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.
BUCKLER: You did a lot of reinterpretation of classic and contemporary samurai stories in the first years (Lone Wolf and Cub, etc.) Do you still rely as heavily on these stories today in the continuing journey of Usagi?
SAKAI: Not really, actually I never relied that much on the classics, most of the stories are entirely from new cloth. But there were a few (because I grew up with those stories) that I wanted to bring part of those stories into Usagi: such as "Silk Fair" in Book 2 — that was inspired by Yojimbo, the movie by Akira Kurosawa starring Toshiro Mifune. But there is only a few bits of Yojimbo that are in it, if you were to read the story, you wouldn't really associate it with Yojimbo at all. There are a few things, such as it takes place during a silk fair and Usagi, like the Mifune character, climbs up a big watch tower. Other than that, the stories are very different. There were times when I would put Usagi in as the hero in a Japanese folktale, I did that for a few stories later on, such as "Momo-Usagi-Taro" in the Dark Horse run. Usagi is telling a traditional folktale to a bunch of kids, and he puts himself in as the hero.
BUCKLER: You have a very spare and clean style with your illustration. Could you talk about where your style comes from, what your influences were?
SAKAI: [Laughter.] Where my style comes from? It comes from so many places. My first big inspiration for art was Steve Ditko through his Spider-Man and Dr. Strange run. I grew up looking at manga, though back then we just called them Japanese comics. When I discovered the European folks, that was a revelation. I was first introduced to Moebius in Heavy Metal, and that just blew me away. A lot of my inking style is influenced by Milo Manara's early work. Alfonso Azpiri's color work is amazing. I love Hermann's storytelling. There are just so many different artists that have inspired me. Much of my attitude towards writing and drawing comes from Sergio Aragonés. I work with him closely on Groo the Wanderer, and a lot of that rubbed off on me. He's very dedicated to the craft. He's the one who actually pushed me to do my research.
BUCKLER: Can you take us through creating the backgrounds and environments for Usagi? Do you have any basis for them or are they actually taken from countrysides and cities of 1600s Japan?
SAKAI: Well, I try to make it as realistic as possible, so the farmhouses and the environments are as true as I can get it. There are some things like the clothing that has to be adapted for my comics. Usagi's sandals, or waraji, are based upon the Japanese sandals, but has to be simplified because Usagi has stubby feet. But I try to make it as true to the culture as I can. Besides kite making, I have done stories about sword making, various festivals, pottery making, and taiko drums. I even did a story about Japanese seaweed farming. I am probably the only Western cartoonist who has done a story about that. I do as much research as I can as far as the culture, the history, and the environment in Japan at that time. I try to put Usagi in a realistic world: that might be what differentiates Usagi from so many of the other fantasy series. He is in an actual historical environment.
BUCKLER: Your characters have a large range of emotions. What is the hardest part about putting a human emotion to a cartoon animal?
SAKAI: Oh I think it is easier. I think with the cartoon animals I can really exaggerate their emotions. For me it is much easier.
BUCKLER: What brought about the streamlining of the look of Usagi from the first early few sketches from Nilsson Groudthumper etc, that you provided for this new edition?
SAKAI: You mean the artwork is simpler?
BUCKLER: I mean when he was in the gingko leaf robe (from prototype images included in the special edition), he looks more streamlined now after that, almost more deadly.
SAKAI: Usagi has changed over the years and most of it is unconscious on my part. He acquired a little bump on his nose in Book 5 or 6. Before that, he had a straight Roman profile. But you know those are all unconscious on my part. The stories have gotten much more dramatic, along with that, his look has changed. He is not as cute and cuddly as he was when he first appeared. Back then his proportions were much more like a cute little fuzzy animal, he was three or four heads tall. Now he is more like five heads tall by Book 7 and that streamlining goes with the story I have been telling. I am really happy with the way the entire Usagi saga has developed over the years, because when I first created Usagi, I wasn't sure which way to take it. A humorous series? That seemed obvious when using animals. Or a purely historical series, or a purely fantasy series. I finally decided of a cross between a fantasy and historical series, that is, it is a fantasy series but with historical roots. I own the character, I am the writer and the artist, and can do any type of story I want. I have done romances, I have done action/adventure, I have done mysteries. It's great, I can do anything I want. I even did a science-fantasy series with Space Usagi.
BUCKLER: The cover gallery in the new edition is a great place to see all the cover art in one place. Could you talk about your approach to doing a cover?
SAKAI: When I can, I will illustrate a scene or convey the mood of the story. But often we'll need a cover, but I won't have a story [laughter], and I may do an interesting visual and build a story around that art. Or do a completely generic cover, completely unrelated to the story. I just try to make the cover as different from the previous one as possible. I had input from Kim [Thompson] for the first seven books. "Oh you did a cover with a lot of fighting, the next book should be a bit different than that." Or "You already had a cover with Usagi just standing around, let's do some action this time."
Kim was a great editor when I was just starting. He gave me my freedom yet gave really good advice.
BUCKLER: What character's story, besides Usagi, is the most pleasurable for you to see unfold? And why?
SAKAI: Gen the bounty hunter. Next to Usagi he is my favorite character. I like him because he is so different from Usagi. He is a rhinoceros because, physically, he is so massive next to the bunny. That makes a nice visual contrast. There is also the contrast of personality: Usagi is a more traditional type of samurai; Gen is more grubby and money-loving. [Buckler laughs.] And yet they get along and I kind of like Gen for that.
BUCKLER: You seem pretty strongly connected to your fan-base. How do you balance where you would like Usagi to go with what your fans might request?
SAKAI: You know actually my fans have had minimal input to the storyline; I may get their advice occasionally. Actually the Usagi website www.usagiyojimbo.com has sometimes been invaluable in finding research for me. I remember when I did Grass Cutter (Dark Horse). It is a legendary sword, which actually did exist. I needed visuals of Grass Cutter and it took fans three months before they actually found something. But eventually they said, "Here it is." The fan-base is just wonderful; I have amazing readers. I have met so many of them personally because I do travel. When I went to France, one of my readers took time off from work and took me around. I was in Croatia two weeks ago, and a guy from Slovenia came over and met me there, it is just incredible. I have the best fans in the world, literally [laughter].
BUCKLER: Has this landmark of 25 years brought you any revelations about the journey of Usagi?
SAKAI: Not really [laughter]. I keep going one issue at a time, I don't think about big landmark issues. When the 100th Dark Horse issue came out, my first thought was "Just ignore it, it's 100 issues, just keep going to another story," and it was my Dark Horse editor, Diana Schutz, who said, "Not every series reaches a hundred issues. Lets do something special." We had a Usagi roast, with lots of guest artists like Sergio, Frank Miller, Guy Davis, and Jeff Smith. The Dark Horse issue #141, which is scheduled for spring 2011, will mark the 200th issue of Usagi. Right now I have no plans to do anything special.
BUCKLER: The extras with this new Special Edition include a piece you did entitled "How I Do Usagi." Could you talk about that and how that came about? Also, could you tell us who the gallery of friends are that you show your work to in it?
SAKAI: [Laughter.] If you remember the first Spider-Man Annual [laughter], there was a three or four page sequence by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko on how they create a Spider-Man comic, but it was mainly tongue-in-cheek. At that time I was still going to junior high school and I had no idea how comics were made, but it was so tongue-in-cheek that it really told me nothing [laughter]. I did "How I Do Usagi" the way I would have wanted it to be. That was like 30 years ago. I tried to be as specific as possible: How big the sheets of paper are, what type of ink, what type of pen, the lettering, everything, I wanted to be as specific as possible. I work with Stan Lee, lettering the Spider-Man Sunday newspaper strips, and I actually told him about that and he was surprised and he said "Really? You actually took that seriously?"
But that is the way I wish it had been done. Back then there were no conventions and very few magazines, if any, on comic books. It was a very big mystery to me. And those people are guys in Hawaii I grew up with. There is Dennis Fujitake, Gary Kato, Dave Thorne, I think Sergio (Aragonés) is in that page too. My wife is in it and my daughter is the one ripping up those pages [laughter].
BUCKLER: Do you feel like there is anything we haven't covered, anything you want to add?
SAKAI: It is a handsome book; it is beautiful. I am glad Fantagraphics put this out. The first thing I thought was, "Oh this is a heavy book!" [Laughter.] Wow, when you see everything in one place like that, I was surprised how much work I had done with Fantagraphics. It turned out great. Jacob [Covey] did the art design, didn't he?
SAKAI: He did a great job.
Oh, one more thing. This book also reprints the [comic] stories with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A big part of Usagi's popularity was his appearances on the TMNT television series. People still come up to me and say, "I first learned about Usagi from the Ninja Turtles." That is because back then, 26 years ago, there were just a few black-and-white comics and the Turtles came out, and that sparked the black-and-white explosion. Usagi and the Turtles started in the same year, almost the same month, so we had that connection.
BUCKLER: I had definitely remembered a white bunny in the TMNT cartoons from when I was a kid and it wasn't until I got here to Fantagraphics that I realized it was Usagi.
SAKAI: It was at a San Diego Comic-Con that I was just talking to Peter [Laird] and they [Laird and Kevin Eastman] had a deal for a TV show and merchandising, and he said "Oh, would you want an Usagi toy in the Turtle line?" And I said "Sure." It was as simple as that.
BUCKLER: What was the experience like working with an animated Usagi as opposed to a comic book Usagi?
SAKAI: It was kind of neat just to see him move. I met with the producers about Usagi's voice and we weren't sure. So we talked about everything from; maybe he should just speak Japanese and have everything subtitled [laughter] to a complete turnabout and give him a Brooklyn accent [laughter]. We settled on one and I am happy with that.