This interview was conducted by Fantagraphics' Eric Buckler, making his Flog debut. Thanks to Eric and Stan!
Stan Sakai has crafted the adventures of his Ronin Samurai rabbit, Usagi Yojimbo, for more than 25 years. He has made Usagi one of the most recognizable "funny animals" or anthropomorphic characters in the comics universe through his unique storytelling and peerless craft. Usagi wanders through Edo period (1600s) Japan, running into the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird) and Groo The Wanderer (Sergio Aragones). Sakai's work has been praised by the likes of Stan Lee and been awarded three Eisners for storytelling, overall talent, and lettering. Fantagraphics released a special commemorative edition of the first seven books of Usagi's travels last month.
ERIC BUCKLER: What is it like to revisit some of those first stories?
STAN SAKAI: I re-read them and I was quite pleased at how well they read. These were stories that I had done 25 years ago, even more. They really read coherently and they still play a part in the Usagi saga that I have been telling. You can tell how much the character has matured since then, of course, but I am quite pleased at how well the stories worked.
BUCKLER: What do you think Usagi Yojimbo has contributed to the pop-culture image of the samurai?
SAKAI: I think it has made comic-book readers more aware of the true samurai culture, even though we are talking about a rabbit samurai. It is because I have tried to keep the spirit of the samurai in my stories, both in the research of the history of Japan as well as its culture. I try to convey that.
BUCKLER: How much of you is in Usagi? Do you and the rabbit share a lot of qualities?
SAKAI: He is very idealized. I would like to think that Usagi has a bit of me in him. I have worked with him for a long time, and I think I have infused more of myself into him. You can see that his personality has changed from the early days; back then he was a bit more stoic, a bit more reserved. Now he is more engaging, he just seems to be more well-rounded now. I think it has to do with both my getting familiar with the character as well as — like you said — perhaps there is part of myself included in Usagi.
BUCKLER: So you feel like you guys have aged well together? [Sakai laughs].
Which elements do you think set Usagi Yojimbo apart from other anthropomorphic characters both in comics and elsewhere?
SAKAI: Well he is unique; physically there is no other samurai character that has his ears tied. So that sets him apart, as well as, I think, putting a character in an actual historical and cultural setting. I built walls around it and the walls are made by the history and the culture of Japan. But I try to keep it as a fantasy series. I can't really tell you what sets him apart from other anthropomorphic characters. I like to think it's the quality of the artwork as well as the writing. My wife was telling me that the artwork might attract new readers, but it's the quality of the writing that keeps them coming back every month.
BUCKLER: What was the most memorable moment for you in the first seven books as far as story genesis?
SAKAI: My favorite story is the kite story and that is in Book 5, and that for me was a turning point. That was the first time I did a lot of research for my stories and that story took about a period of two or three years. I had bought a book on Japanese kite making, and thought, " Oh, it will be nice to make a story about kites one day." But it wasn't until a year or so later that I was sketching in my sketchbook, and drew Usagi being lifted by a kite and that sparked the idea; I can do a story around this drawing. I dug out that kite-making book and did a bunch more research, and the story about kites came together. It's still one of my very favorite stories. It is told from the viewpoint of three characters — a kite maker, gamblers and Usagi. I told the process of making an odako, giant kite, for a festival. The gamblers come to town, and start cheating the people. Usagi comes to see the festival, and exposes the gamblers. Then the action begins.
BUCKLER: I love it when you go through and follow the manufacturing of the kite. That is really great.
SAKAI: For me I think that was a big turning point in my approach to doing Usagi; before then it was pretty much an action/adventure series, a fantasy series. But it was with the kite story that I really did put a lot of research and time into my storytelling.
With the Great Depression looming and about to define America's next decade, three strong-minded women related by marriage form an uneasy household in the summer of 1929. Forced by her husband Harry to uproot their two small children from Illinois and take up residence in East Texas, Marie Hennessey struggles to find a place not only within her mother-in-law's home but in a Southern town whose troubling unfamiliarities compound her marital woes and homesickness.
Maude Hennessey has little patience for Marie and her children, and even less for her pretty but petulant daughter, Rachel, who fights and flirts with a dashing pilot from New Orleans. Colliding issues of faith and sexual mores, racial proprieties and class distinctions, fuel a constant bickering through the narrow corridors of the house, all three women heedless of the love that has brought them together. Maude seems cold and distant except toward the ladies of her club; Rachel's affection for her doting aviator rises and falls capriciously; and Maude seeks to understand an absent husband, while deciding how to receive her employer's slow seduction.
As summer wears on, the conflicts among these women are exacerbated by a child murder that sends shockwaves of fear and mistrust throughout the community, particularly between the town's white residents and a black shantytown across the river. An ever-increasing sense of dread culminates in the arrival of a terrible storm whose aftermath reveals poignant and unexpected truths these three women living at a time when America was poised on the brink of economic catastrophe.
In The Last Rose of Summer, Monte Schulz has created a story about three women and their interior and exterior lives, each of whom symbolizes quintessential American notions of family, love and community. In so doing, he reminds us all of where we come from and how we got here. With an elegiac voice that evokes an era in its final bloom, and a thoughtful rendering of the public and private contentions that ruled the day, The Last Rose of Summer becomes an instant American classic.
Read the entire first chapter! Download the EXCLUSIVE 38-page PDF excerpt (246 KB).
Today's Online Commentary & Diversions from Publishers Weekly, John Porcellino and other sources:
• List:Publishers Weekly Comics Week posts the results of their Fifth Annual Critics Poll, with 5 of our titles placing with 2 votes each (and a bunch of honorable mentions):
"Castle Waiting Volume 2by Linda Medley... The simplest actions — moving into another room, raising a child — are enlivened by being placed in an exceptionally illustrated fantasy environment, full of unusual outcasts who've formed a family. The cast is immensely appealing, both visually and through well-written dialogue. [...] Always a pleasurable read underlined by a genius level of artistic skill." – Johanna Draper Carlson
"A Drunken Dream, Moto Hagio [...] Beautiful, gripping and delightfully weird, reading this book you can see her fingerprints all over shojo manga as we know it. At the same time it works as a solid refutation of the old canard that shojo is nothing but sparkly 14 year-olds with love-angst and magical powers." – Kate Fitzsimons
"High Soft Lisp, Gilbert Hernandez... Rosalba 'Fritz' Martinez is one of the loopier characters from Hernandez's expansive Love and Rockets universe, but her ditzy, oversexed antics are peppered with poignant moments of loneliness and longing. As always, Hernandez sticks a beating heart at the center of his raunchy pulp adventures." – Jason Persse
"Love and Rockets: New Stories #3, The Hernandez Brothers... Los Bros. Hernandez show they are still at the peak of their cartooning form. In 'Browntown' Jaime mines family history, cruelty and the hinted-at pasts of his well known cast for an unforgettable story of innocence lost." – Heidi MacDonald
"Weathercraft, Jim Woodring... Jim Woodring first hit his bullseye so long ago, and has been splitting his own arrow right down the middle so many times, that he's easy to take for granted. Don't. Weathercraft is a magnificent and slightly wicked little book: a whimsical farce about some of the nastiest, darkest metaphysical stuff there is, a banquet for the eyes that starts growing tendrils once it's inside you." – Douglas Wolk
• List: Also at Publishers Weekly, Moto Hagio's A Drunken Dream and Other Stories is selected by Kai-Ming Cha for Critic's Picks: Manga in 2010: "Most of shojo manga today are derivative of Hagio and her contemporaries — and pale in comparison. This collection of stories takes from the oeuvre of Hagio, one of the first in a pioneering generation of manga to be created by women."
• List:John Porcellino's Favorite Comics of 2010 include some of our older books:
"Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1939-41 ... What happens when you throw a bunch of sometimes-talented, always-desperate cartoonists in a room and force them to churn out page after page after page of comics at a deviously inhuman rate? [...] Oh my Lord. This sooper-fun and enjoyably bizarre collection of early 'Pre-Code' superhero comics features work by Jack Kirby, Basil Wolverton, Will Eisner, Fletcher Hanks, and Jack Cole, among many more lesser-known artists..."
"Abandoned Cars by Tim Lane... [Lane's] excellent, down and out, Beat-inspired tales of post-war/modern day America are unique to the form, and his grappling with what he calls the 'Great American Mythological Drama' yields some of the most literate, stark, and surreal comics I've ever read. [...] Great book."
"Where Demented Wented: the Art and Comics of Rory Hayes... The comics themselves, though undeniably crude in the early years, have a rock solid EC-inspired prose style, which when combined with the brutal/cute drawings makes for some compelling reading. As time goes on, Hayes' imagery becomes more and more refined, and there are pages in here that are just simply beautiful. A real surprise, and a book that kept me thinking for days afterward."
"Caricature by Dan Clowes... Reading [these stories], I was immediately taken back to the good old glory days of Alternative American Comics. I remember reading stories like 'Immortal, Invisible' and 'Blue Italian Shit' with my jaw hanging open... you could feel the boundaries of comics expanding with each panel. These particular comics remain some of my favorites of all time."
• Review: "The story itself is absolutely insane. [...] There's no real rhyme or reason to the proceedings, and that's a big part of the fun. You don't know what outrageous scenario will greet you at the end of the next page. [...] Millionaire keeps his foot on the gas and writes with the spirit of Chuck Jones and the rest of Termite Terrace lurking in his pen. [...] If you're looking for madcap action, Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird should be right up your alley. It certainly was for me." – Rob McMonigal, Panel Patter
• Plug: Illustrator Eric Orchard shares his love for the work of Jaime Hernandez: "There's an unbelievable charm to his characters and an intoxicating rhythm to his panels. They are some of the best, most enjoyable comics to come out in the last thirty years."
• Anecdote: At Gapers Block, Ruthie Kott presents a funny story told to her by Paul Hornschemeier: "On two separate occasions I've had people argue with me that I am not me. There is apparently some existential comedian writing the script of my life for moments like these..." (Via Robot 6)
• Survey:The Beat's year-end/looking-forward survey of comics pros (part two) includes input from Megan Kelso and Shaenon Garrity calling our publication of Moto Hagio "the biggest story in comics in 2010"
• Coming Attractions: More reporting & commentary on our Carl Barks news from ICv2, Augie De Blieck Jr. at Comic Book Resources, and Graeme McMillan at Robot 6
Signed copies of Ray Fenwick's new book Mascots with an exclusive print (shown above) are available today from Tiny Showcase! (Hmm, it's not supposed to be up for another 4 hours, but the first few have already sold...)
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