurai and taught him the swords. There are a lot of characters. [laughter] Tomoe Ame, Usagi's kind of on and off again love interest.

Westfield: At this point, could you see doing Usagi for another 22 years?

Sakai: Yeah. Actually I've been laying down groundwork on stories that probably will not be finished for years to come. There was one story arc called Duel at Kitanoji, which involved the duel between his teacher and another samurai. That was first set up in Usagi #6 from Dark Horse. That duel did not actually happen until, I think, Usagi #60. It's the same now. I've been laying down groundwork for stories that probably will not be written for another 5 years or so.

Westfield: Have you ever had the inkling to do anything aside from Usagi?

Sakai: I do other things too. I do maybe one other story for another publisher each year. I also do lettering for Stan Lee on the Spider-Man Sunday strips and for Sergio Aragonés. I do artwork for advertising; t-shirts, record album covers, that kind of stuff. But with Usagi I like it because I have complete control over everything. I write the stories, I do the lettering, I do the artwork. It's all mine.

Westfield: Do you have any plans to bring back Space Usagi?

Sakai: I want to. There's another Space Usagi story, a six-issue story arc, that I want to do, but it's just finding the time the time to do it.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Sakai: Hopefully people will give Usagi a try. There must be a reason why it's been around for more than 20 years. It's published in about a dozen different languages. In fact, I'm doing a book signing tour of Belgium and France in a couple weeks.

Usagi's won a few industry awards; a few Eisner Awards, Spanish Haxtur's, Ink Pot, even the National Cartoonists Society Comic Book Award, and a few library awards. So it's mainstream awards as well as comic book awards.

If people are interested in learning more about Usagi, there is a web site that's created and maintained by fans and it's incredible. It's www.usagiyojimbo.com. I'm frequently on the discussion boards. People from all over the world go there which is, frankly, just amazing.