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Saturday, June 11th, 2011
2:57 am

Historical fiction is cartoonists Stan Sakai's and Chris Schweizer's stock in trade: The latter is best known for his graphic novel, Crogan's Vengeance, the first of 16 volumes that will trace a family throughout the centuries, beginning with the tale of the pirate Catfoot, while the former's acclaimed Funny-Animals-in-Feudal-Japan series, Usagi Yojimbo, has been chronicling the adventures of the titular rabbit samurai in single-issue and trade paperbacks for 25 years (almost as long as Schweizer has been alive). Schweizer, who teaches at the Savannah School of Art and Design in Atlanta, met up with Sakai at a library conference in Springfield, Mass., where they carried on the following conversation, ranging from the perils of research to process to the all-ages comics comeback to the perennial question of just where creators get their ideas.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: The first thing that I wanted to talk about was how you got into comics in the first place. Was it a specific goal? Did you stumble into it?

STAN SAKAI: I both stumbled into it, and got into it by design. I grew up in Hawaii and there is no comics industry in Hawaii, and when I was growing up — you know, I'm really old — I remember buying Fantastic Four #2 off the racks, because DC Comics had raised their prices to 12¢, but Marvel was still at a dime, so I saved 2¢. I grew up reading comic books, but it wasn't until much later in high school that I actually realized, "Hey, there are actually people making a living drawing these comics!" — Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby — and this was about the time that Marvel was listing creators. That's how I learned to associate Stan Lee with comics and Jack Kirby with comics. Before then, comics just appeared magically on the stands every Friday. [Schweizer laughs.]

The thought was, if you wanted to work in comics you had to live in New York. But I wanted to do artwork — commercial artwork or freelance artwork. And it wasn't until much later that I discovered you could make a living doing comic books. I moved up to California about a month after I got married. A company wanted to start a line of junior sportswear and they brought myself and a couple of other guys to create their line. I stayed with them for about a year, and then I quit to do freelance artwork.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Were you doing comics during this time?

STAN SAKAI: Well, in the '70s, there were things like fanzines, I guess nowadays they call them independent comics, but back then they were fanzines; cheaply printed — well, not always cheaply printed — small-press comic books. And I would contribute to them. I did that kind of comics, but my paying work was mainly advertising art, record album covers, T-shirt designs, whatever I could find to pay the rent.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Well, that's how people who have the intention to do creator-owned comics start out these days, doing the minicomics. I guess it's the same thing: sharpening your teeth on those, learning storytelling structure, learning your aesthetic. There's the adage that your first 1,000 pages are terrible, so it's best to get those out of the way in some capacity or another.

STAN SAKAI: Right, and start doing the good stuff. When I was doing freelance work I met Sergio Aragonés, and he invited me to a C.A.P.S. meeting, The Comic Arts Professional Society. It was an organization of print cartoonists started by Sergio, Mark Evanier, and Don Rico. There are so many comic-book artists in the Los Angeles area, but we never socialized. I joined the second year. I was told that the first meeting was in a church in Hollywood, and it was booked right after the Gay Christians Organization or something like that. Through the grapevine I learned about Steve Gallacci in Seattle wanting to do an anthropomorphic-comic anthology, but not having enough material. I sent him a Nilson Groundthumper story, a Funny Animal comic with bunnies, and he published it. Then he said, "I have another issue — what else do you have?" I sent him the first Usagi story.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Nilson Groundthumper — a lot of the elements from that story ended up in Usagi. Did you do much with that character or with that storyline prior to Usagi?

STAN SAKAI: Well actually, the entire Nilson story was going to be a great epic. The premise of the story — it was going to be a 2,500 page story — would tell why there are Funny Animals, why there are real animals, and the rise of the humans. It was going to be my epic, my Lord of the Rings! It was going to end with a climax with a huge castle with the big war between the anthropomorphs and the humans and everyone is going to die, and it was going to be glorious! And Usagi was going to be a part of that storyline. He was to be introduced at about page 1,000. But I fell in love with that character after doing that first story, so I pretty much put Nilson on the side, and concentrated on Usagi.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: That's why the Lord Hikiji's character is a human. Only after hearing about the Groundthumper stories did that ever make sense, because I could never figure out why you had changed it to have one human.

STAN SAKAI: Yeah, Lord Hikiji was going to be the great menace in the Nilson Groundthumper story. The final remnant of Nilson is that Lord Hikiji was shown in one panel in Usagi as a human.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: The animals in Usagi also have tended to look less animal-like over the years. In Usagi Book One, Usagi is clearly a rabbit. He's got the skull structure of a rabbit. Gen is much more of a rhinoceros. Side-samurai look very much like their individual parts. What prompted the move? We recognize that they're animals, but we're not concentrating on what type of animals they are.

STAN SAKAI: Right. Well, I think it came as my style of drawing changed. It was unconscious on my part. Usagi's proportions have changed; he has a bump on his nose — suddenly. [Laughs.] People pointed that out to me, and I said, "I never noticed!" [Laughs.] The types of animals that I use now are more generic, rather than specific animals, like Carl Barks' generic dog-people that populate his backgrounds. I remember looking through some of my early stories, and yeah, I have a cow in there, but I haven't drawn the cow people in a long time. Back then I was concentrating more on animals, rather than concentrating on character designs.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Also, my goal is not to demystify, but I'm curious as to how much of Usagi you had planned out, because so many of the characters that feature very prominently into Usagi's life — especially Jotaro — they are introduced incredibly early on in the series. The vast majority of the characters are released within the first few issues of Usagi — comparative to the larger scale. Did you just decide that you really liked those characters and wanted to continue using them?

STAN SAKAI: Well, that's the great advantage of having a creator-owned series, where you have one creator in charge of the life of the entire series. When I introduced Jotaro, I knew he was Usagi's son, but it wasn't revealed to Usagi until about five years later, or even longer, actually.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I was curious as to whether or not you knew going in that you were going to be doing that? There was groundwork set, and it never felt like —

STAN SAKAI: Well, first of all, they look exactly alike. [Laughter.] I did set up groundwork for that, but it was something I wanted to reveal much later on in the series. Actually, there were times when I doubted that I'd ever reach that point. Back then, I was just concentrating on getting the next story finished, whereas now I'm thinking of storylines that won't be resolved for about another five or 10 years.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I'm doing the same thing. Basically every time I do research, I'll start to see something that I know could maybe influence a different book, and so I try and think about inserting an aspect of that, even though I don't know exactly how it's going to pan out into the book I am currently working on. So that years from now people might read and think, "Oh! He had it all planned out," even though it's really not the case, but I do have some very specific ideas as to what to work in there.

STAN SAKAI: Right. Well, I'm amazed with your work; it's so cinematic! Your lines are just gorgeous. I used to use a brush, but I just got lazy. I don't like washing out the brushes. [Laughs.] So that's why I switched to pens, but I love the quality of the line-work that you get with a brush.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: The pens are so much faster. I really like my brush style, but any time I'm sketching, any time I'm doing anything that's not a page, I'm always using pens because I just love how intuitive they are. With a brush I've got to work with it. [Sakai laughs.] At dinner we were talking about the Crogan family tree, the framework for the series and how it really came about as a fluke: drawing a pilot and then a pirate, and because they looked similar, trying to see how they might be related — an afternoon's work with a pen and a calculator setting up this whole series. Usagi's initial creation, from what I understand, is not that much different in that he, too, manifested himself in a drawing. You just happened to draw a rabbit samurai, am I right about that?

STAN SAKAI: Well, I grew up with samurai movies. Just down the street from me was the old Kapahulu theater that showed samurai movies every Saturday. I wanted to do a series inspired by the life of Miyamoto Musashi, a 17th-century samurai. I was just sketching in my sketchbook and I drew a rabbit with his ears tied up into a chomage, a samurai top-knot, and I loved the design. It was graphically striking. It was unique. So, I just kept him as a rabbit.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: What amazes me is that something that just happened to be a quick sketch, that you might have done in an afternoon or something like that, would lead to a life's work. And I feel like my thing with the family tree is not that dissimilar, and with me, I assumed that I would be able to find other types of books. Even if I had never come up with a family tree, I would have found other stories to tell. Do you feel that same way? Would you have found a different —

STAN SAKAI: Oh you know, I might have, but before Usagi I wanted to do superheroes. I grew up reading superhero comics. After drawing Usagi and Nilson, I went on a different path, into more Funny Animals.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: You've been able to work a lot of different story genres into the Usagi framework. You've got mysteries with Inspector Ishida, you've got horror stories, you've got — to some degree — romance. You've got comedy, you've got war, you've got a lot of different specific stories. With Space Usagi you have science fiction. Are there any types of stories that you've had the desire to tell that the structure of Usagi has not permitted?

STAN SAKAI: Um, Civil War.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: American Civil War?

STAN SAKAI: Yes, American Civil War. That was a passion of mine for a while. I subscribed to all of the Civil War magazines and went to battlefields whenever I was in the East.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Have you ever thought about trying to do anything with a Civil War book, or is that just too much to add to the plate?

STAN SAKAI: That's just too much to add. I've just been really busy with Usagi. Whereas in your case, you're doing all the research with these different time periods. Crogan's March that you are working on now, with the Foreign Legion. You had to do a lot of research for that.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: The plus side is that I really love researching. The downside is that I have to do entirely new research for each book. And I can't simply build on the research that I did in the previous books. So, that becomes difficult.

STAN SAKAI: Each one's a completely different subject.


STAN SAKAI: Now for Crogan's March, did you get books? Did you watch Beau Geste?

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I watched Beau Geste. What actually made me want to do it in the first place was seeing movies like The Majestic and Secondhand Lions where there are these obvious homages to these old '30s and '40s high-adventure North African movies. I realized after watching these movies that, while, like everyone else, I recognized those homages, I was unfamiliar with any of the movies they were referencing and I didn't know where to find those '30s and '40s high-adventure movies.

Among the ones that I found was Beau Geste. And the book is one of my favorite books, hands down. It starts off very frightening. They come across this fort, and all of the people are dead, and they don't know what's going on, and it's sort of this mystery that unravels over the course of the book and the movie. But, I really loved the idea of having a horror story set within the framework of a French Foreign Legion story, which is what this book originally started out as. That was going to be my theme. And it ended up, of course, as all things do, straying in an entirely different direction, but I still have a few of those elements there.

There is a section where they are in a cave and they're getting picked off one by one and they've heard that the cave is haunted by a djinn, which is an Arabic demon or spirit, and there are other clues throughout the story that lead you to think that it may be something else. But one of things that I'm trying to do is something I learned in no small part from reading Usagi, which is that there should be no throwaway dialogue. If anything specific is mentioned it will likely lead to something else.

Reading Usagi for me is a lot like watching a detective show, in that I know to pay careful attention because if someone's name is mentioned or if someone talks about, "Oh, I have to do this, or, oh, I have to do that," that will in some way come back later on in the plot. And anytime you do that it's incredibly satisfying for me as a reader, and presumably for your other readers as well. So that's something that I am very consciously trying to do with this book. Make sure that everything talked about relates to everything else and that there are no scenes for the sake of there being that scene — just heightening that storytelling.

STAN SAKAI: Well, for me it's because I'm limited to a specific number of pages. You know, I've got to figure out what's the most important thing to put in those pages, because otherwise I could go on for much longer.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: And I wanted to talk about your introduction to publishing. You said you started out doing the fanzines, and then working with Albedo. How did that eventually lead to your doing Usagi? And at what point were you able to be a cartoonist full-time?

STAN SAKAI: After leaving the garment industry, I was doing freelance cartooning, freelance artwork. I've been very fortunate in that the first Groundthumper story was the only thing I ever had to really pitch, and by pitching I mean submitting something. After that, publishers have come to me. I'm really fortunate. A couple of issues of Albedo came out and then Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics, co-publisher at Fantagraphics, wanted to create a Funny Animal anthology. He invited myself, Josh Quagmire and Steve Gallacci to contribute to Critters. Usagi was one of the more popular characters, and spun off into his own series. We did a summer special, just to test the waters. It did well, so we went into Usagi as a regular series.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: What is Usagi's publishing schedule, currently?

STAN SAKAI: It's published by Dark Horse and I do nine or 10 issues [a year].

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I knew it wasn't quite monthly, but I knew that it was very close.

STAN SAKAI: It takes me about five weeks to do a complete issue. That's from the writing to the finished artwork. That's a good pace for me, because it gives me time to do other projects. I still do lettering for Stan Lee on the Spider-Man Sunday newspaper strips; I do lettering for Sergio and Mark when there's any new Groo project. I also do one or two fun little comic-book works, for other publishers. I did a Hulk story for Marvel and I just finished a pin-up for a Simpsons/Futurama book, and little things for other publishers. And for me, that's a good schedule. We also do one trade-paperback collection a year. And this year I am also doing a fully painted original graphic novel, titled Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai. Yokai are the ghosts, goblins and monsters of Japanese folklore.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: You're using watercolors?

STAN SAKAI: Ink and watercolor.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: The pages that I've seen look gorgeous. Is it dealing directly with Usagi's storyline? Because it seems like it's focusing on the mythology of individual —

STAN SAKAI: Yes, the regular series and the Yokai can be read independently, but it also advances the Usagi story. There are revelations about another character named Sasuke that happen in the story that you don't need to know the background of Sasuke or Usagi though it helps to appreciate the story better.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: And you say, "stand alone" and that's one of the things that I think is strongest about Usagi. That you can — and I have, it's how I got into it in the first place — pick it up with any particular volume and you don't have to be familiar with the characters.

STAN SAKAI: Right, you can get into stories fairly quickly.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: You regularly re-insert the little asterisks with what things are, no matter how many times it's been in. It never feels forced, and you always reintroduce characters. If — is it Kitsune?

STAN SAKAI: Kitsune, yes.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: If Kitsune comes in, then you establish very early on that she is a pickpocket. If Gen comes in, you establish very early on that he's a bounty hunter. Is that intentional on your part?

STAN SAKAI: That is very intentional, because, like any book, we need new readership. Readers fall out of reading your books for some reason or another, so we always need new readers. They have to be introduced to the story and to characters as quickly as possible. The way I operate is that I do short stories that lead up to one long epic and then go back to short stories. The shorter stories are a good place for new readers to come on board, but the older readers appreciate the longer stories, with the complexity, the character development and such. That's been my plan for quite a while.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Well, it's really nice. It's something that I think comics should do more of. It's one of the reasons that we designed the Crogan books the way that we did, so that you could pick up any one of them, so that if you enjoy that one, you might want to pick up another one. One of the things that terrifies me most, though, is: What if they like that one, and say, "Well, that's good enough." Are you familiar with the Dungeon books by Lewis Trondheim? For a long time, I only read two of them, because the other ones featured different characters and I figured I'm good with these characters and if they put out more with them, I'll read those. And it wasn't until after I put out the first Crogan's book I realized that was a potential with mine and I got very scared.

STAN SAKAI: They were like Catfoot, but —

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Exactly. Some people — I did a signing at Free Comic Book Day, and a couple people asked if I was going to be doing other books with Catfoot. The original plan was that there would be some characters that had more than one book. The gunfighter is the right age to be a younger man during the Civil War. And the Rough Rider, you know, could, two years later, be involved in the Boxer Rebellion, and then 15 years later be involved with Pancho Villa. So, there would be a lot of situations where I could do that but one thing that I've been thinking about doing is shorter stories that are meant for introduction, to be collected in floppies, using characters that I've already researched. Because I've already researched the pirates, I could do a Catfoot story while I'm researching a future book, because one of the hardest things for me is that period of research and no output. Although I know it is important, I feel like I'm not contributing anything and that I'm just sitting around reading all day. Your research you tend to do while you're in the process of working on another book.

STAN SAKAI: Sometimes. Much of my research is done while I'm already working on another project, or it may take years to do. It took about five years to do the research and write the story for Grasscutter.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: And all of Grasscutter, all of the details in Grasscutter are based on legend and historical fact.

STAN SAKAI: It's history, yes. And actually, that's why I did so much research for Grasscutter. That's why we started putting my story notes in the back of the —

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: So they weren't in the earlier books?

STAN SAKAI: They were in some of the comic books, the Mirage comics. I did a story about the Tanabata Festival — the festival of the Weaver Star. I did a lot of research for that but I could not put all the information into the story, because it would just slow down the pacing. I put that as story notes in the back of the comic book, but it was never reprinted in the trades, which is actually going to be corrected with the new editions. People enjoyed the story notes in Grasscutter, so just put 'em in the back.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Right. I'm still planning on putting together a sketchbook that's an annotation sort of thing, but my biggest problem is that I'll note something and file it away, but not remember where I read it, or not write down where I read it. And then it becomes increasingly problematic to try and find that reference again. Especially if it was in a library book. When I was working on Vengeance, I had a stack of library books, two-dozen tall with Post-it notes all over the place, and luckily there is a lot of information on pirates out there. Not as much on pre-1940s Tuaregs, which makes it a little bit harder to do the Foreign Legion story, but the pirate story I could just snap my fingers and the sound would echo off a pirate book. For creating those story notes, are you taking more notes in preparation for the story notes than you might otherwise have done?

STAN SAKAI: A lot of times, yeah, but most of the time, I file it away in my mind, and that's where I get into problems — did I research it, or did I just imagine it? Now, one of the stories I'm doing is about soy sauce. There is a lot of different information on the modern procedures of soy-sauce-making, but not how it was made 400 years ago.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: You've got quite a few of those, sort of little tidbits of Japanese lore. Either a tea ceremony or how ink is made or —

STAN SAKAI: I was able to participate in a couple of tea ceremonies. I was a second guest at a ceremony with a master. I was very fortunate. They answered all of my questions very nicely. It's just that sitting with my legs folded under me for an hour... [Laughs.] Trying to get up... ow! I did a story about seaweed-farming that came about because my parents had visited a seaweed farm in Japan. They mentioned it and showed me pictures they had taken.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: My parents went to Trinidad not long ago. My father is a music composer and they were performing one of his operas down there with steel drums, and so he got really excited and my mother got excited as well, thinking that Trinidad was like a Bahamas-Beach type of thing, which it's not as much. And they brought back some stories that are just begging to be used in a story. There are gangs, the same way that there are gangs in a lot of these Central American countries that still do the drug-running and the kidnapping and ransom and things like that, except that they determine who is the head gang — who is going to be paid tribute by all of the others — by these steel-drum orchestra competitions. That they spend the majority of their money buying steel drums and paying for steel-drum lessons and practice all this, and each year there is this huge festival and the winner is the top gang.

And it's just so absurd that it's just begging for some sort of story treatment. Anytime I hear stories like that... it's really hard to not try to work them into whatever I'm working on right then. What's also amazing is that a whole story can shift around one tiny factoid that you might read or hear in a book. Has that ever happened with you?

STAN SAKAI: Oh yeah. I was watching a documentary, a TV documentary on the mountains of Japan and they had one line in it saying that at the base of Mount Fuji there is a forest whose trails are so convoluted that people go in and they can't find their way out, and they also mentioned that it's a favorite place for people to commit suicide. And I thought, "Oh, that's really neat!" So I took that idea and turned it into an area in Usagi's world called the Tangled Skein, and that's where all the ghosts and goblins and haunts of Usagi's world live. He escaped to the Tangled Skein after the Battle of Adachi Plain, and he met up with one of the Yokai there.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I know that there are some towns that are real. Are your regions and towns actual regions and towns or are they invented to suit your narrative purpose?

STAN SAKAI: Well, some are invented, and some are actual. I mentioned Sendai, which is the Northern Province of Honshu. I talked about a shortcut over the mountains in one of the earlier Usagi stories; places like that actually do exist. Of course, Edo was really the capital of Japan at that time. But, most of it is just pretty much made up. I do have a timeline of Usagi in history and his travels throughout Japan, but it's very loose in my mind.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Are there any larger shifts using that timeline that will alter the Usagi story sometime down the road? Any larger wars coming up —

STAN SAKAI: Not really. Currently, he lives in the winter/spring of 1606. Actually, you know, it was very loose in my mind. Someone had actually figured out all of Usagi's stories, where in history his stories take place.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: It's great when other people do the work for you.

STAN SAKAI: He had matched my timeline almost perfectly! Almost to an exact month!


STAN SAKAI: I have never told that. There are just hints that I've dropped, such as when Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun had stepped down a couple of years after he had become military dictator so that he could pass on the position to his son. That took place in a specific year — 1605, I think. I would drop certain hints like that, and they figured it out and put everything in a nice orderly timeline.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I know that art evolves organically over a long process. Has anything significant changed in your writing style or approach to how to do Usagi from the early comic version of "How I Make an Usagi Comic" [The Art of Usagi Yojimbo], has anything changed since then?

STAN SAKAI: Not really. I still do a script outline and the thumbnails, which becomes my final script, then it goes to the pencils, lettering, and, finally, the inks. The only thing that's changed is that I've gotten faster — or, that I've had to get faster. I remember early on during the Fantagraphics Critters days, I did an eight-page story in one month, and I thought, "Wow, I'm really blazing! Eight full pages!" Nowadays, you can't make a living doing eight pages a month.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Well, mine's sort of the opposite. I went from doing ridiculous amounts of pages in a day to now being lucky if I can get two or three — really spending all day working on them. I feel like that's a good thing with me, that maybe I was too haphazard initially, but it also terrifies me that if this rate of slow-down grows exponentially then my next book will take years. Which I don't want. I want them to come out yearly.

STAN SAKAI: Well that's why I need a great editor like Diana Schutz. When I'm behind on my deadlines, I would get a call from her. She reminds me of my deadlines so sweetly, but with that tinge in her voice, you know? When we scheduled Yokai, I told her I needed at least three months to finish it. She gave me two and a half. I finished it in that time, with a couple of days to spare.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: James [Lucas Jones], he won't push hard about it, but he will act increasingly exasperated as deadline time approaches. So far I haven't gone over deadline, but this will be the year to decide whether or not I do. I don't expect to, and I'm going to try really hard not to, but it means that I am going to have to do between 10 and 16 pages a week.

STAN SAKAI: Wow, that's almost a whole book for me.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: But, it's during the summer, when I'm not teaching.

STAN SAKAI: So your approach to Crogan is much different than my approach to Usagi. You do most of your work in the preliminaries. Your thumbnails are incredibly detailed. Whereas mine are little more than stick figures. In fact, a lot of my panels are left blank. I do most of the story and the artwork in the final stages.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Well, for me, I feel like my drawing — while I love doing it — is not my foremost concern. My foremost concern is the storytelling. The majority of my energy is put towards the pacing and which shots I'm going to be using and making sure that everything reads very clearly, because... we approach black and white on the two opposite spectrums: You use a lot of hatch-work to do multiple shades of gray and different values, and I like to stick to pure black or pure white, and sometimes making those forms overlap can be tricky while having everything remain clean. I don't want to have halos around the black shapes, and things like that. So the thumbnailing process for me is where I work all of that out, because it can be challenging and I do love the other parts, but once that thumbnailing is done, it's almost like going through the motions.

STAN SAKAI: I remember reading an interview with Alfred Hitchcock. He would put so much work into the preliminaries that once his storyboard was finished he almost lost interest in the movie.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: That's why I am glad that I do enjoy drawing, because otherwise that would be really hard. We were talking about animation earlier, and that's one of the reasons why animation pre-production is so appealing, but the actual execution of it is not so much. It is that, over and over, and over.

STAN SAKAI: Because you've already done all the work —

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: You've already done the fun part, which is figuring out what's going to go where. You are able to push that fun part to the last step, which is probably pretty smart. [Laughs.] Then you never get tired of what you're working on.

STAN SAKAI: Well, my thumbnails are more for the pacing of the story and for the final script as opposed to panel composition. I do the final compositions in the pencil stage.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I write my dialogue as I'm thumbnailing. Do you do the same thing?

STAN SAKAI: I do it too.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I think that a lot of writer-artists tend to do that, and I know a few people who have tried to move from just being an artist to being a writer-artist and still wanting to type up the scripts, because they are so used to doing art from scripts. But I find it so much more organic and better suited to the pacing.

STAN SAKAI: I've written stories for other artists and I would give them thumbnails. That is my final script.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Do you use the computer at all?

STAN SAKAI: I use the computer for Internet and word processing. That's about it. I've had Photoshop for about five years, but I have never installed it on my computer! [Laughs.]

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Really? See, I feel like I work very traditionally: I still do all my lettering on the paper. Everything that you see in the book tends to be on the paper, but the computer for me has sped up what would otherwise be my process so much. I do my pencils very small, almost like very tight thumbnails, and blow them up. Before I would just ink right over that, but now I end up tightening up the pencils on top and inking those, but also, for touch-up — I tend to notice the little things when I scan in the pages to upload them to the Oni FTP server. If the dialogue in the balloon is just a smidgen too far to the left, I can just move it right over, and I can also go in those places where the black or the white has gotten smudgy, I can go in and touch those up really well.

And for coloring, it's great. I use the computer to color everything, with a Cintiq, the ones that you draw with on the screen, but I've tried doing things without the computer, and even those few little steps make such a huge impact on the way that I go through it. I would be just completely lost without it. I'm also not that keen to adapt to new technology, so I wonder if we tend to find what works for us and continue doing so, regardless of what is introduced.

STAN SAKAI: I'm completely traditional. I love the feel of the two-ply kid-finish Strathmore and everything I do is on the original artwork. From the pencils to the inks to the Wite-Out at the end.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: That's something else that I try to do, is make sure that I do all of my corrections on the paper, because I used to do them and scan them in, and then I found my originals just weren't pretty. I'd leave sections of black open, and write, "black this in" and things like that. [Sakai laughs.] It's nice to have that big row of portfolios that are labeled that have the individual art that looks the same as the art inside the book.

STAN SAKAI: I use graphite pencils, rather than blue pencils because I like to have the original artwork look as pristine as possible.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Do you erase your graphite?

STAN SAKAI: I erase everything. That's the part I really hate! [Schweizer laughs.] I used to pay my kids 50¢ a page to erase them, but they hated it worse than I did.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: See, I'm the exact opposite; I use the blue pencil because I really want to see that process. My grandfather was a big comic-strip fan and had written Walt Kelly a letter, shortly after Pogo started, just saying that he admired the strip and thought that it a was great, and Walt Kelly, sort of as a thanks for the thank-you note, sent an original Pogo page —

STAN SAKAI: Oh, wow.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: — to my grandfather, which he gave to my father, and which we had in my house growing up. It was a perfect page in terms of which one it was, the characters and the way they were talking, but he used the blue pencil underneath and you could see all of the building of the characters and lines and in seeing that blue pencil, I knew that it didn't — I would ask my dad about it and he said, well, it doesn't reproduce when you make copies of this. Knowing that I was seeing that a cartoonist was doing what nobody else could see, I felt like that was the secret.

STAN SAKAI: You're in the loop. [Laughs.]

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: And that was the way that you were supposed to make comics, was to use these blue pencils. So even now there are hundreds of different ways that you can approach how to do it, but I think at the core I still have that "real cartoonists use blue pencils underneath" mentality, so I want to approach it that same way, because that was such a big influence on my childhood. I would get those extra-waxy Crayola pencils, the sky blue, out of the pencil boxes at school — I'd always run for that one — and then I'd try to ink on top of it with just a regular Pilot writing pen, and it would break up the lines so badly on top, but I didn't care, that was the way I wanted to do my comics. So I was glad to discover the Col-erase pencils, because they're a lot less waxy. The ink will actually lay down on top of it.

STAN SAKAI: Even for my color work, usually I do it in watercolor, as opposed to the computer.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Did you have a lot of painting experience, prior to doing —

STAN SAKAI: — I have a fine-arts degree, but I never did watercolor, it was mainly oils and acrylics. Watercolors came later because oils and acrylics just took too long to paint, whereas with watercolors it's immediate. I can do a watercolor page painting in a day or even less. When I was working on the Yokai book, the fully painted Usagi novel, and I could do up to four pages a day. With other mediums, I just can't do that.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Presumably, your fine-arts education has heavily influenced the way that you work on Usagi. Were there any comic programs available to you at that time, and had there been so, would you have been interested?

STAN SAKAI: [Laughs.] No. Comics were frowned upon.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: They were as well when I was an undergrad. It was really hard to do. I was a graphic-design major and the majority of my graphic-design work was very line-based illustration with hand-done text. I actually really got into hand-lettering and sound-effect type of lettering, because I really hated typography and it was my way of circumventing having to do those for assignments. All of my assignments would have hand-lettering in it — not beautiful sign-style hand-lettering — my old garish hand-lettering.

STAN SAKAI: My advanced painting teacher was an abstract expressionist, so everyone's painting had to be abstract expressionism. Anything representational was frowned upon. Comics were so lowbrow.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Yeah, we had a class that everyone called "drawing like..." and then the teacher's name. Which wasn't the title of the class, but we were expected to. I feel like that was a great opportunity for my coming in, because I knew that I wanted to do comics, but didn't really know how. And regardless of how many good books out there there are, the McCloud stuff, the Eisner stuff, the new one by Jessica Abel [and Matt Madden], I still really wanted hands-on experience. It's hard to get that hands-on experience when you're not already working. When you're a cartoonist you can talk to other cartoonists and get feedback and things like that, but if you're just interested in being a cartoonist, it's a lot harder to break those boundaries.

STAN SAKAI: Well, nowadays there is a lot of reference on the process of making comics. Back when I was starting out they did not have that. I remember I saw my first piece of original comic art — oh, this was when I was about 20 years old, someone had bought a Paul Gulacy piece somewhere, and this was before the Internet and everything, so that was the first time I actually realized, comics are drawn bigger! [Laughter.] The original artwork is much bigger than what is printed on the page!

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: And you bring up the Internet, that's been huge for me. Even not being a particularly computer-happy person. I don't have a Facebook account, I don't do a lot of the other things, I don't have a webcomic, but just the simple fact of the Internet existing has been both a benefit to me, in terms of finding and being able to acquire comic art that I might not have otherwise found that have been very influential, but also, meeting other people at a similar stage in their career. There are people that I am now friends with, J.P. Coovert and Eleanor Davis, people like that, who I met through the Internet. It just sort of happened that we ended up living in similar areas, but I would find somebody's work on their website and really like it, and maybe send them an e-mail, and maybe get an e-mail back. You know, ostensibly the same things could have been done with letters, columns, years ago, and has — and I'm sure that that is the way that that's developed — but it's so much faster now.

STAN SAKAI: Oh, yeah, it's immediate!

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: It seems to take less time to get projects off the ground and to start garnering an audience than it used to. And I think that's one of the reasons why you see so many newcomers coming straight into the book trade. That's something else that I wanted to talk about, because for me the book market was the only real publishing strategy that we ever considered. Going to the floppies wouldn't have been financially feasible, to break the book into multiple things, because they're designed to be one story. It just made more sense to do that. You came in on the entire opposite end, where going to books wasn't feasible, and floppies were —

STAN SAKAI: Right, well, when Usagi first started going to the trades — the collections — there were no graphic-novel sections at the bookstores. However, there were trade-paperbacks sections. Trade paperbacks were really popular, with books like 101 Uses for a Dead Cat and Kliban's Cats. That's why Usagi is in that strange format. It's not as big as a graphic novel. We kind of made a little niche in the market and kept it like that.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Trades were making me think of some of the trades that I had from the '80s, one of them being the Ninja Turtles — Laird and Eastman were contemporaries of yours. Do you find that you were more influenced by your peers and those that were immediately before you, than by people who had been putting out comics a long time previous, or is it half and half, or are you not —

STAN SAKAI: I think it's half and half. My big influence was Steve Ditko, during his Spider-Man and Dr. Strange days for Marvel.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: That's similar with me. The Spider-Man Marvel Masterworks I got as a kid and that's how I think of my action sequences — very deliberately, plotted out — you can see Spider-Man is on a wall, and then he jumps to the floor, and then he jumps up to the ceiling, and there is a very clear progression from panel to panel as to what's happening. Which is sort of the opposite of Kirby, which sets the move for an action sequence and gives you the idea for it, but it's much less —

STAN SAKAI: It's more heavy on the power and the action. Ditko was very cinematic, and you could actually see a progression in his moves. It was very nice. Like I said, Ditko was my first comic-book influence. Later on, it became Kirby, even still, later on; it was the European books. Sergio Aragonés is a big influence. Not so much as a style, but as the approach to creating comics. He's the one who actually pushed into me to do my research. Even though Groo is a broad humor comic, he does a lot of research. If you look at the ships before Groo sinks them, you can see the rigging and everything. You can actually build a ship just from his design.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: He called me out on my rigging, looking at it. He said, "You don't have nearly enough!" To be fair, the rigging that's there, I think is right, but I did leave off all the things on the sides, so that you can see through it. It's hard to do all those lines with a brush, it's just too much. But, yeah, his ships are just gorgeous. And his battle sequences are amazing! I can't even comprehend how to do those.

STAN SAKAI: Actually there was one sequence in my first Nilson Groundthumper story, where Nilson was fighting a monster, and it flowed through about half a dozen panels. And Sergio acted it out just to make sure everything was right, even the way the hand rests on the staff and everything.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I do that. It'll probably change eventually, but anytime I'd have any sword-fighting scenes I'd want them to be right. I'd have my yardstick, and I'd fling it behind and move it forward, and think, "OK, would I lunge with my left leg or my right leg?" I don't know, I have to get up and act out the action sequences to try and get them to make sure that they work.

STAN SAKAI: Right, right. You have to do that.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: What were some of the other influences? It's mostly stuff that you read as a kid and then —


CHRIS SCHWEIZER: The Europeans, are they the ones that —

STAN SAKAI: The European stuff. My favorite samurai artist, or artist of the samurai genre, is a Belgian named Michetz. He does a series called Kogaratsu, and it's just wonderful. He does so much research on his artwork, it's phenomenal. Azpiri — I love the Spanish artist Azpiri's painted work, he has beautiful use of colors.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Oh, if I were to work in color, the color that captures me more than anything else — have you seen the Beladone books?

STAN SAKAI: Yes, yes. I have those in French.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I have those in French, as well. I love them as well. His palette is just perfect. It reminds me a lot of Franco Zeffirelli, both in his movies, but also in his operas. I saw a production of La Bohème that had that same palette. All warms with occasional spots of brilliant reds, or blues or golds. And then the rest being this mild sepia that is just absolutely fantastic. So, I look t0 the Europeans for color a lot, but so often they all work in four-color, and so the ink style is so much different than what I can ever use.
STAN SAKAI: You're right.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: First Second just put out Bourbon Island 1730 and it was difficult for me to read at first, because I'm so used to seeing [Lewis Trondheim's] work in color and he still approached it with that, or, it seemed to me that he still approached it with that same sensibility, only it being black and white. It was harder for me to tell what was going on in the first few pages. But there's that looseness to it that I feel, or sparseness to it, I guess — sparseness to the line-weight — that I never feel I can work into my own comics. And so often when I'm reading comics, I'm not reading them as much to enjoy them, although I do enjoy them, but to see what I can learn from them. And that's the hardest thing, when I find something that I love, but can't use.

STAN SAKAI: Since we're talking about the early days, one of the biggest advantages for me was timing. Albedo came out just about the same time that the Ninja Turtles came out. We are both celebrating our 25th anniversary. The Ninja Turtles sparked that huge black-and-white explosion in the '80s. Usagi was at the beginning of it, and the Turtles pretty much carried Usagi along. They were a big influence on Usagi's success. There were a lot more black-and-white books that came along after that that just disappeared.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: The black-and-white explosion — the readers that brought in, do you think that they were looking for a different type of comic than what was existing?

STAN SAKAI: You know, there were two different types of comic-book buyers during the black-and-white explosion. Some were the people who really enjoyed the comic books, and there are the others — speculators, hoping that something they'd buy would turn out to be the new Ninja Turtles. But, like I said, even though there were a lot of good black-and-white books at that time, most of them just disappeared. I think because Usagi was at the beginning of the black and white craze that it stood out, and that's one of the big reasons why it's still around.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Were there any concerns about doing things in black and white before it had been proven to be commercially viable?

STAN SAKAI: You know, I remember at the first San Diego con that we had copies of Albedo #2; we could not give away copies. But the next year they were going for $100!

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Was it because it was in black and white?

STAN SAKAI: Because they were black and white. Back then there was just a handful of black-and-white books. There was ElfQuest, Cerebus, Love and Rockets.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Love and Rockets, was that even going on then?

STAN SAKAI: That was going on, yes. And Matt Wagner's Grendel. That's about it. And the Turtles, of course.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I'm trying to think of what's comparable to that sort of publishing now, because there doesn't seem to be anything that is comparable. We've got webcomics and we've got minicomics.

STAN SAKAI: Nowadays, it's easier to be noticed; however, it's harder to be published, because print books just do not sell as much. Publishers can't afford to risk a comic book for a newcomer. But, it's difficult to invest money in a full-blown trade. In your case you started out with a graphic novel.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I did. I was really lucky. But I had done a few minicomics for the love of doing them and to have stuff to trade. Minicomics are invariably a money-loser. You almost never make back what you spent printing them up. And definitely not the more ornate ones that require die-cutting and things like that, just because of the time involved. I put together for SPX a couple of years ago a 300-page rhyming minicomic that was four perfect-bound little volumes, each the size of a business card that slipped into this slipcase that had this fold-over flap and all these other things, and each piece of paper was cut to make 28 pages. Each one took about six hours to assemble. In terms of time management, that's about the worst thing you can do as a cartoonist, is to spend all of your time working on these.

But, I think that those, from what I've seen, tend to create validity for the artists that are doing them to the other cartoonists their age. It shows that they're serious about what they're doing. That they're willing to put in that legwork. And I think to some degree that shows to the publishers as well. Not necessarily for the ornate working, but the editors that I know, most of them want to see that people finish things. They're not going to offer a book based on a strong portfolio, they want to see if you can finish something. Even if that something is an eight-page comic that you put together yourself, the simple act of completion is such an important step to get published these days.

STAN SAKAI: The best thing you can do is leave something with a publisher — even if it is a minicomic. It gives an air of professionalism or legitimacy to it.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: It does. And I think it gives you as an artist a sense of professionalism. You talked about finishing that eight-page Albedo story and how that was this huge feat, and I felt the same way when I finished my first mini, because I had done tons and tons and tons of comic pages that were roughly set in the middle of my story and ended well before the end of my story. I wanted to draw this particular action sequence or capture this conversation or stuff like that, practicing more that anything else. But I'd never really completed a story, and so the first story that I did after I decided I wanted to be a cartoonist gave me the confidence to do a 12-page story, and then a 24-page story and then a 300-page rhyming minicomic.

And all of those made me feel prepared to tackle this larger historical project because it was something that I knew I wanted to do eventually, but was also sort of terrified of. It was very daunting in its scale. It's something that now I feel very confident about. I hope that it'll be good and I'll do everything that I can that it'll be good, but I know that I can get it done, which is something that I didn't know a few years ago.

STAN SAKAI: Well, there is that wondering, because like me, you do everything yourself. My editor, Diana, doesn't see the story until she gets the finished project, so sometimes I wonder if the story is any good. There was just one case, where I turned in a story and I wrote a note saying, "Read this as soon as you get it. I want your input on this." My first editor at Dark Horse was Jamie Rich, and he was great, because as soon as he'd receive a package from me, he'd read it, call me, and I'd have his input immediately.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Were there ever any situations where you had to change anything?

STAN SAKAI: Just once when I was doing Usagi for Fantagraphics. One panel had Usagi cutting a guy's head open. There were brains flying out. There was blood spurting out of his ears —

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I noticed that the blood is a lot less cartoony in the early books.

STAN SAKAI: Yeah. Kim [Thompson], my editor, called me and said, "This might be a little extreme," but even before he called me, I had shown it to my wife Sharon, and she said, "It's a bit too much." By the time Kim called me on it, it had already been changed.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: The way you talk about sending those in, that's similar to mine, I think. James didn't see the book until I gave him the whole thing.


CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Without the framing sequence [a modern dad telling his kids about their ancestors]... I knew I was going to do the framing sequence, but I hadn't written it yet. And it's sort of the same thing now. He's coming to Atlanta in about a week or so, and so I'll show him what I have so far, but I doubt he'll have the time to actually sit and read it. I think that'll be once it's completely done. My hope is that I do a good enough job that he doesn't insist on any changes, because one of the bad sides about doing everything yourself is that you plan it to fit in certain parameters, and you really can't change much. You can't just get rid of a panel or add a panel without changing the entire book, which is all but impossible. It's not like a novel where you can add a line or take out a line or something like that. It's structured in a way that makes editing extraordinarily difficult, at least for me.

STAN SAKAI: Where do you see the future of book publishing going?

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: I'd like to see more books aimed at kids, or friendly for kids. Part of my presentation tomorrow is on comics that are actually appropriate for all ages. Comics aimed at kids, but that are palatable to middle-schoolers or to high-schoolers and to adults.
STAN SAKAI: You have an Eisner nomination for Best Graphic Novel for Tweens, is it?

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Yes. Tweens and teens. And the way that I'm approaching mine is what I always want to see. I write them for adults, but I make sure there is nothing in them that would prohibit kids from reading them. I think that kids are smart. They're a lot smarter than people give them credit for, and so because it's pirates, or it's a ninja, or something like that, in theory, the subject matter will latch them in and then I hope that the story will be enough for them to make it through, but I'm trying to write for adults so that whoever picks it up will enjoy it.

But there are a number of books out there that are like that. Aaron Renier's Spiral Bound is one of my favorites that I think carries across. Are you familiar with Eleanor Davis's work? She's done a few things for Mome, and she did that kid's book Stinky, but she's got a new book coming out called The Secret Science Alliance that is full-color and it's absolutely gorgeous, but I think that it's got the potential to be one of those books that's going to suck in a lot more kid readers, the way that Bone did. And the way that any number of other titles are, when they get into situations where they can be in book fairs and things like that.

My thought and my hope is that those readers will continue to read comics, and will read our comics so that we can make a living. That's the biggest thing: that, for years, kids were, to some degree, neglected, just by the industry at large. And I think we're starting to see a big shift away from that, with companies like First Second and Scholastic's line and things like that. I think that we're going to continue to see a shift towards all ages. Again, not just kids, but to where kids are included in the equation in a way that they weren't.

My generation of cartoonists, we don't really have any battles to fight. For so long people were trying to focus that comics can be literature and comics can be a valid art form, that now it seems that the majority of people tend to agree. Not everybody. I still have relatives, "Are you drawing Batman?" and stuff like that. At least most of the people who I know that are around my age that are making comics really don't feel the need to prove themselves or create stories that push the boundaries; they seem to be more just about the fact that they're telling stories — that they're working in comics. There isn't an underlying agenda that I think a lot of the earlier comics people had to deal with because there wasn't that artistic recognition, so thanks to you guys for fighting those battles for us!

STAN SAKAI: You write adult stories that kids can enjoy. For me, I don't write to adults and I don't write to kids. The stories I write are the stories I would like to read.

CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Well, when I say adults and kids, I write for what I would want to read and for what I would have wanted to read when I was a kid. I say it's for other kids so that they won't feel left out. But that's the real joy of cartooning, that you do get to focus on these things that you love. And you get to tell stories about whatever! You feel like doing a Godzilla story, you draw him in there! You know, it's really nice to have that freedom to basically do whatever you want, and to tell these stories. You may never have the chance to helm a Godzilla movie.

STAN SAKAI: Right, exactly. I've been very fortunate. My publishers have always granted me a lot of leeway. And basically I just turn in the work, and they publish it.
CHRIS SCHWEIZER: Yeah, it's a great gig!
Friday, February 23rd, 2007
3:20 pm
Stan Sakai Interviews From Around The World...
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then these scans are worth millions!

Planeta Gutter #7 (2007)

Aniway #10 (2002)

Dolmen #110 (2005)

Freibeuter #2 (2001)

MangasZene #11 (2002)

Scarce Annual (1994)

Trama #13 (2002)
Sunday, February 18th, 2007
11:52 pm

Quand le monde entier est représenté par des animaux, on arrive à lire des albums où l’on s’immerge complètement...

[When the whole world is represented by animals, one arrives at reading albums where one immerses oneself completely...]

Stan Sakaï nous propose de suivre les traces du Rônin Usagi Yojimbo, un petit lapin que beaucoup reconnaîtront après l’avoir aperçu de temps en temps dans certains episodes du dessin animé « les Tortues Ninjas ». Et pourtant, Usagi n’est pas né avec les Tortues Ninjas, mais en novembre 1984 dans un comics devenu introuvable. Désormais il est possible de suivre ses aventures aux Editions Paquet, qui comptent déjà neuf tomes et un dixième pour bientôt.

[Stan Sakaï proposes to us to follow the traces of Rônin Usagi Yojimbo, a small rabbit that many will from time to time recognize after having seen it in some episodes of the drawing animated "the Tortoises Ninjas". And yet, Usagi was not born with the Tortoises Ninjas, but November 1984 in comics become untraceable. From now on it is possible to follow its adventures to the Editions Paquet, which count already nine volumes and a tenth for soon.]

Mais qui est Usagi Yojimbo ? Sorti de l’imagination de Stan Sakaï, notre lapin se retrouve seul à la mort de son maître. Alors que la plupart des Rônins deviennent des bandits, celui-ci choisit de servir la juste cause et d’aider les plus faibles. Il aura ainsi à combattre tout au long de son voyage de vagabond des bandits de grand chemin, des généraux, ou seigneurs corrompus par l’argent et le pouvoir, mais aussi des escrocs, des ninjas, démons, et toutes sortes de personnes faisant du mal aux plus faibles. Mais afin d’accomplir ses missions, il se retrouve parfois aidé par d’autres compagnons qu’il rencontre en chemin comme le chasseur de prime Gen (représenté par un rhinocéros) ou bien encore par des Tokages, des sortes de lézards que l’on rencontre très souvent dans les pages d’Usagi.

[But which is Usagi Yojimbo? Left the imagination of Stan Sakaï, our rabbit only finds itself with dead of its Master. Whereas the majority of Rônins become gangsters, this one chooses to serve the right cause and to help weakest. It will have thus to fight throughout its voyage of vagrant of the highwaymen, the Generals, or lord whom corrupted by the money and the capacity, but also of the swindlers, of the ninjas, demons, and all kinds of people making of the evil to weakest. But in order to achieve its missions, it is found sometimes helped by other companions whom it meets in way like the hunter of Gen premium (represented by a rhinoceros) or even by of Tokages, of the kinds of lizards which one very often meets in the pages of Usagi.]

En conclusion, Usagi est une série de grande qualité, donnant un aperçu du Japon féodal, sous un trait animalier donnant une touche de poésie aux histoires. Une série à découvrir sans attendre et qui possède l’avantage d’être accessible aux plus petites bourses vu que les tomes coûtent à peine 4€.

[In conclusion, Usagi is a series of great quality, giving an outline of feudal Japan, under an animalist feature giving a key of poetry to the stories. A series to be discovered without waiting and which has the advantage of being accessible to the smallest purses considering than the volumes cost hardly 4€.]

BULLE D’ENCRE: D’où vous est venue l’idée de créer usagi ?

[BULLE D’ENCRE: From where had the idea just created to you usagi?]

STAN SAKAI: J’ai grandi en lisant des comics et j’ai voulu créer une série de comics inspirée par le samourai Miyamoto du 17e siècle. Un jour, alors que je dessinais dans mon carnet à dessins, j’ai esquissé un lapin avec ses oreilles nouées en « chonmage » - noeud en hauteur des samouraïs. J’ai aimé le design. C’était simple, mais personne n’avait pensé à le faire avant. J’ai alors transformé le nom du personage de Miyamoto en Usagi. « Usagi » veut dire « lapin » en japonais et c’est un animal très important dans les histoires traditionnelles japonaises. Ainsi, dans la mythologie, il y a un lapin dans la lune qui pile une purée de riz. C’est toujours le bon gars.

[STAN SAKAI: I grew by reading comics and I wanted to create a series of comics inspired by the samurai Miyamoto of the 17th century. One day, whereas I drew in my notebook with drawings, I outlined a rabbit with his ears tied in "chonmage" - node in height of the samouraïs. I liked the design. It was simple, but nobody had thought of making it front. I then transformed the name of the personage of Miyamoto into Usagi. "Usagi" wants to say "rabbit" in Japanese and it is a very important animal in the Japanese traditional stories. Thus, in mythology, there is a rabbit in the moon which crushes rice mashed potaties. It is always the good guy.]

BULLE D’ENCRE: Pourquoi avoir utilisé des animaux pour représenter vos personnages ?

[BULLE D’ENCRE: Why to have used animals to represent your characters?]

STAN SAKAI: Une fois que j’ai eu mon personage principal, il était plus sensé de le mettre dans un monde animalier.

[STAN SAKAI: Once that I had my personage principal, it was more judicious to put it in an animalist world.]

BULLE D’ENCRE: Quelles sont vos influences pour créer vos histoires ?

[BULLE D’ENCRE: Which are your influences to create your stories?]

STAN SAKAI: Mes influences ont plusieurs sources. Déjà, pour être un bon écrivain, il faut être un bon lecteur. Alors, je lis beaucoup. Côté influences artistiques, le premier artiste que j’ai connu a été Steve Ditko, qui a dessiné les premiers comics de Spiderman. Il y a aussi Osamu Tezuka, Milo Manara, Sergio Aragones et bien d’autres qui ont compté.

[STAN SAKAI: My influences have several sources. Already, to be a good writer, it is necessary to be a good reader. Then, I read much. Side artistic influences, the first artist which I knew was Steve Ditko, which drew the first comics of Spiderman. There are also Osamu Tezuka, Milo Manara, Sergio Aragones and well of others which counted.]

BULLE D’ENCRE: Prévoyez-vous un jour de mettre en couleur les albums d’usagi ?

[BULLE D’ENCRE: Do you envisage one day to put color the albums of usagi?]

STAN SAKAI: Usagi a été publié en couleur à 16 reprises aux USA. Lorsque j’ai commence en couleur, j’ai reçu beaucoup de plaintes. Bien que la version couleur était de bonne qualité, beaucoup de lecteurs préféraient Usagi en noir et blanc, alors je suis revenu à la version originale des histoires. Et donc en noir et blanc. Cependant je vais occasionnellement faire une histoire en aquarelle.

[STAN SAKAI: Usagi was published color with 16 recoveries in the USA. When I have start color, I received many complaints. Although the version color was of good quality, much of readers preferred Usagi in black and white, then I returned to the original version of the stories. And thus in black and white. However I occasionally will make a history in watercolor.]

BULLE D’ENCRE: Est-ce qu’une adaptation d’usagi en animation est prévue dans le futur ?

[BULLE D’ENCRE: Is an adaptation of usagi in animation envisaged in the future?]

STAN SAKAI: Nous avons eu plusieurs offres pour interpréter Usagi dans des séries télévisées ou en films. Jusqu’à présent, cela ne s’est pas fait pour plusieurs raisons. Cependant, Usagi est déjà apparu dans la série télé originelle des tortues Ninja et aussi dans la version actuelle.

[STAN SAKAI: We had several offers to interpret Usagi in televised series or out of films. Until now, that was not done for several reasons. However, Usagi already appeared in the original tele series of the ninja tortoises and also in the current version.]

BULLE D’ENCRE: Merci à vous !

[BULLE D’ENCRE: Thank you with you!]

Propos recueillis par : Julien Cartry
Traduction : Maela Samson
Friday, February 2nd, 2007
2:53 am
The ronin rabbit reunites with the mystical blade Kusanagi in a sequel to the Eisner Award-winning "Grasscutter."

What do you do when you win the Eisner award for 'Best Serialized Story'? You make a sequel, of course.

Writer/artist Stan Sakai won the Eisner in 1999 for his 'Grasscutter' story arc in Usagi Yojimbo. The 10-issue story told the tale of the legendary blade Kusanagi, the Grasscutter. Possession of the blade could allow a group of conspirators to overthrow the Shogunate government and re-instate the Emperor. But masterless samurai Usagi Miyamoto comes into possession of the sword and, in keeping with his bushido code of honor, vows to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.

In the current seven-issue sequel, 'Grasscutter II: Journey to Atsuta Shrine,' the ronin rabbit again needs to take care of the mystical sword. 'They've got to take the sword given to the Japanese people by the gods to Atsuta Temple, where it's said to be currently housed,' says Sakai of the real-life sword.

A replica of the sword was cast in the 8th century, so there is some debate over where the actual sword might be in the real world. But it's that attention to historical detail for which Sakai is known. 'I did try to make this as factual as possible, even though there is a lot of conflicting information out there,' says Sakai, who completed the story earlier this month, allowing the bi-monthly book to ship on an almost monthly basis.

The Story So Far

Readers first returned to the 'Grasscutter' story with July's issue #39. It's a historical tale, looking back to Japan's third century and the founding of the sacred Atsuta Shrine. Yamato-Dake, heir to the Sword of the Gods, made a vow to rid the land of the giant, evil serpent deity of Mount Ibuki. On the way to meet his final foe, Yamato-Dake, battles nature and its most fearsome beasts, including his own fatigue.

'Readers responded quite favorably to that story, which was the 100th issue of an Usagi comic, even though it didn't have Usagi in it,' says Diana Schutz, editor of the book for Dark Horse Comics. 'But one of Stan's great strengths is his painstaking research of Japanese history and culture, which really is showcased in that issue.'

August saw the return of familiar faces, as Usagi, bounty hunter Gen and Priest Sanshobo hit the trail to return Grasscutter to the Atsuta Shrine. But that has turned into no simple task. Two factions of warriors, the Neko and Komori ninja clans, each have their own designs on the sword and will stop at nothing to attain its commanding power. This journey will pit the three determined heroes against two fearsome clans and the evil inherent in a lust for power.

In September, Usagi and his companions continued their journey to deliver the sword to Atsuta Shrine, unaware that the two ninja clans were hot on their trail. When the group finds refuge for the night in a small way station, they're trapped by the Neko Ninja, leading to a dramatic confrontation between the Neko leader Chizu and Usagi. To top it all off, the killer Komori bats swoop down upon the heroes.

'Responses to the story so far have unanimously been favorable,' says Schutz. 'I think that's with good reason. Stan knows where he is going with his stories with every step, and that allows him to [use foreshadowing] well.'

What Lies Ahead

Usagi promises even more action to come in the storyline's remaining issues. The just released issue #42 featured an ambush by the Neko Ninja clan. During the battle, the Komori bat ninja clan swooped in and stole the blade. 'Tell me who expected bat ninja?' asks Schutz rhetorically, herself a fan of Sakai's creations. Usagi and Chizu, the leader of the Neko, must now form an uneasy alliance to retrieve the sword, as an assassin stalks Chizu.

In the remaining issues, Usagi, Gen and Sanshobo will discover that Chizu is not to be trusted when she reveals her intention to throw Grasscutter into the sea, where it can never be found again. She'll steal Grasscutter but, just as she thinks herself safe from Usagi and his friends, the mysterious ninja assassin who has been stalking her will attack.

Usagi, Sanshobo, and Gen must desperately track Chizu down before she throws the Blade of the Gods into the sea, however the Komori bat ninja clan will also be on Chizu's trail, with their own plans for the fabled sword.

The new year will see the powerful end to the saga. In January, Usagi and his companions, Gen and Sanshobo, will have nearly reached their final goal: Atsuta Shrine. Once there, they'll be able to deliver Grasscutter back to the shrine. However, the Neko Ninja will already have arrived and be waiting in ambush. The heroes must run through a gauntlet of killers to reach their final destination, but not all of them will live to see the end.

Schutz cautions against trying to guess just who will perish, though. 'I was afraid that I would be saddened by the loss of certain characters,' says Schutz. 'But Stan, as he always does, gets me thinking in one direction and then takes off in a completely new and surprising direction. A character I was afraid I would lose ends up being saved, but doesn't emerge entirely unscathed. But Stan pulls off this wonderful sleight of hand in such a way that while it's unexpected, it makes sense.'

In that vein, Sakai says this story will allow readers to learn more about the priest Sanshobo and Ikeda, the former lord who's now a peasant farmer. 'I made reference to a relationship between them years ago,' says Sakai. 'Some readers picked up on it and some didn't. But Sanshobo was a retainer to Ikeda when he was a great warlord. So when they meet again, you will find out more about their backgrounds.'

The Man Behind The Rabbit

As the sequel works its way towards its finale, Sakai says he takes an approach to Usagi's stories with an eye to mix up their length. 'The way I plan my stories is I do epic-length stories, but between them I will have stories ranging in length from one to three issues,' says Sakai. 'Certainly never more than three. That helps give new readers a chance to come aboard. There was a lot of buzz about 'Grasscutter,' especially after it won the Eisner award. Short, self-contained stories helped those readers catch on.'

Still, long-time readers demand the longer stories, and Sakai wants to keep that base happy. So since 'Grasscutter' needed a sequel'They got hold of the sword at the end of the first 'Grasscutter' story, so now they have to follow through and deliver it to its proper resting place.'Sakai says the time just felt right.

But for the rabbit's next trick, Sakai promises shorter stories with Gen traveling with Usagi for a while. After that, Sakai wants to do a four-issue storyline titled 'Duel at Kitanoji Temple' that will focus on Usagi's former teacher and a duel that was set up about a year ago in Usagi-time. And the creator has another story planned after that where Usagi meets up with his old friend and possible love interest Tomoe.

Sakai has a loyal fan base, but hopes this story arc will bring him even more. He's preaching the gospel of Usagi to whomever will listen. Throughout this summer and fall he attended major conventions such as Wizard World in Chicago and the San Diego Comic-Con, along with the Small Press Expo and Mid-Ohio Con. Earlier this month, he even went to Spain to receive the Haxtur Award for Best Short Story (for the Usagi tale 'Noodles') and promote his creation. He also directs folks to the Usagi Yojimbo Dojo fan site on the Internet.

And, even though Usagi Yojimbo passed the 100-issue mark over the summer (based on books from three different publishers), Sakai says he easily has enough tales for another 100. 'I'll keep going as long as people keep reading,' says Sakai.
Wednesday, January 31st, 2007
12:51 pm

The venerable writer-artist of Usagi Yojimbo discusses 22 years with his character, his own worldly travels and the origins of Usagi’s greatest foe

For most comic creators, 100 consecutive issues would be cause for some commotion, but for Stan Sakai it’s just another day on the job. The writer-artist who for 22 years has been chronicling the exploits of Usagi Yojimbo (the rabbit ronin who walks through a historically accurate version Japan’s Edo period) is still focused on moving his epic forward issue by issue—so focused that he hardly noticed it was time for the 100th installment of the series’ most current incarnation.

After bouncing from the small press to Fantagraphics to Mirage in the character’s early days, Sakai has found his longest home at Dark Horse Comics, and to commemorate the occasion, the publisher assembled a roast in Sakai’s favor featuring some of the biggest names in comics and cartooning. Wizard Universe caught up with Sakai to talk about where Usagi has come from and where he goes next, as well as to learn more about the all-star roast appearing in this week’s issue.

WIZARD: I know that Usagi Yojimbo #100 from Dark Horse is coming out, but is it weird for you to think of this as a milestone, since it isn’t really the 100th issue of the series as a whole?

STAN SAKAI: [Laughs] It’s like about 160 issues actually.

WIZARD: So did [editor] Diana Schultz and Dark Horse have to say, “Hey, Stan! This is #100. We should do something.” Or were you planning on it?

STAN SAKAI: We had talked about it, Diana and myself, but for the longest time we couldn’t figure out what to do. So I figured I’d just make it a regular issue and just continue on with the same things I’ve been doing for the past 22 years. Just make another story. And then Diana said, “Let’s make it a roast.” And I said, “Sure.” She and I have worked together for at least 10 years or so, so she knows who my friends are in the industry and whose work I like. So she pretty much contacted those people and organized everything.

WIZARD: It must have taken the work burden off of you for a little bit. How many pages are you actually drawing in the issue?

STAN SAKAI: I just did about nine pages, and like I said, it’s a roast so I’m just introducing some of the artists and doing some backgrounds and such. I did a couple of pages with Sergio [Aragonés] because I’ve known Sergio for about 30 years now. And we travel together, so I just did a few things about my relationship with him. Actually, how we met was basically through the phone book. I just looked up his name and called him up. [Laughs] And there are people like Guy Davis—I loved Guy Davis’ work ever since I saw it way back when he was doing Baker Street. I loved that, and I was anxious when I was invited to a convention and I was going to meet Guy Davis. I went to see him, and he had orange hair and leather and chains. I was looking at him like, “Oh my gosh!” [Laughs] And so I never actually met him until a couple of years later.

WIZARD: Would you say having seen some of the pages that these guys got your number pretty good?

STAN SAKAI: Oh yeah! It’s great. It’s a fun issue. She got Frank Miller and Jeff Smith and a whole bunch of other guys. It’s pretty neat.

WIZARD: Well, anytime one of these milestones comes up, it’s a great opportunity to look back at the past run on the book. Like you said, it’s been 22 years, so if you look at everything you’ve done with Usagi to date, from when you self-published through Fantagraphics and Mirage and everything, what goals did you have back then that you feel you’ve met with the book? And how have your goals for the book changed?

STAN SAKAI: Well, it’s changed a lot, because especially back then, I just hoped to get the next issue in before the deadline. It was pretty much thinking one or two months in advance. “I’ve got another story to write, and I hope the sales continue to [rise] so Usagi can continue on.” Now, though, it’s about thinking in the long term. It’s not just what’s happening next month, but next year or two years from now or even more. There are stories that I’ve laid groundwork for that won’t be told for another three or four years.

WIZARD: That’s the fun thing about setting it in the Edo period. It’s kind of like an American Western, where you have such a terrific landscape that you can stretch it and tell stories for what seems like forever, even though it’s only a short amount of time in the larger scale of things. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Usagi has ever spelled out exactly what year the story is set in, has it?

STAN SAKAI: I’ve alluded to different periods, and actually someone took my hints and created an Usagi timeline. And I was amazed that it was right on the money. All the hints I’ve laid down—and some were very vague and some were more specific, such as when the first Tokugawa Shogun stepped down in 1605—but someone made a timeline where everything fits perfectly. I actually had my own timeline, but I never told anyone. And I was just amazed that the timeline he created matched mine to the nose. So right now, officially it’s just about November of 1605 going into 1606. So it was that specific, but I never told anyone.

WIZARD: Well, that’s something I noticed looking on the Usagi site, that the fans seem to really cover a lot of ground.

STAN SAKAI: Isn’t that a great site? [Laughs] I have no computer expertise at all, and that site is put together by fans and maintained by fans. It’s just amazing the job they do.

WIZARD: I wanted to ask about your recent trip to France after you sent me the link. It seems like you take a page from Usagi’s book and do a lot of wandering yourself. Do you find yourself in a wandering, contemplative mood like him?

STAN SAKAI: Oh yeah, I love to travel. And whenever we travel I like to wander around and see the sights, especially in Europe. I mean, in the U.S. we’ve got a short history. The country is only a few hundred years old, but in Europe we’ve gone to churches that were built in the eighth century and things like that. I’m a big history buff. Sergio Aragonés and I went to Grenada this year. He’s my very favorite traveling companion next to my wife, and he’s been all over the world a number of times, so he’s the perfect guy to go traveling with. But traveling is one of the great benefits of what I do, because we get invited places.

WIZARD: And you can take a lot of your work with you.

STAN SAKAI: Exactly. [Laughs] You know, I have had my own schedule, but my editor Diana has deadlines for me. Traveling is another excuse for missing your deadlines.

WIZARD: How often do you make it to Japan?

STAN SAKAI: I’ve only been there once. I was a guest of Osamu Tezuka Productions. Basically, they took us around to animation studios and publishers, and we just had a great time. We still don’t know why they invited us over. [Laughs] [My wife] Sharon and I went with Erik Larsen and Lynn and Rod Johnston. Lynn does [the newspaper strip] “For Better or for Worse.” We had a wonderful time.

WIZARD: Let’s talk a bit about what’s coming up in the future. The next Usagi collection is Vol. 21. What will that reprint?

STAN SAKAI: That will reprint the entire “Mother of Mountain” storyline, which goes up to #89—from #84 to #89, I believe. That story happened about a year and a half ago.

WIZARD: It seems like you’ll do a bigger story like that for five or six issues and then lean off with a bunch of shorter, one- or two-issue stories in a row.

STAN SAKAI: Exactly. That’s been my game plan all along. I have a few epic stories or major story arcs, but then I have these shorter stories that will build up to these longer arcs. And the shorter stories are great too for the new readers to jump onto, but the older readers seem to prefer the longer arcs where I get more into the history and the characters and the adventure of it all. That’s pretty much why I do those.

WIZARD: Isn’t the next big arc going to be the origin of Usagi villain Jei?

STAN SAKAI: Yes. I’ve already started on that. Jei has always been—well, when I first created him he was kind of a throwaway character for one issue. But people kept saying, “Bring him back. Bring him back.” He became probably the most popular Usagi villain that I created.

WIZARD: When you do that origin, is it going to be in flashbacks?

STAN SAKAI: Yeah, it’ll be a flashback to how Jei became touched by the gods.

WIZARD: To wrap up, after all these years, how has your passion for Usagi changed? Are you ready to do another 100 issues at Dark Horse or another 22 years of stories?

STAN SAKAI: I really enjoy working with Usagi, and for every story that I write, it springboards into two more stories. Right now, I’ve got stories plotted out for another five years at least. And it’s kind of nice because I do everything myself, writing and drawing. If I was working on a company-owned series I would not have the flexibility to do that.
2:29 am

DARK HORSE COMICS: January marks the release of Usagi #100. Did you ever imagine Usagi would get this far and be as successful as it has become?

STAN SAKAI: When I started with Usagi, I was not thinking of it as a long-term project. I was just concerned with getting the next story finished before the deadline. I'm still working this way. And I should point out that this is the one hundredth issue of Usagi’s Dark Horse run. Usagi was with two previous publishers, and, if you count those issues, this will actually be about 160.

DARK HORSE COMICS: A “celebrity” roast seems a little unusual as the theme for Usagi #100. How did that come to pass?

STAN SAKAI: It was all my editor Diana's fault . . . er. . . brilliant idea. I was just going to make Usagi 100 another story, a continuation of the previous issue. She said we should do something a bit more than that. We've worked together for awhile, so she knows who my friends are in the industry, and she contacted a few of them to contribute pages for the roast. I don't think anybody she contacted turned her down. I'm very flattered for that.

DARK HORSE COMICS: In its long-running history, what do you consider your greatest achievement with Usagi?

STAN SAKAI: If you're talking about which story I am proudest of, it has to be UY Book 12: Grasscutter. It won an Eisner Award (Will even wrote the introduction), it also won a Spanish Haxtur and an American Library Association Awards. It was also used as a textbook in Japanese history classes at the University of Portland. I did a lot of research for that, and it turned into a nifty little story.

DARK HORSE COMICS: All right, Stan, 3 non-comics related questions for you. What is your most treasured possession?

STAN SAKAI: I assume you mean besides my family. That is a toughie, because I can't think of anything that I can't live without.

DARK HORSE COMICS: What is your favorite dish?

STAN SAKAI: I like to eat, and I like to travel. Whenever I'm abroad I like to eat the local cuisine. I've had great creme brulee in France, wonderful tapas in Spain, even sheep's head in Norway. When it comes down to it, though, I think most of us go back to what we were brought up with. I really like sushi, and maybe lau lau with rice and lomi salmon.

DARK HORSE COMICS: What is your favorite movie(s)?

STAN SAKAI: This is an easy one--Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. This is probably the movie that got me interested in the samurai genre in the first place. Another would be Satomi Hakkenden (8 Dogs of the Satomi Clan), the 1957 version that I have been trying for years to find on video or DVD.

DARK HORSE COMICS: Do you have any favorite comics you are currently reading?

STAN SAKAI: Since Jeff Smith ended Bone, there is nothing I look forward to every month. I will buy anything new by Guy Davis or Frank Miller, though.

DARK HORSE COMICS: If you could have anyone take over the reins of writing and drawing Usagi who would that be and why?

STAN SAKAI: The first name that comes to mind is Darko Macan, the Croatian cartoonist. He wrote stories for Grendel and Star Wars. I really like his art as well as his writing. Sergio Aragonés would do a terrific job on Usagi as well. Maybe he can do a fill-in issue, while I do an issue of Groo.

DARK HORSE COMICS: How much time out of your day do you normally devote to Usagi (i.e. every day, every couple days, etc.), and what's your usual routine? What does it take for you to "get into the story" or has it become second nature at this point?

STAN SAKAI: I work every day, but I enjoy it. My typical day: get up at 5:30, pack lunches for the kids and wife, and send them off to school/work, log on to get some business and correspondence done, go on my walk, work at the drawing board until it's time to start something for dinner.

DARK HORSE COMICS: Along those lines, how far do you have the story of Usagi mapped out? Do you actually have a final "ending"?

STAN SAKAI: There was a definite ending when I first came up with Usagi. However, I doubt that story will ever be made. I do have some landmark stories planned such as Tomoe's Wedding, the Tengu Wars, and Hideyoshi's Treasure, but I have to also think up those smaller stories that lead to those epic ones.

DARK HORSE COMICS: You were recently in Europe. How was that experience as a whole and how were your fans?

STAN SAKAI: I really enjoy traveling. I was in Europe three times in 2006, and have already had an invitation for 2007. Europe, as a whole, has a greater appreciation of comics as an artform, as opposed to just something to read or collect. All Usagi readers I’ve met have been very nice. I usually keep travel diaries that are posted on the website: www.usagiyojimbo.com

DARK HORSE COMICS: What inspires you most as an artist?

STAN SAKAI: Finishing an entire story with the satisfaction of knowing that I did it all myself. But then, Diana calls to tell me I'm already behind schedule. That brings me down to earth.

DARK HORSE COMICS: What words of advice would you give to anyone who's trying to break into the comics industry?

STAN SAKAI: Show your work around--to friends, teachers, artists, and to editors and publishers. Get feedback to learn what your strengths and weaknesses are. Learn to take criticism. Network with others, because, face it, people like to work with those they know.

DARK HORSE COMICS: Looking ahead, what are your special plans for Usagi #200?

STAN SAKAI: I think, as in Usagi #100, I’ll leave that up to Diana.
Tuesday, January 9th, 2007
7:39 pm

I have to admit that I was fairly nervous when I called Stan for this interview. I remember Usagi Yojimbo back from watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Even though I don’t read every issue, I have always been impressed at the quality of the work whenever I read it.

It was great to know that Stan was such a nice and humble guy. I talked to him a bit about where Usagi has been and the forthcoming issue coming out this January.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: First off, congratulations on hitting this issue #100 milestone.

STAN SAKAI: Actually, more like 160 when you look at everything I’ve done. Dark Horse was not the first series.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: How did you end up creating Usagi Yojimbo?

STAN SAKAI: I was a big fan of comics and I wanted to create a series based somewhat on Miyamoto Musashi, a 16th century samurai. I was sketching one day when this rabbit showed up with his ears tied back.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: When was your first published comic?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi first appeared in Albedo #2 in 1984.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: When was the first series actually published and by whom?

STAN SAKAI: Fantagraphics Editor Kim Thompson wanted to create an anthology featuring animal characters. It launched in 1988 and was called Critters.

Usagi appeared in short story form there. Eventually, Usagi moved into his own series. It was at Fantagraphics for about 38 issues including three color specials and one summer special.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: You probably get asked this all the time, but how did Usagi first end up appearing in Ninja Turtles? I confess that this was where I first saw him.

STAN SAKAI: Actually, the Turtles cartoon and Usagi were around at relatively the same time. We used to support one another by sending each other letters. Finally after the cartoon had come out, Peter Laird asked me if I wanted to be on the show and I said sure.

Before this, we couldn’t give Usagi away. No one wanted the book, not even the Albedo. After this, everyone wanted it and I remember Albedo selling for about $100 bucks. I remember later Peter asking me if I wanted a figure of Usagi in their line and I said sure.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: Usagi is probably the only character in the cartoon to maintain any of the integrity he had in the comic. How did you do it?

STAN SAKAI: The studio that produced TMNT were big fans of the character and they wanted to keep him the way he was.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: How did you transfer from Fantagraphics to Mirage.

STAN SAKAI: Fantagraphics went through a change in the line. All their stuff at the time was all-ages books but they were gradually shifting into a more mature direction. They were nice enough to give me eight months notice, though. I already had a nice relationship and a nice offer from Mirage Studios, So I went there and started with a new number one.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: So, what were the other series you did at Mirage?

STAN SAKAI: I did a color Usagi series, which lasted about 16 issues. I also did two Space Usagi mini-series.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: What happened at Mirage?

STAN SAKAI: Mirage suffered severe storm damage at their production office. (Their whole printing stations were flooded.) Based on the shape of the industry at the time, Mirage decided they weren’t going to print any more comics. At this point though I had received a multitude of offers, one of them was from Dark Horse.
JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: Looking back, what have been your favorite stories?

STAN SAKAI: I’d say my favorite story was The Grass Cutter series. I did a lot of research on it and was proud of the result. It also won multiple awards, including Eisners.

Another favorite? The “Kite” story. I am proud of it and the research I did on it.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: Also looking back, any stories you wish you could have done more with?

STAN SAKAI: Not really. I own the character, so if I write or draw something I don’t care for, I can simply change it.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: I really enjoy the fact that you use animals instead of people. It really helps the series stand out. Do you deliberately choose animals for certain characters?

STAN SAKAI: Thank you! In some cases, yes. Gen, for example, I wanted to be a rhinocerous. I liked the visual of a huge animal next to a puny rabbit. And I deliberately wanted Usagi’s sensei Katsuichi to be a lion. It gave him a look of nobility and reverence.
But, for the most part, it’s whatever seems right at the time. Usagi is a very character-driven series and the characters tell their own story.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: So tell us a bit about Usagi #100. I understand there will be a plethora of artists on it.

STAN SAKAI: Oh indeed! It was [Dark Horse Editor] Diana Schutz’s idea. She has been really good to me and is one of the best editors in comics. I always like seeing different people with their takes on Usagi and the book simply looks terrific! Frank Miller is doing a page, Sergio Aragones did four pages, and so did Guy Davis. Jeff Smith tells a story of when we travelled together on the trilogy tour. Other creators involved in the issue include Jamie Rich, Andi Watson, Mark Evanier, Scott Shaw, Rick Geary, and even publisher Mike Richardson.

Matt Wagner came late to the project but did a wonderful page.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: Is there any advice you would give anyone trying to start their own comic book?

STAN SAKAI: Nowadays, with self-publishing and web comics, it’s a lot easier to get yourself known as a “comics creator.” However, with declining comic book sales, it’s a lot harder to make a living at it.

If you’re really intent on working in comics, start by submitting work to publishers. Many of them have submission guidelines on their Web sites. Just make sure that you’re of professional caliber. Go to conventions, make contacts and show everyone your portfolio.

JOSHUA PANTALLERESCO: Thank you Stan for your time and good luck with issue #100 (or #160, as the case may be).

Usagi Yojimbo #100 hits comic shops this January. It’s written by Stan along with a plethora of artists. Be sure to pick it up when you see it!
Wednesday, December 13th, 2006
4:22 am

One of comic's most famous bunnies is reaching a milestone when Usagi Yojimbo hits # 100 from Dark Horse Comics. The special issue is sort of a roast to creator Stan Sakai and the ronin rabbit, with notables like Frank Miller, Sergio Aragones, Matt Wagner and Jeff Smith, to name a few, each providing pieces. Along with talking Usagi, Sakai told THE PULSE he's waiting for approval for a new Groo project and just wait until you see who The Wanderer might meet!

THE PULSE: When you were thinking about what to do for the 100th issue of Usagi Yojimbo, how did you want to make this story special?

STAN SAKAI: There is no Usagi story per se. There will be tributes to myself or Usagi by other writers and artists: Rick Geary, Frank Miller, Sergio Aragones, Jamie Rich, Andi Watson, Diana Schutz, Matt Wagner, Guy Davis, Mark Evanier, Scott Shaw!, Jeff Smith, and even publisher Mike Richardson gets in there. I will provide a few framing sequences to tie the stories together.

THE PULSE: Reading the description, "a good-natured roast of both Usagi and Stan," this kind of reminds me of the old Fred Hembeck Marvel specials. How does it feel to have some of comics top talents roasting you and your creation?

STAN SAKAI: It's great because they are not only the top names in the industry and talents I admire, but they are also all good friends. For instance, I've known Sergio, Mark, and Scott for almost 30 years. A lot of it is just friends good naturedly kidding each other. They are all very busy--Frank and Jeff, especially--so I'm gratified that they made time in their schedule for this project.

THE PULSE: There seem to be a lot of people working on that issue. How did you fit everything into just 32 pages? Was there consideration of doing more?

STAN SAKAI: Actually, it was editor Diana Schutz' idea to have this roast. I made up a dream list of who I would like to have as contributors, and she contacted them, and figured out the logistics. I did not even see the stories until the artists had finished them completely, and I had to do the framing sequences.

THE PULSE: How does it feel for you to reach a milestone like a 100th issue with one publisher and have this character be so popular for over two decades?

STAN SAKAI: The running gag throughout the issue is that, true this is Dark Horse's 100th issue of Usagi Yojimbo, but he was previously published by two other publishers. If you count those issues, this will be more like UY #160. And that is not counting his appearances in various anthologies.

THE PULSE: What have been some of the challenges with working on this series?

STAN SAKAI: The biggest challenge has been the marketplace itself. When I started Usagi, there were only a few b&w titles. We could not even give them away. Now Albedo #2 with Usagi's first appearance is one of the most sought after comics from that period.

THE PULSE: So many people love Usagi Yojimbo, was there ever a time when you considered ending the series? If so, what made you soldier on? If not, is Usagi Yojimbo a series you'd like to do forever if possible?

STAN SAKAI: When Usagi was first conceived, he was to be in a finite series--about 3,000 pages. Things have changed a lot since then, and it is pretty much an ongoing series. I do have a related project that I would like to do, but will have to discuss it with Editor Diana first (she's in Europe right now, a guest of the Lucca Festival in Italy).

THE PULSE: How do you think you've changed as a creator or grown as a creator since the first appearance of Usagi Yojimbo?

STAN SAKAI: I've had to develop a discipline to meet my deadlines. There are about 10 individual issues a year, plus a trade collection. This gives me time to work on a few other projects.

I've also learned that comics can be a teaching tool as well as entertainment. I've tried to do as much research as I can on the history, folklore, and customs of Japan to give the stories a more authentic feel. My recent issue about the tea ceremony is probably one of my strongest stories ever. Many of the awards I've received have pointed out my attention to detail and the authentic feel of the stories, even if they do star funny animals.

THE PULSE: What problems will Usagi be facing after this special issue?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi had taken someone under his protection, but has had to abandon her in a safe location as his life just too dangerous. Unknown to him, though, a hired assassin is after him, and will use her as leverage.

I've also laid groundwork for future story arcs such as Lady Tomoe's wedding. It will take awhile to research how marriages were arranged at that time.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on?

STAN SAKAI: I've been lettering the Spider-Man Sundays for about 20 years now. It's still fun, because I get to work with Stan Lee. We're still waiting for the go-ahead on the next Groo the Wanderer project: Groo Meets Conan. And, as I said, there is something I would like to do, but will have to get Diana's input first.
Friday, December 8th, 2006
2:59 pm
Dear Stefan,
Rather than answering all your questions at one time, I will answer them in parts and send them back to you in a series of e-mails. I hope I will not take too long to answer them.
Please feel free to edit my answers.
So here we go with the first part of "Understanding Usagi"! ;-)

STEFAN PANNOR: Tell me about your road to the comics. You were born in Kyoto, then moved to Hawaii. So you've been starting reading Mangas?

STAN SAKAI: My father was in the US Army stationed in Japan. He met and married my mother there and my older brother and I were born in Japan. I was born in 1953. When I was about two years old, we moved to Hawaii where my father was born. His father had emigrated there from Japan so that makes me a third generation Japanese-American. I actually read American comics before manga but I was exposed to some Japanese comics such as Tetsuan Atom and other works by Osamu Tezuka. Years later, I met Dr. Tezuka and my wife and I went to Japan as guests of Tezuka Productions.

STEFAN PANNOR: What were the first comics you read?

STAN SAKAI: I read mainly DC comics and some Disney--mainly Superman, Batman and Uncle Scrooge. I remember buying Fantastic Four #2 off the comics rack. I bought it because it was still 10 cents and DC had just raised their prices to 12 cents. From then on, I read a lot of Marvel comics. The Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man was my favorite.

STEFAN PANNOR: Did your parents in any way read comics? And did their reading influence you?

STAN SAKAI: My father would read comics occasionally but really enjoyed novels--westerns and detective stories. My mother read Japanese novels. My older brother Ed was the big comics buyer. He had quite a collection and whenever I bought a comic, I would give it to him and he would let me read his comics for an hour. He later gave me his collection when he lost interest in comics.

STEFAN PANNOR: Were you a comic-fan? What was your earliest connection to the fandom?

STAN SAKAI: I always enjoyed comics but did not know there was such a thing as a comics fandom until I met some other aspiring cartoonists in the 7th grade (this was in the 1960's). We started making our own comics, creating our own characters and stories.

Comics fandom back then was not as organized as it is today. There were no conventions or fanzines or an organized way for fans to contact one another. One day, a magazine about comics showed up in my mailbox. It was from Texas (I still have no idea how they got my name or address) and it had advertisements for people wanting to buy and sell comics and selling their own books. That was my first introduction to real comics fandom.

STEFAN PANNOR: When did you start drawing?

STAN SAKAI: I've always enjoyed drawing and I enjoyed comics but I never put the two together. I did not even consider that there were real people writing the stories or doing the art. Comics for me were just something that magically appeared in the stores every week. It was not until Marvel put credits that I realized that there were people creating these books. I did not know how a comic was made until Lee and Ditko did a short story of how they create a Spider-Man story as a back-up in Spider-Man Annual #1. I later told Stan Lee that I learned how to draw comics from that short story and he just laughed.

But, back to your question. As I said, I always enjoyed drawing but did not take my first art class until high school--the 11th grade. My teacher was very encouraging and entered my work in a lot of art shows. She just retired and we still keep in touch. I dedicated one of my books to her.

STEFAN PANNOR: You've been drawing comics since then? What kind of profession did you learn?

STAN SAKAI: I majored in art while at the University of Hawaii, concentrating on drawing and painting. I was also doing free-lance art for magazines, advertising, t-shirts and anything else that would buy my art.

STEFAN PANNOR: Your first comic-creation I think was "Nilson Groundthumper", published first in 1980. Would you tell me something about this character?

STAN SAKAI: Nilson was first published in Albedo Comics in 1984. He's a wandering rabbit with a guinea pig friend named Hermy. Whereas Usagi's adventures take place in feudal Japan, Nilson lives in Europe at that same time. The Nilson stories are much more humorous and much less researched.

STEFAN PANNOR: When and how did you meet Sergio Aragonés?

STAN SAKAI: I've known Sergio for about 24 years. We had a mutual friend who lives in Hawaii. When I moved to California I called Sergio and he invited me to a CAPS meeting. The Comic Arts Professional Society is a cartoonists' organization in Los Angeles. It's a social organization that meets monthly. At one time we had members such as Jack Kirby, Doug Wildey, Dave Stevens, Mark Evanier, and William Stout. Anyway, I met Sergio at that meeting and we have been friends ever since.

STEFAN PANNOR: Your first professional job in the comic-book-industry was the lettering for Sergio’s "Groo the wanderer"? Wasn't that a surprise for you? Didn't you see yourself as penciling artist?

STAN SAKAI: I was doing freelance art in Los Angeles and I also taught calligraphy classes. Sergio needed a letterer for his new comic and asked me. I accepted, of course. I still enjoy working with him and Mark Evanier and have learned a lot from both of them.

STEFAN PANNOR: You did a lot of lettering for different comic books. Would you name some?

STAN SAKAI: I also did lettering for many of the American Disney comics as well as a few newspaper comic strips. I enjoy lettering in that it is very relaxing and mechanical. I don't have to worry so much about composition, anatomy or story. I get the art pages and the script and get working.
But I am very picky about what books I letter. I'm not saying that I am a terrific letterer, but it is just something I do on the side. I still prefer drawing.

STEFAN PANNOR: You received some awards for your lettering. What would you say is the special Stan-Sakai-way of lettering?

STAN SAKAI: I don't think I have any special method. Like artists, every letterer has a distinctive style. I have developed a style that complements my drawing. That is another reason I am very pleased with the current German editions of Usagi because the publisher has used my lettering style in that book.

STEFAN PANNOR: Are you still lettering the "Spider-Man"-dailies?

STAN SAKAI: Actually, I only letter the Sundays. Yes. Stan Lee was the first name I associated with comics. His name was on all my favorites so when he asked me to letter for him, I accepted. At that time, it was the only thing he was personally writing. I would not have imagined I would one day be working with Stan. He is a wonderful man. He provided an introduction to one of the Usagi albums.

STEFAN PANNOR: The first appearance of Usagi Yojimbo was in 1985. Did you do any other comics except Nilson between 1980 and `85?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi was created in 1982 but never appeared in print until 1984 when Albedo #2 featured a Usagi cover and short story. As I said earlier, Nilson also first appeared in 1984, in Albedo #1.

STEFAN PANNOR: Let’s talk about your way to Usagi Yojimbo. The main-influence to that character was the samurai and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi. Why especially this person?

STAN SAKAI: I wanted to do a comic book about something other than the superheroes that were and still are dominant in the American comic book market. I was drawn to Musashi because I had known about him for a while through various books and movies. He was not just an innovative swordsman but, as you said, a philosopher as well as a poet and artist. I also wanted to do something involving my Japanese heritage.

STEFAN PANNOR: Can you name any other historically influences as well as other influences that lead directly towards the character of Usagi Yojimbo?

STAN SAKAI: Musashi was very important in the creation of Usagi but my character really has very little to do with the historical Musashi aside from being a wandering swordsman using the two-swords style. Other historical persons have led to the creation of other characters, though. My Tomoe Ame was inspired by Tomoe Gozen, a samurai woman who lived during the Gempei Wars. She was famous for her beauty and skill with the spear. Lord Hikiji was based on Date Masamune, lord of Sendai. He was one of the most powerful lords in feudal Japan and also aspired to become Shogun. Other characters have been influenced by pop culture. The manga and movie series Lone Wolf and Cub became Lone Goat and Kid and Zato-Ichi the blind swordsman from the movies became Zato-Ino the blind swordspig who "sees" with his nose.

STEFAN PANNOR: First you tried to do a realistic comic-book with Miyamoto? When and why did you turn over to do an animal-strip?

STAN SAKAI: As you said, I first wanted to do a more realistic comic book but still involving some fantasy--much like the Hal Foster Prince Valiant stories. However, one day I sketched out a rabbit with his ears tied up in a "chonmage" or samurai topknot and liked the design. So Miyamoto Musashi became Miyamoto Usagi ("Usagi" means "rabbit" or "hare" in Japanese). I thought of making Usagi the only animal in an all human world much like Dave Sim's Cerebus, but decided it just did not work for me and made it an all-animal world instead.

STEFAN PANNOR: In Japan the rabbit is a symbol for luck. Was that the cause for doing Usagi as a rabbit - or was it just about the word-game Musashi-Usagi?

STAN SAKAI: It was because of the visuals. The rabbit with his ears tied up just looked so good. It was a simple design but unique and very striking. It was very fortunate that the rabbit has such a good connotation in Japanese culture unlike the badger which is very mischievous and sometimes evil.

STEFAN PANNOR: Did the animal-status of the other main-characters mean anything special? If you create a new character, how did you come to his animal-status?

STAN SAKAI: It works both ways. Sometimes I think of a character's personality and try to create a visual to match it. Usagi's teacher Katsuichi was created this way. I needed someone strong and imposing and regal and so Katsuichi became a lion. I also borrowed his costume and great flowing mane from a famous kabuki play about a father and son lion. Other times I may come up with visual I really like and try to write a story around it. The whole Usagi Yojimbo series came about this way.

STEFAN PANNOR: There ain't much rabbits in the world of Usagi. Does that mean they're something special?

STAN SAKAI: I try not to overuse rabbits in Usagi's world just to make him special to the reader. However, he is not anything special in terms of the story--that is he is not treated any different than a cat or dog characters.

STEFAN PANNOR: You've created just one human character for "Usagi Yojimbo", the Master Hikiji. Was that just an idea or did you intend something special with that?

STAN SAKAI: I showed Hikiji as a human in one panel and regretted it ever since. At that time, I had a specific story direction I was going toward but those stories have been changed. I originally thought Hikiji would be a Sauron-like character (from Lord of the Rings) whose presence is always felt but he is not really seen.

STEFAN PANNOR: Have you ever thought about doing Usagi as a daily newspaper-strip - like Jeff Smith first did with "Bone"?

STAN SAKAI: Stan Lee once encouraged me to do a newspaper strip but I do not think Usagi would work in that format. Newspaper strips here tend to be very conservative and pretty much all do the same thing, usually a joke-a-day format. Usagi's stories are adventures and the days of the adventure strips--Steve Canyon, Terry and the Pirates, even Popeye-- have long passed away. Besides I would not like to work with a deadline every day.

STEFAN PANNOR: Have you thought about self-publishing "Usagi Yojimbo", like Dave Sim with "Cerebus"?

STAN SAKAI: Sergio had encouraged me to self-publish but publishing is a full time job in itself. I prefer to spend that extra time writing or drawing. Besides, if I self-published, I would need to hire assistants whereas I like to do everything myself. I have always enjoyed my relationships with my various publishers. Our agreements have always been where they would leave me alone and I will send them the stories. They do no have input in the storylines or art so I have a wonderful freedom that most comic book artists in the US do not have. Of course, when I work on other people's characters, I work according to their guidelines such as when I did stories for The Simpsons or Matt Wagner's Grendel.

STEFAN PANNOR: The first Usagi-Stories were published at Albedo and didn't sell very well. But you didn't stop to draw the rabbit. What was your motivation to go on?

STAN SAKAI: Albedo came out at a time when black and white comics were not very popular. The publisher printed about 2,000 comics which quickly sold out and became highly collectible. They originally sold for $1.50. A copy sold on e-bay last year for more than $650.00. But you are right in that we did not get rich doing comics at that time. However, I received a lot of positive comments about my work and I wanted to continue drawing Usagi. I still had a lot of other work doing art to help support me and my family and did Usagi in my spare time. Now it is the other way around where Usagi is my full time job and I do other work in my spare time.

STEFAN PANNOR: The earliest Usagi-Stories were evidently cuter, the characters were drawn with larger heads and smaller bodies. Did you intend to do it as a funny book and if so, why did you change your mind to do a more sophisticated comic?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi's appearance changed on his own as my art style matured. It was completely unconscious on my part. It was never intended to be a humorous comic but I just wanted to tell the kind of stories that I wanted to read. Some stories were serious, some were humorous, there were mysteries and some straight adventures. When I wanted to tell science fiction stories I created Space Usagi, a descendant of the original Usagi Yojimbo.

STEFAN PANNOR: Before you turned over to your current publisher Dark Horse, "Usagi Yojimbo" was published at Fantagraphics and Mirage. What was your first contact to Fantagraphics and why did you left them?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi was first published by Thoughts and Images in their anthology comic Albedo. Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics liked my work and invited me to contribute to his new funny animal series Critters. Usagi was popular enough to get his own series at Fantagraphics. That publisher later cancelled almost all of their general-reader comics such as Critters, Captain Jack, and Eye of Mongombu. All that were left were their mature reader titles such as Love and Rockets, Hate and Eightball. I enjoy those books but Usagi just felt out of place among such books. Mirage Studios had created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and I had a relation with them (Usagi was in their toy line as well as in their TV series). They wanted to expand their comic book line and invited me to join them. A few years later, the downturn in the American comics market and some serious damage to their studio forced them to discontinue their publishing line. Dark Horse offered to continue the series with no interruption so I signed with them. I still maintain an excellent relationship with all of my publishers.

In the US Fantagraphics still published the first 7 of the Usagi album collections and Dark Horse published the rest as well as a Space Usagi book.

STEFAN PANNOR: Then "Usagi Yojimbo" became a part of Mirage Comics and a part of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"-success. You did some crossovers with the Turtles - was that your idea or just some kind of promotion-gag?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi and the Turtles were first published at about the same time and we liked and respected each others' works and I soon became very good friends with Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, the creators of the Turtles. It was at a San Diego Comic Con when I was sitting next to Peter that he asked if I would like to be a part of their toy line. And so, the first Usagi toy was made. It sold more than 2 million units the first year alone. That led to two appearances in the TV series, a Space Usagi toy, and Mirage being my publisher.

STEFAN PANNOR: Were you doing any crossovers with other characters?

STAN SAKAI: There were a few crossovers such as Usagi in The Space Ark and Usagi Meets Space Usagi but nothing long running or serious. I don't consider these crossovers as part of the Usagi story.

STEFAN PANNOR: Now publishing "Usagi Yojimbo" at Dark Horse - you have free hand to do whatever you want in your book?

STAN SAKAI: I own the character so have always had a free hand to do whatever I want with Usagi. I send in the completed story and it is printed. The only input the publisher has is with thing such as correcting misspelled words and the producing the visual design of the books, and even that need my approval.

STEFAN PANNOR: You're doing "Usagi Yojimbo" on a nearly-monthly-base for 17 years, weren't you sometimes tired of the character? Haven't you sometimes the feeling to go on over to a new world with new characters?

STAN SAKAI: I really enjoy working on the Usagi books and have stories planned for many years to come. I also do other work to break up the monotony. As you pointed out, I still do some lettering. I work with other publisher on their projects such as a back-up series for Jeff Smith's Bone comics call Riblet, I wrote and drew a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror story, I illustrated a Queen and Country story written by Greg Rucka, and I am now doing the art for a Grendel story written by Matt Wagner.

STEFAN PANNOR: What is it that makes this rabbit that important for your work and life?

STAN SAKAI: Drawing Usagi is important to me but more important is working in the comic book field. I think that if I did not create Usagi I would have come up with another character or characters. I enjoy working in the art field but comics in particular.

STEFAN PANNOR: Is there any other comic-book-character you would love to write or draw?

Have you ever thought about doing a superhero- or Disney-comic?

Some comic-creators open their "universe" for other artist, as Matt Wagner with "Grendel" or Mike Mignola with "Hellboy". Have you ever thought about that?

STAN SAKAI: Yes, I have discussed a series called Usagi Yojimbo: Kagemusha which would have stories written and/or drawn by others. But I just do not have the time to follow through with this project. I already have a list of people I would like to participate in this. I think though that this is something that will not happen for awhile.

STEFAN PANNOR: You're writing at least 10 issues of "Usagi Yojimbo" each year - are you writing them all alone?

STAN SAKAI: Except for coloring most of the covers, I do everything myself--writing, art and (in the US) lettering.

STEFAN PANNOR: Would you say you are more of a penciller or more of a writer?

STAN SAKAI: I had this discussion with Sergio Aragones some time ago. He considers himself as a writer who does art. I think of myself as an artist who writes. Either way though, we both are cartoonists, a person who writes as well as draws.

STEFAN PANNOR: How long does it take to write a Usagi-Story? How far are the forthcoming Usagi-Stories up in your head?

STAN SAKAI: The time it takes to produce a 24 page story may vary because of how much research a story may need, how intricate the art is, and other factors such as other projects I am currently working on but usually it takes about 4 weeks. I have plotted special "landmark" stories that I know what I want to do. That gives me a direction to go towards. For example: I wanted to do a long story based on the legendary Grasscutting Sword and so the stories leading up to that epic laid the foundations by introducing characters and setting up the situations for Grasscutter. This is the way I normally work. I have stories that I know I want to do a year from now. However, I may not know the story I will do next month.

STEFAN PANNOR: You do a lot of historical research. Do you do it all alone or do you get some help?

STAN SAKAI: I do the research by myself. I have a fairly extensive library on Japanese history and culture. Also people send me books or magazines that they think I might find useful. I have received help from the Usagi fan website. When I working on Grasscutter, I could not find any visuals of what the sword actually looked like--even old woodblock prints showed it as a katana instead of a tsurugi. I put the word out through the website what I needed and a fan spent about three months in his spare time finding a verifying a picture of it. When I needed pictures of a particular shrine in Japan people sent me to various websites and one person who had vacationed there sent me some of his vacation photos. The Usagi fans are wonderful.

STEFAN PANNOR: How free are you using historically details? Are you using them in the most correct way or are you changing them for the sake of the story to tell?

STAN SAKAI: I try to do as much research as I reasonably can. The story is the most important thing so I may change facts for the sake of the story. For instance: Usagi's adventures take place at the turn of 17th century Japan (circa 1605). I wanted to do a story involving the Japanese theater form kabuki and an onnagata or female impersonator. But kabuki was not established until 1605 and the onnagata came about 30-40 years later. Many times when I do an amount of research I will add story notes at the end of the story explaining the bits of cultures or history that I had used. The notes would include a bibliography of the books, videos, and other references I used.

STEFAN PANNOR: What is it that fascinates you about the Japanese middle-age?

STAN SAKAI: As I said, it is a part of my heritage but it is also an interesting time of Japanese history. It was a time of change politically, socially and culturally. The age of civil wars had just ended with the rise of a shogun or military dictator and so a time of peace was just beginning. This led to a lot of unemployed samurai warriors. Add to this the start of foreigners arriving and the rise of the merchant class and you have a turbulent era of Japanese history. Open warfare was replaced by political intrigue and it was a time of progress but at the same time people were being repressed.

STEFAN PANNOR: Have you ever thought about Usagi leaving Japan, for example to China?

STAN SAKAI: Japanese citizens were not allowed to leave without special permission from the government. In fact, for an average citizen to come in contact with a foreigner was an act of treason punishable by death. As a historical note, Lord Date Masamune who was the inspiration for my Lord Hikiji sent the very first emissaries to Europe to visit the Pope, a mission that ended in failure.

STEFAN PANNOR: Some "Usagi Yojimbo"-stories are used in Japanology-courses. Is that correct?

STAN SAKAI: Yes, Grasscutter is used in Japanese history courses at the University of Portland. There have also been many college theses written on Usagi. I have also received a number of awards for my work: a Parents Choice Award, an Inkpot Award, three Will Eisner Awards, two Spanish Haxtur Awards and a 2002 American Library Association Award. I have heard that the German edition of Usagi has been nominated for a Max-and-Moritz Award.

STEFAN PANNOR: Although you work with Japanese history and use elements of typically manga-story-telling, "Usagi Yojimbo" isn't a big success in Japan. Why?

STAN SAKAI: There has never been a western comic that has made a big impression in the Japanese manga market. True, Usagi is based on Japan history and culture but the storytelling style is very western.

STEFAN PANNOR: Has there ever been a Japanese publishing of "Usagi Yojimbo"?

STAN SAKAI: There has not been a Japanese edition of Usagi. I was in Japan years ago and met anime and manga creators and was surprised that many of them knew of my work.

STEFAN PANNOR: Actually, Manga and Animé are a big success (at least in Germany). Does that influence the sales of "Usagi Yojimbo"?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi is more a western comic book than a manga series. There is some manga influence because I had known about Japanese comic for many years and still use some for reference.

STEFAN PANNOR: Like many other comic-book-characters, there was a projected "Usagi"-TV-Series. Can you tell what happened with that?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi has been optioned many times for a television series or a feature film but so far nothing concrete has come about. I usually do not make a big deal of such options because many things can happen during any stage of development to kill the project. The closest we got was with Space Usagi. An animated short and a series bible were made and we even were offered a time slot on TV. But, for various reasons, it was decided to not go forward with it.

STEFAN PANNOR: According to the fact that Usagi Yojimbo" is the life-story of Miyamoto Usagi (Musashi), there has to be an end? Do you have any plans to bring Usagi’s wanderings to an end?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi was first created as a secondary character in the Nilson Groundthumper epic, though he had not yet appeared in any of the stories. There was a definite ending to that series. However, I preferred working on Usagi and switched my efforts on him. That ending has since become obsolete and Usagi has gone in a completely different direction than what I first imagined for him. Many times a character takes on a life of his own and he determines the "path" his life will take. So it was with Usagi.

(An abbreviated version of this interview was also published in MangasZene #11, May 2002)
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2:33 pm
Stan Sakai is the creator, drawer and letterer of Usagi Yojimbo. He was born May 25th, 1953 in Kyoto, Japan. At the age of two, his family moved to Hawaii. He lived there until he was about 24 years old. Now he lives in Los Angeles. He has a wife, Sharon, and two children, Hannah and Matthew. He received a Fine Arts degree from the University of Hawaii, and furthered his studies at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. His creation, Usagi Yojimbo, first appeared in comics in 1984.

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FRODE: It seems that you have a lot of knowledge about feudal Japan and the code of the samurai. Is it in your blood, maybe?

STAN SAKAI: Well, some of it is in my blood. I am half samurai. My mother is from the samurai class, and my father is descended from peasants. My father was stationed in Japan after WW2 and met the woman he would marry. Her father objected to the marriage, but not because he was an American (and the enemy), but because he was from a lower class.

I grew up in Hawaii where there is a large Japanese population, so I am familiar with many of the traditions and culture. I also do a lot of research for my stories.

FRODE: What are your influences for Usagi Yojimbo?

STAN SAKAI: I first wanted to do a series based on the life of Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai who lived during the turn of the 17th century. Much of Usagi's character is inspired by Musashi. Other influences are the many "chambara" (sword fighting) movies that I saw while growing up, and the comics (mainly Marvel) that I read as a child.

FRODE: Is Usagi Yojimbo popular in Japan?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi is not published in Japan. In fact, there is no Western comic that has ever made any serious impact in the Japanese manga market. There were a few Marvel comics, but those were rewritten and redrawn for the Japanese market. I went to Japan in 1998 as a guest of the Osamu Tezuka Studios, and I was surprised people knew who I was since Usagi is not easily available there.

Usagi is popular in Europe however. Stories have been translated in about 10 languages.

FRODE: Will there ever be a movie title called “Usagi Yojimbo - the movie” in the future?

STAN SAKAI: We frequently are approached by producers interested in an Usagi feature film or television series. There are no current plans for such a project, however Usagi and many of the characters in Usagi's world have guest starred in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle's TV series, currently on American TV.

FRODE: You told me earlier that book nr.19 will be out in a couple of months. Do you have a complete overview for our samurai rabbit’s future? Or are you taking it bit by bit to see where it ends? Any thoughts?

STAN SAKAI: I have major story arcs that I want to tell such as The Search for Hideyoshi's Gold and Tengu Wars. I space these longer stories apart, and tell shorter stories between them. So I may know what will happen in a long story arc two years from now, but I may not know what the story will be next month.

FRODE: You have worked with Usagi for over 20 years now. What is it about you that keeps you going, besides all your awards? A supportive wife, maybe?

STAN SAKAI: I really enjoy working on Usagi. My publishers do not bother me, so I have a lot of freedom in telling my stories as long as I meet my deadlines. My family, of course, has been very supportive--not only my wife and children, but also my parents who, 20 years ago, had doubts whether I could make a living as a cartoonist but still were supportive of me.

Also the Usagi readers are wonderful. I get a lot of feedback, and have gotten to meet a lot of readers all over the world. There is a fan-created website that they maintain that is amazing--much, much better than anything I could have done. The Usagi fans are terrific.

Thank you, Frode.

FRODE: And thanks to you Stan Sakai for your time. It has been an honor!
2:23 pm

Few years ago a friend lended me two comic books, unknown to me at that time - Torpedo and Usagi. Cynical gangster Torpedo didn't impressed me much. On the other hand, samurai rabbit Miyamoto Usagi, working as yojimbo, really delighted me; with art, and even more with the intelligent and interesting stories. For both the art and the scenario credit goes to one man - Stan Sakai.

Stan Sakai was born on May 25th, 1953 in Kyoto, Japan. As a two years old he relocated with his family to Hawaii, where he grew up. He received education on University of Hawaii, and also on Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

Mr. Sakai is very accessible and straight-forward man. When I contacted him via e-mail regarding some translations of parts of Official Usagi web page, he agreed without reservations. He also promptly agreed with my idea of conducting one short e-mail interview. Below there are questions from Usagi readers, members of www.stripovi.com forum, answered by Stan Sakai himself!

MARKOS: Does the Usagi series have planned end, or is it going on as ongoing, endless serial?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi was originally going to have a definite end. He would have died a marvelous death. However, the story has changed so much from the time I created him more than 20 years ago, that I can no longer use that ending. Also, I have so many more stories to tell about his adventures. It is now an ongoing series.

MARKOS: Jotaro has increasing role in series, what are your plans for him in the future?

STAN SAKAI: There are two books called "Travels with Jotaro" and "Fathers and Sons" in which Jotaro travels with Usagi. They get to know and learn from each other. Usagi is undecided whether or not to tell Jotaro that he (Usagi) is really the boy's father. The second book is being published in the United States this spring. After that, Jotaro will not be in the series for a while. I did enjoy doing these stories. Seeing how Usagi relates to a child was a lot of fun for me.

MARKOS: How can you keep this tempo, one Usagi month after month, for years now, and doing both scenario and art?

STAN SAKAI: Actually, I do only about 9 or 10 Usagi comics a year. That also gives me time to work on other projects, like something for the Simpsons, or working with Sergio Aragones on Groo the Wanderer. I don't know if these are known in Croatia. But I enjoy working on Usagi, and have a lot of stories I have not told yet.

MARKOS: Being American of Japanese roots, can you tell us how is Usagi (as comic) doing in Japan?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi is not published in Japan. There has never been a Western comic book that has made any lasting impression on the Japanese manga market. They did have a Spider-Man manga, but that was published with new stories and art just for the Japanese readers. Usagi is based on Japanese history and culture, but the storytelling is very Western. I was invited to Japan by Osamu Tezuka Studios years ago, and was surprised that people knew who I was.

DEGMAN: Do you plan to resume Space Usagi series?

STAN SAKAI: Space Usagi is a descendant of the original Usagi Yojimbo, but whose adventures take place in the far future. I did three SU mini-series. I do have one more Space Usagi story I want to tell, but I just do not have the time. Another project I have wanted to do for a long time is a tribute to H. G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" story. What if the martians had landed in feudal Japan?

DEGMAN: Asuming you like to go to comic conventions, would you consider to come to CRS (Comics Show) in Zagreb, Croatia?

STAN SAKAI: I really enjoy traveling. I was in Poland in October, in Spain at the end of November, and I will be in France and Switzerland in two weeks. I also have a trip to the Netherlands planned for the summer. So I would like to go to Croatia. Is this Zagreb show in late November? I had heard of that one. Unfortunately, I have already accepted an invitation to another show at that time so would be unable to attend this year. Perhaps I can be there another year.

I even know a few Croatian artists. I have known Darko Macan for years. We started corresponding even before he started working for Dark Horse in the United States. We even met twice at the San Diego Comic-con, the largest comics convention in the US. He is a wonderful writer, and an even more talented artist. I also admired his sometimes partner, artist Edvin Biukovik. I am sorry I never had the pleasure to meet him. Together they did the best Grendel stories ever published. He no longer lives in Croatia, but I got to know Igor Kordey when we were guests at a convention in Spain. A very nice, very talented man.

JGORAN5: Dou you plan anything between Usagi and Tomoe Ame in the future, I mean in romantic sense?

STAN SAKAI: I am currently working on a long story with Usagi and Tomoe. Usagi will be with Tomoe's Geishu clan for some time. Part of that story is preparing for another story titled "Tomoe's Wedding".

JGORAN5: When is Gen coming back, I mean something longer than few pages in #80? I miss that rhino already!

STAN SAKAI: Gen is one of my favorite characters, that is why he has appeared so often. You won't see him for a long time though, because he does not fit into the current 'Usagi and Tomoe' stories.

JGORAN5: Last few numbers being one shots, do you plan some longer 'story arc'?

STAN SAKAI: I alternate the short stories with the longer story arcs. The short stories are a good opportunity for new readers to start, but the older readers seem to prefer the longer epics. I am working on a long story called "The Treasure of the Mother of Mountains" beginning with issue 83 of the US Usagi comics. It costars Tomoe Ame.

EMIR PASANOVIC: Blind Pig with sword is hommage to what?

STAN SAKAI: My Zato-Ino the blind swordspig is a tribute to Zato-Ichi the blind swordsman. There were about 26 Zato-Ichi movies and a television series in Japan starring Shintaro Katsu. I used to see these when I was a child in Hawaii. There is a new Zato-Ichi movie that has recently come out. It stars Beat Takeshi, because Katsu died a few years ago.

WIZ: Why rabbit? Is it your favourite animal?

STAN SAKAI: I wanted to do a comic series based on a 17th century samurai named Miyamoto Musashi. One day, though, I drew a rabbit with his ears tied in a samurai hair style called a 'chonmage'. I loved the design. It was simple, but very striking. I kept my character as a rabbit. I actually think my stories work better with a rabbit as the main character rather than a human.

THOMMO: Tell us something about your less famous character, Nilson Groundthumper!

STAN SAKAI: Usagi lives in feudal Japan, but Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy live in Europe at the time. Nilson Groundthumper was first thought of as a 2500 page story telling about the end of the age of animals and the rise of the humans. Usagi was originally created to be a secondary character in the Nilson epic, and they meet about halfway through the story. However, I came to like Usagi a lot better so abandoned the Nilson character in favor of Usagi.

THOMMO: How do you choose the species of animal for your character?

STAN SAKAI: There are some characters for which I chose a specific animal because of certain qualities it may have--such as Usagi's teacher Katsuichi is a lion because of its nobility, or Zato-Ino is a pig because they have a very good sense of smell and because 'inoshishi' means 'wild pig' in Japanese. But for the most part, I just use whatever looks good.

THOMMO: Can you estimate how many characters there are in Usagi world? I mean important ones, with names.

STAN SAKAI: I don't know. I drew a poster a few years ago featuring many of the characters at a kite festival. It was also used for wraparound covers for two issues of the Usagi comics, and was printed in UY Book 16 "The Shrouded Moon", and the new "Art of Usagi Yojimbo" book.

THOMMO: Do you plan some more 'young Katsuichi' stories in future, like #71?

STAN SAKAI: I do have a few more Katsuichi stories. But the problem, as for many other stories, is that I just do not have the time to do all the stories I want to. But I'll get to them eventually. The good thing about this is that Usagi can continue for a long, long time.

WATASHI: Do you consider animated UY series, is that in plan?

STAN SAKAI: We are always being asked by companies to option Usagi for a movie or television series. I usually pass these requests on to my agent who handles such things. So far, nothing has come of these options other than a few animated demos. Not only have we been asked for the rights to do traditional animation, but also for computer animation, puppets and even a live action Usagi.

Usagi has appeared, and is appearing in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series in the United States. He and Gen guest-starred in a 4-part story last season. In an upcoming episode this season, Leonardo (one of the Turtles) goes to Usagi's world and there is a lot of my characters in that episode including Usagi, Gen, Tomoe, Lord Noriyki, Lord Hebi, the Neko (cat) ninja clan, and the Mole ninja clan.

WATASHI: Under what conditions would you agree to animated series?

STAN SAKAI: I would like to have a lot of input into the character designs, stories, and look of the series. That is something that many production companies do not like to give up, but I feel it is important that I keep those rights.

THOMMO: What comic genre do you personally like? Which characters?

STAN SAKAI: I like all genres -- super heroes, humor, adventures, detective, horror, etc. My favorite super hero is the Spider-Man (the older version by Steve Ditko that I grew up with). For humor, I like Sergio Aragones' Groo the Wanderer, and Jeff Smith's Bone. I also like Batman, Tintin, Lone Wolf and Cub and Astroboy.

THOMMO: Do you know anything about famous European comics, like Tex Willer, Alan Ford, Blueberry... ?

STAN SAKAI: I'm not familiar with Alan Ford, but I know the other two. I have a few Tex books--one illustrated by Joe Kubert, and another by Jordi Bernet. I've known of Giraud's Blueberry for quite awhile. I even knew Jean Giraud (Moebius) when he lived in Los Angeles many years ago.

Other European authors I enjoy are my friend Hermann (especially his Bois Maury series), Azpiri, i Milo Manara. Also the Blacksaad series for the beautiful full color artwork.

THOMMO: What can you say about late comic great Will Eisner?

STAN SAKAI: Though the Europeans have been producing albums for decades, Will was a pioneer in the American graphic album format. He was also its greatest author. Even in his 80's he was showing us all how it should be done.

He had many requests to write introductions or endorsements of other creators' works but he did them rarely. He wrote the introduction to one of my books -- Usagi Yojimbo: "Grasscutter". That story won an Eisner Award for Best Serialized Story in 1999. The Eisners are the most prestigious of the American comic book awards. I was honored to receive the award from Will. I even asked him to sign my award for me.
2:04 pm
A l’occasion de la parution en France des premiers tomes de sa saga fétiche, USAGI Yojimbo (Editions Paquet), Stan SAKAI, dessinateur américain d’origine japonaise, était présent au dernier festival d’Angoulême. Rencontre.

ANIMELAND: Vous êtes américain, mais quelles sont vos origines ?

STAN SAKAI: Je suis d’origine japonaise. En fait, je suis la troisième génération d’émigrants japonais. Mon père est né à Hawaii, mais il est retourné au Japon pour travailler et je suis né à Kyoto. Nous sommes ensuite retourné à Hawaii, où j’ai grandi et fait mes études.

ANIMELAND: Comment est né Usagi ?

STAN SAKAI: J’avais depuis toujours l’idée de réaliser une bande dessinée à partir de la vie de MIYAMOTO Musashi, le légendaire samouraï. Un jour, j’ai fait un croquis d’un lapin aux oreilles attachées, à la manière de ces guerriers d’autrefois. Ce visuel m’a beaucoup plu et semblé tellement original que j’ai commencé à dessiner les aventures de Miyamoto Usagi, « Usagi » signifiant « lapin » en japonais.

Je dessine les aventures d’Usagi depuis 17 ans maintenant, pour différents éditeurs. J’ai commencé avec Fantagraphics à Seattle, puis Usagi Yojimbo a été publié par Mirage et actuellement, je travaille pour Dark Horse.

ANIMELAND: Qu’apporte le dessin animalier à une histoire de samouraï ?

STAN SAKAI: C’est plus étrange, plus original. De plus cela me permet d’exagérer les expressions, les faciès de manière non réaliste. Enfin, j’apprécie le décalage ainsi créé entre l’aspect cartoon des personnages et le côté dramatique de certaines histoires.

ANIMELAND: Malgré cet aspect cartoon, Usagi Yojimbo est assez réaliste sur certains aspects de la culture et des rites du Japon médiéval. Avez vous besoin de vous documenter ?

STAN SAKAI: A Hawaï, il y a une forte communauté d’origine japonaise. J’ai donc grandi dans cette culture, grâce aux livres et au cinéma. De plus, j’essaie toujours de faire le maximum de recherches, par respect pour ma culture d’origine. Néanmoins, je travaille dans un domaine qui est celui de l’entertainment. Les recherches ne doivent pas alourdir le récit : l’histoire passe avant tout.

ANIMELAND: Quelles sont vos sources d’inspirations ?

STAN SAKAI: Pour l’aspect culture japonaise, je me réfère essentiellement à des classiques comme les romans de YOSHIKAWA Eiji ou les films de KUROSAWA Akira. Graphiquement, la plupart de mes influences sont occidentales : les séries Marvel de Jack KIRBY et Stan LEE, le travail de MOEBIUS et de… MANARA, dont j’apprécie la maîtrise du noir et blanc. Pour ce qui est de la construction du récit et des personnages, je m’inspire beaucoup du cinéma américain. J’aime la manière dont certains cinéastes, comme James CAMERON par exemple, introduisent les personnages et nous font ressentir leur personnalité de prime abord à travers des gestes, des postures, des attitudes. C’est ce que j’ai essayé de faire dans Usagi YOJIMBO avec le personnage de Gen. Son faciès mal rasé, la manière dont il se déplace, dont il tient ses armes, sont sensés nous renseigner sur sa personnalité.

ANIMELAND: Avez-vous le sentiment que le comics s’ouvre de plus en plus aux cultures étrangères, ou votre cas est-il particulier ?

STAN SAKAI: L’Amérique est un pays étrange. Je ne comprends pas pourquoi l’industrie du comics se concentre autant sur les Super Héros, alors qu’en Europe ou au Japon, de nombreux genres cohabitent. Il faut dire qu’aux Etats-Unis, les majors contrôlent la majeure partie du marché… De ce point de vue là, Usagi est certainement plus international. Néanmoins, ce que je fais est résolument « occidental » : mon travail n’a rien à voir avec les styles de récit japonais.

ANIMELAND: Connaissez vous bien la bande dessinée japonaise ?

STAN SAKAI: Je ne lis pas beaucoup de manga, ou du moins pas régulièrement. En 1997, je suis allé au Japon pour rencontrer des dessinateurs et des animateurs. L’industrie de la bande dessinée et de l’animation est complètement différente de celle des Etats-Unis. J’ai été impressionné par la taille et la puissance de leurs maisons d’édition : des centaines de personnes travaillent dans les locaux de la Kôdansha ! Ce qui m’a également frappé, c’est que ces éditeurs n’éditent pas seulement du manga, mais aussi toutes sortes de livres. La bande dessinée n’est pas enfermée dans un ghetto éditorial, comme aux Etats-Unis : c’est une chance énorme.

ANIMELAND: Usagi a-t-il été publié au Japon ?

STAN SAKAI: Non, et je ne pense pas qu’il le sera un jour. Très peu de comics sont traduits au Japon.

ANIMELAND: Avez vous déjà reçu des offres pour adapter Usagi en animation ?

STAN SAKAI: Oui, plusieurs. Des options ont été prises pour la télévision et même le cinéma. Mais à ce jour, aucun projet n’a abouti.

ANIMELAND: Sur quoi travaillez-vous actuellement ?

STAN SAKAI: Usagi, toujours Usagi ! Je n’arrive pas à m’en lasser ! Depuis 6 ans, j’ai lancé une série parallèle, Space Usagi, qui raconte les aventures d’un descendant du personnage original dans un univers de space opera. Je viens d’en terminer la première série et m’apprête à en lancer une seconde. Ces dernières années, j’ai également travaillé sur divers projets en collaboration, notamment avec Sergio ARAGONES, et j’ai écrit un sketch pour un épisode spécial des Simpsons. Mais je reviens toujours à mon personnage fétiche : presque vingt ans après l’avoir créé, je l’aime toujours…
1:59 pm
"En dessinant le chignon de mon personnage principal, j’ai dérivé sur des oreilles de lapin et naturellement Usagi est devenu un samouraï lapin."
Dans cet univers qu’est la bande dessinée, plusieurs dimensions cohabitent plus ou moins bien. La bande dessinée franco-belge, le comics et le manga ont leurs fans et leurs détracteurs. Pourtant quelques fois une personne permet de relier ces dimensions. Né au Japon mais émigré au USA depuis de nombreuses années, Stan Sakaï est l’une de ces personnes, et c’est avec plein de générosité et de gentillesse qu’il s’est prêté à l’exercice de l’interview.

WEB OTAKU: Monsieur Sakai, bonjour.

STAN SAKAI: Bonjour.

WEB OTAKU: Pouvez-vous vous présenter à nos amis internautes ?

STAN SAKAI: Cela fait maintenant 20 ans que je travaille aux USA, et j’y ai publié 18 volumes des aventures d’Usagi Yojimbo. En France, j’en suis à mon 4e album (vous pouvez même en trouver 6 au format manga aux éditions Paquet, NDR). Le 19e volume sort en mars aux USA.

WEB OTAKU: Usagi, Zato-Ino, Genosuke peuvent être identifiés à des figures du folklore japonais, seul le nom change. Est-ce la même chose pour Tomoe ?

STAN SAKAI: En effet je me suis inspiré des films japonais mettant en scène ce genre de personnages. Zato-Ino est le rônin aveugle Zatoichi, et Genosuke a été inspiré de Mifune, un mercenaire. Quant à Usagi, il est la réplique lagomorphe du célèbre samouraï Miyamoto Musashi. Tomoe aussi est inspirée d’un personnage historique, Tomoe Gozen, une figure forte des femmes japonaises.

WEB OTAKU: Les personnages sont des animaux, et ils sont très réalistes autant dans leurs attitudes que dans leur raisonnement. Pourquoi avoir choisi des animaux, et pourquoi avoir choisi d’ajouter des dinosaures ?

STAN SAKAI: (Rires) Dans cet univers, les animaux - chats, lapins, cochons… - sont des humains, donc je voulais que les animaux soient autre chose, et ils sont devenus des dinosaures. Quant au choix d’utiliser des animaux comme personnages, ce n’était pas ce que je voulais au début, mais en dessinant le chignon de mon personnage principal, j’ai dérivé sur des oreilles de lapin et naturellement Usagi est devenu un samouraï lapin. Les autres personnages ont suivi.

WEB OTAKU: Vous venez des Etats-Unis, que pensez-vous des fans français ?

STAN SAKAI: J’aime beaucoup venir en France et en Europe en général, le public y est différent.

WEB OTAKU: C’est votre deuxième séjour en France ?

STAN SAKAI: Oui c’est la deuxième fois que je viens à Angoulême.

WEB OTAKU: Dans le tome 3, on voit lors d’une aventure une tortue ninja. Y a-t-il eu d‘autres cross-over ?

STAN SAKAI: Oui, Usagi a combattu durant 4 épisodes auprès des tortues puis elles sont venues dans son univers où elles ont rencontré Tomoe, Zato-Ino et Genosuke.

Comment se passe un tel épisode ?

Et bien je supervise le script et le design depuis le début jusqu’à la fin.

WEB OTAKU: Que pensez-vous de la popularité du manga qui grandit de plus en plus?

STAN SAKAI: J’ai lu des manga depuis tout petit, bien avant qu’il ne devienne populaire. J’ai grandi avec le monde de Tezuka. Il y a 7 ans j’ai même été invité par les studios Tezuka et j’ai rencontré des mangaka, c’était formidable. Et j’aimerais beaucoup retourner au Japon.

WEB OTAKU: Usagi est-il traduit en Japonais ?

STAN SAKAI: Non, Usagi n’existe pas au Japon autrement qu’en Comics.

WEB OTAKU: Monsieur Sakai, merci pour cette interview et je vous souhaite de continuer à nous émerveiller par votre style de dessin.

WEB OTAKU: Stan prend alors une feuille de papier et fait un joli dessin qu’il dédicace au site www.webotaku.com. Cet auteur est vraiment un auteur proche de son public et à la fois très discret. Si vous venez le voir lors d’une séance de dédicace, vous ne verrez sûrement pas de grande file d’attente, et vous pourrez alors discuter avec lui et lui demander votre personnage préféré. Cette interview a été entièrement réalisée en anglais.
1:53 pm
ANIWAY #10, JUNI 2002
In April van dit jaar zag de Nederlandstalige editie van USAGI Y0JIMB0 (letterlijk: ‘konijn lijfwacht) het levenslicht. Het is een Amerikaanse strip met een Japans tintje dat al vele jaren grote populariteit geniet in het Amerikaanse indie-stripcircuit. Ter gelegenheid van de Nederlandse introductie nodigde de bekende Haarlemse stripwinkel BeeDee de tekenaar, Stan Sakai, uit voor een signeersessie.
Tijd voor een interview dus!
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ANIWAY: Meneer Sakai, kunt u ons om te beginnen iets over uzelf vertellen?

STAN SAKAI: Mijn vader was een tweede generatie Japanse immigrant, geboren op HawaI. Hij was als militair gestationeerd op een Amerikaanse basis in Japan en ontmoet te daar mijn moeder. Na de geboorte van mijn broer en ik keerde hij met zijn gezin terug naar Hawal. Hoewel Japan mijn geboorteland is, ben ik dus in feite een derde generatie Japanse immigrant.

ANIWAY: USAGI Y0JIMB0 is een product van twee culturen; Japanse themas in combinatie met een Amerikaanse vertelwijze. Ziet u hier wat in?

STAN SAKAI: Ja, maar ik moet er nog bij zeggen dat de meeste mensen mijn stijl typisch Europees vinden (lacht).

ANIWAY: Stripzaken plaatsen USAGI nu vaak bij de manga. Wat vindt u hier van?
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STAN SAKAI: Usagi is gedurende zijn achttienjarige loopbaan voornamelijk als comic bekend geworden. Een nieuwe omgeving is denk ik wel prettig voor hem en natuurlijk vind ik het ook leuk dat een ander publiek met mijn werk in aanraking komt.

ANIWAY: Hoe kwam het zo dat dieren de hoofdrollen vervullen? Meestal zie je dit in alleen in ‘furry’ series en materiaal voor kinderen.

STAN SAKAI: Het plan om een strip te maken met Musashi Miyamoto in de hoofdrol speel de al lang bij mij. Ik zat wat schetsen te maken van de hoofdpersoon toen ik op eens een konijn tekende. Zijn bijeengebonden oren weerspiegelden de typische haardracht van de samurai. Het uitein delijke ontwerp zag er vrij anders uit, maar zijn karakteristieke oren heb ik sindsdien noolt meer gewijzigd.

ANIWAY: Usagi is in de loop van tijd veranderd in meer dan alleen uiterlijk.

STAN SAKAI: Dat klopt. In het begin van zijn carrière was hij erg onbezonnen en trok hij bij het minste geringste zijn zwaard. Nu hij wat ouder en wijzer geworden is zal hij eerst proberen een gevecht te vermijden, hoewel hij nou ook niet bepaald 100% pacifistisch is. Usagi probeert zijn leven volgens de bushido (weg van de krijgskunst) te leven en dat gaat niet zonder slag of stoot. Verder is natuurlijk mijn teken- en vertelstijl ook veranderd.

ANIWAY: Over tekenstijl gesproken, u prefereert nog altijd zwart-wit boven de typische ‘comics inkleuring’.

STAN SAKAI: Monochroom artwork benadert mijn originele tekeningen het best, dat is voor mu de hoofdreden om niet in kleur te werken. Dat ene nummer dat we in kleur deden genereerde erg veel klachten...

ANIWAY: Toch heeft u zelf de covers van de verzamelbundels geschilderd, beviel dat?
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STAN SAKAI: ZeIf was ik wel te spreken over het resultaat, ik zou alleen willen dat ik een beter schilder was (lacht). Wat meer tijd om te schilderen zou ook wel mooi zijn, want het is een erg tijdrovend proces.

ANIWAY: Usagi zwerft al sinds 1984 rond als ronin (meesterloze samurai). Wat gaat de toekomst voor hem brengen? Met andere woorden; heeft u al een definitief einde voor zijn verhaal in gedachten?

STAN SAKAI: Als het moment daar is, zal hij een uiterst glorieuze dood sterven! (lacht) Nee, voorlopig blijft Usagi gewoon doen waar hij goed in is. Een idee heb ik wel, maar het einde is voorlopig niet in zicht.

ANIWAY: In USAGI Y0JIMB0 is veel research gaan zitten. Heeft dit de visie die de VS op strips had lets veranderd?

STAN SAKAI: Een beetje wel. Momenteel wordt USAGI op de staatsuniversiteit van Portland gebruikt als studiemateriaal.

ANIWAY: Heeft u ter afsluiting nog iets dat u tegen onze lezers wilt zeggen?

STAN SAKAI: Ik ben erg trots op deze Nederlands talige editie. De nieuwe flipcovers zijn door Nederlandse en Belgische tekenaars getekend die allen zeer goed werk hebben geleverd. De kwaliteit als geheel is zelfs beter dan het Amerikaanse origi neel; dikker papieç vollere zwarting en geplastificeerde covers. Zelfs de vertaling is beter! (lacht). Ik hoop dat iedereen bier Usagis avonturen leuk zal vinden.

ANIWAY: Dank voor dit interview.

STAN SAKAI: Het was mij een genoegen.
1:41 pm
Meer dan drieduizend pagina's heeft de uit Japan afkomstige tekenaar Stan Sakai achter de rug waarin Usagi Yojimbo, het ondertussen beroemde albinokonijn in samoeraipak, een prominente rol wordt toebedeeld. De op de historische Miyamoto Mushashi gebaseerde langoor is ondertussen in negen talen vertaald. De eerste vier comics zijn in het Nederlands verschenen, en in de Japanse Toren in Laken vindt een kleine expositie plaats. Een gesprek over geweld, The Simpsons, Amerikaanse ouders, research en Japanse folklore.
Geert De Weyer
'De Japanse legendes blinken nu eenmaal uit in geweld'

Wie denkt dat de 48-jarige, in Kyoto (Japan) geboren Stan Sakai zweert bij manga, oftewel het Japanse stripverhaal, vergist zich danig. "Ik ben Japans-Amerikaans van de derde generatie en groeide op met Amerikaanse comics. Ik wist wat manga's waren, maar verkoos ze liever niet te lezen wegens het ontbreken van ook maar enige emotionele binding.

Hoewel hij van het begin van het interview meteen duidelijk maakt dat hij maar wat graag wil terugkeren naar Japan en in zijn verhalen steeds weer de Japanse cultuur en folklore bewierookt, is er geen haar op zijn hoofd dat eraan denkt op een zelfs riante aanbieding vanuit zijn geboorteland in te gaan. "Manga is mijn stijl niet en het zou betekenen dat ik Usagi de nek moet omdraaien. In Japan moet ik er namelijk niet aan denken mijn strip aan een uitgever voor te stellen. Het doet er niets. Helemaal niets! Geen enkele buitenlandse strip heeft daar trouwens ooit voet aan de grond gekregen."

"In 1998 werd ik tot mijn grote verbazing uitgenodigd door Osamu Tezuka Productions (de firma van de overleden, wereldvermaarde tekenaar van 'Astroboy', GDW) en ook al gingen de gesprekken over strips, op geen enkel moment had ik het gevoel dat er interesse was om mijn werk te verspreiden in Japan. Maar goed, het klopt wel dat ik graag zou willen publiceren in Shonen Jump, een striptijdschrift dat met een oplage van vier miljoen het best verkochte ter wereld is. Het is de droom van menig tekenaar om daarin te staan, maar dat wil niet zeggen dat ik er mijn ziel wil voor verkopen."

Sakai zegt dolblij te zijn met zijn antropomorfe stripfiguur, dat tekenen hem absolute vrijheid geeft en dat er zelfs na achttien jaar geen sprake is van sleur. Misschien heeft dat wel met zijn unieke contract te maken. Zijn lijvige overeenkomst met Dark Horse is dan ook in die mate opgesteld dat enige controle of bemoeizucht van de uitgeverij onmogelijk wordt gemaakt. "Ik ontwerp, teken, doe mijn eigen lettering en wanneer alles klaar is, lever ik het in en zij geven het uit. That's that".


De reeks 'Usagi Yojimbo' (letterlijk zou het 'lijfwachtkonijn' betekenen) speelt zich af in het feodale Japan van de zeventiende eeuw. Hoofdpersonage is een zekere Miyamoto Usagi, een samoerai die plots zijn heer verliest tijdens een veldslag en vanaf dan, in acht nemend dat een samoerai tijdens één leven slechts één heer kan dienen, doelloos en eenzaam rondreist op zoek naar de geest van de krijger, de bushido.

Auteur Sakai dompelt de pelsen samoerai op zijn tocht onder in de Japanse folklore, waar om elke hoek wel een kappa (watergeest) of tengu (bergkwelgeest) zijn opwachting maakt. Avontuur met grote A dus, waarin fantasy, historiek en mythologie naadloos in elkaar overlopen. "Maar tussen de regels", zo meent de auteur, "gaat het vooral over een man die op zoek is naar zijn innerlijke, spirituele zelf."

Sakai baseerde zich voor zijn figuurtje op een historische en in Japan razend populaire figuur: Miyamoto Mushashi. "Behalve dat die man twee legendarische zwaarden ontwierp en beschouwd wordt als de belichaming van de samoerai, stond hij bekend als filosoof, beeldhouwer en dichter. Hij is in ontelbare films en boeken opgedoken. Het eerste idee was een reeks baseren op zijn leven, maar na een tijdje begon ik te spelen met de figuren en besloot ik hem niet alleen een pels en flaporen te geven, maar veranderde ik ook zijn naam van Miyamoto Mushashi naar Miyamoto Usagi. Later doken nog andere historische figuren op als de Date Masamune, een van de machtige heersers in het feodale Japan die shogun wilde worden, of Tomoe Gozen, een vrouwelijke strijdster die geroemd werd om haar schoonheid en speertechnieken (grijnst). In mijn comic heb ik er een kattenstrijdster van gemaakt. Ook een mooie dame, hoor."

Ondanks de gruwelen en het geweld wordt Usagi Yojimbo over de hele wereld gecatalogiseerd als een zogenaamd 'funny animal', en dat zint Sakai wel. "Ik vind het een goed woord. Weet je, elk dier met een zachte uitstraling dat tot me spreekt - of het nu Bugs Bunny, Stampertje uit Bambi of een ander Disney-karakter is - noem ik meteen een funny animal. Natuurlijk, als je Usagi in heel agressieve of serieuze scènes ziet, schrik je daar wel even van, maar ik beroep me erop dat ik het geweld heb kunnen inperken. Je zult, zoals in manga's, geen afgehakte hoofden, bebloede ledematen of afgrijselijk verminkte personages tegenkomen."

Toch blijft het vreemd dat Sakai nota bene in de VS met de Parents Choice Award (PCA) werd gelauwerd, een prijs die wordt uitgereikt aan auteurs die kindvriendelijke uitgaven maken en zich vervolgens inzet om net die werken te promoten bij andere ouders over de hele VS. "Het zal je misschien nog meer verbazen, maar een van mijn boeken wordt zelfs als lesmateriaal gebruikt in scholen waar de Japanse cultuur wordt aangehaald. De ouders van de PCA hebben het gelukkig goed begrepen. Mijn verhalen mogen dan soms gewelddadig lijken, ze zijn in de eerste plaats verweven met de werkelijke geschiedenis en zijn historisch correct. En die Japanse veldslagen en legendes, wel, die blinken nu eenmaal uit in geweld. (Grijnst) Kan ik het helpen?!"

The Simpsons

In Amerika is Sakai ondertussen een grote meneer. Sinds hij achttien jaar geleden in de stripindustrie terechtkwam, heeft hij meer dan 3.000 pagina's bijeen getekend, wat goed was voor zo'n 125 comics. Elk jaar komen er daar nog eens zo'n tien bij. Hij sleepte, vaak voor zijn uitmuntende en minutieuze research, tientallen prijzen en belangrijke nominaties in de wacht, waaronder drie Eisner Awards en, onlangs nog, een American Library Association Award. De Japanse Amerikaan beweert bij hoog en bij laag geen weet te hebben van hoeveel exemplaren er van 'Usagi' ondertussen over de toonbank gingen, maar voegt er meteen aan toe dat die oplage zelfs niet in de buurt komt van de superheldencomics van Marvel of DC Comics. Nochtans kan hij op niet weinig respect rekenen binnen het wereldje.

Wanneer jaarlijks een bundeling van zijn comics verschijnt dringen de internationale grootmeesters zich op om een voorwoord te mogen schrijven. Op die manier slopen de namen van Will Eisner, Jodorowsky en Stan Lee in 's mans oeuvre en mocht onlangs ook Max Allen Collins zich aan dat lijstje toevoegen, wiens strip Hellevaart door Dreamworks wordt verfilmd en bij de literaire uitgeverij Atlas is verschenen. Ook Matt Groening zag brood in Sakai en stelde hem voor een Simpsons-aflevering te tekenen. "Vooral Matts kinderen zijn grote fans van Usagi", grijnst hij. "Ik heb een grote bewondering voor Matt en voor The Simpsons, dus ik moest niet lang aarzelen voor ik toezegde een verhaal te tekenen. Stel je er niet te veel van voor, hoor. Ik heb een kortverhaal uit de Halloween-cyclus gemaakt. That's it."

Dat zijn eigen figuurtje erg populair is, mag blijken uit het feit dat hij in de voorbije jaren tal van producers over de vloer kreeg. Maar de ontmoetingen waren van kortstondige aard en mondden telkens opnieuw uit in een teleurstelling. "Ach, in de Verenigde Staten wordt op elk project wel eens een filmoptie genomen", blaast hij. "Maar het probleem dat zich bij Usagi voordoet, is dat het weliswaar een leuk karaktertje lijkt, maar dat de verhalen vaak te serieus van toon zijn. Daar botsen we telkens opnieuw over. En vermits ik die verhaaltjes weiger aan te passen, gebeurt er in feite niets. Het dichtst bij ons doel waren we toen een televisiemaatschappij me vroeg designschetsen te maken, maar ook dat stopte abrupt. Daarna volgden nog voorstellen voor een animatiefilm en het laatste voorstel dat ik hoorde was om er een poppenfilm van te maken."

Op de vraag of het samoeraikonijn niet uitermate geschikt is als gameheld, zwijgt hij even. "Ik vind het niet leuk om over toekomstige projecten te praten," klinkt het verveeld, "maar goed; ja op dit moment is Gameboy bezig met de productie van 'Usagi'. Maar ik blijf wantrouwig; er ligt namelijk een grote stap tussen de ontwikkeling en de verkoop. Voorlopig wil ik me dan ook op het tekenen toeleggen. De rest interesseert me niet meer".

De eerste vier deeltjes van Usagi Yojimbo verschenen bij uitgeverij Enigma. De backcover werd telkens door een tekenaar van hier getekend (Jean-Philippe Stassen, Alec Severin, Mauricet en Mick Oosterveer). De expositie in de Japanse Toren in Brussel, waar Sakai een vijftiental werken heeft hangen samen met de Belgische auteur Michetz (Kogaratsu) loopt nog tot 29 september.

Info: 02/268.16.08.
1:35 pm
The story goes as follows: In the early 1980s, a young cartoonist named Stan Sakai became interested in telling stories inspired by the life of a legendary Japanese ronin swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, in comics form. During the process of preparing for the series, Sakai illustrated, on a lark, an image of a rabbit whose ears were pulled up into a samurai topknot.

Sakai fell in love with the design, and soon after in Albedo #2, he published the first story of Miyamoto Usagi (Usagi being Japanese for rabbit). A few issues later, Usagi Yojimbo (Yojimbo is Japanese for bodyguard) moved to the Fantagraphics anthology Critters, and soon after the Critters debut, Usagi Yojimbo became its own Fantagraphics series, running for an impressive 38 issues and five specials. In 1993, with sales of black & white comics at an all time low and Fantagraphics moving away from all-ages titles, Sakai made the move to color, publishing 16 issues with Mirage Studios, publishers of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Many Usagi fans had their first encounter with the ronin rabbit in one of his guest appearances on the Turtles extremely popular cartoon series.

After 16 issues with Mirage, the publisher (temporarily, as it turned out) folded up shop, and Sakai was looking for a new home. It didn’t take long. Dark Horse’s Usagi Yojimbo #1 appeared in stores in the spring of 1996. Originally scheduled as a three-issue miniseries, fan response meant that Usagi soon had a fourth issue, and he just kept on counting from there. Ten years later, and 99 issues after that Dark Horse debut, in January, Usagi Yojimbo will reach a milestone that few independent comics, and fewer series with anthropomorphized stars, dream of reaching.

In honor of Usagi’s 100th Dark Horse issue, here are ten questions with series creator Stan Sakai.

NEWSARAMA: First off Stan, although we’re talking about the 100th Dark Horse issue, you’ve actually created around 160 Usagi comics, plus short pieces for countless anthologies, and you’ve been doing it for just over twenty years now. Did you ever expect Usagi to have this kind of staying power? And how gratifying is it to you to still be producing stories that you obviously care for after all these years.

STAN SAKAI: When Usagi was first being published 22 years ago, I was just concerned about coming up with the next story. It was not until Usagi received his own series that I thought Usagi had a real future. It is very gratifying that Usagi is still around, not only in the US but in quite a few other countries as well.

NEWSARAMA: You started off wanting to tell stories about Miyamoto Musashi. Miyamoto Usagi has clearly gone his own way, but do you sometimes find yourself looking back to Musashi’s life for inspiration still?

STAN SAKAI: I never intended to do a biography of Musasahi, but rather to use his life as an inspiration for my own stories. Sometimes I think that Usagi should be more like Musashi, not as a swordsman but rather as an artist and philosopher. Those are aspects of Usagi that I would like to explore a bit more.

NEWSARAMA: Has reaching your 100th issue affected how you plot the series? Readers have noticed a return to prominence by the demon-swordsman Jei and his current host Inazuma.

STAN SAKAI: The numbering has not affected my storylines. The Jei/Inazuma storyline will be the next major arc. This was something that needed to be resolved, and I had originally scheduled it for much earlier. There were just a few other stories that I wanted to do first.

NEWSARAMA: How far ahead do you plot these days? Clearly, a story like Grasscutter was set up far in advance, and in the most recent TPB, Glimpses of Death, it seems clear that you are moving the supporting characters into place for something bigger.

STAN SAKAI: I’ve hinted at a few storylines that will not be resolved for years to come. Lady Tomoe’s Wedding is one of them. I have a few big stories planned; however, it’s writing those smaller stories between the big ones that are the more difficult.

NEWSARAMA: You’ve established a very rich supporting cast — Kitsune, the traveling entertainer and pickpocket; Gen, the outwardly brusque bounty hunter; Inspector Ishida; Usagi’s son Jotaro; Sanshobo the priest, any many more — do you have any favorites among them? Is it gratifying when you can move Usagi off-stage for an issue and another cast member carry a story with hardly any readers noticing the disappearance of the series’ protagonist?

STAN SAKAI: Gen is one of the oldest, and one of my favorite supporting characters. He works well against Usagi—both physically, and personality-wise. He is a rhino, and I like to play his massiveness against Usagi’s smaller frame. He is also a lot more boisterous and conniving, so I like to use him against Usagi’s quiet honor. Many of the supporting cast have their own fan clubs, so I like to use them in stand alone-stories to develop them a bit more fully, and to show that they have “lives” that do not revolve around Usagi.

NEWSARAMA: Issue #100 features a terrific range of guest creators — Sergio Aragones, Guy Davis, Mark Evanier, Rick Geary, Frank Miller, Jamie S. Rich, your publisher Mike Ricardson, Scott Shaw!, Jeff Smith and Andi Watson — and has been described as a “celebrity roast.” Who’s idea was it to assemble such an issue?

STAN SAKAI: I have to give the credit to my editor, Diana Schutz. It was all her idea, and she contacted the creators. I’ve been working with her for quite a few years so she knows who my favorites cartoonists are, and she got them all. We found that we had an extra page, so Matt Wagner is in there as well. I did not see any of the pages until the creators were finished, and I had to do a few framing sequences. All the stories are terrific. I’m very pleased at how this turned out.

NEWSARAMA: Amid all of that “roasting,” will readers get to see any ongoing Usagi developments, or is this issue going to be mostly a celebration of Usagi’s (and your) staying power?

STAN SAKAI: It’s pretty much a roast. I know these guys pretty well, especially Sergio. He tells about some of the traveling we’ve done together. Guy Davis has a hilarious dream sequence, and Jeff Smith tells of an “incident” during our Trilogy 2 Tour.

NEWSARAMA: You have on at least one occasion, Space Usagi, done something fairly different from your regular work on Usagi Yojimbo. Do you have other stories that you still want to tell? Is there any chance of Nilson Groundthumper seeing the light of day again?

STAN SAKAI: There are a few projects that I’ve been wanting to do: a final Space Usagi mini-series, a few more Nilson Groundthumpers, and a War of the Worlds mini-series. But I really enjoy working on Usagi, and it’s difficult to lay that aside, even for a little while.

NEWSARAMA: After two decades chronicling the stories of a ronin rabbit, what inspires you to continue sitting down at the drawing board and finding new places for Usagi to wander?

STAN SAKAI: Working on Usagi is like working with a hydra—for every story I finish, it leads to two new story ideas. My biggest inspiration, however, is my editor Diana. When she tells me she expects a story done by the first of the month, you’d better believe she gets it by the first.

NEWSARAMA: Would you care to offer any hints about what is coming up beyond issue #100?

STAN SAKAI: I’ll be wrapping up a story that I started in Usagi Yojimbo #95. An assassin is on Usagi’s tail. He catches up to our hero while he is still weak after being poisoned by a ninja dart. Beyond that, Jei, the demonic spearman, is one of my most popular villains, and I’ll be exploring his origins.

For any current information, you can always go to the Usagi website at: www.usagiyojimbo.com.
Friday, November 17th, 2006
4:11 am

Zapis spotkania ze Stanem Sakai na Międzynarodowym Festiwalu Komiksu w Łodzi 16 października 2004.

Uwaga: Zapisu dokonany odręcznie, mający raczej oddać sens wypowiedzi, niż odtworzyć ją słowo po słowie. Przepraszamy za nieścisłości, szczególnie osoby, które rozpoznają własne pytania. Tłumaczenia niektórych fragmentów odpowiedzi/pytań są dokonane samodzielnie z uwagi na niezbyt udaną pracę zatrudnionego do tej roli tłumacza festiwalowego.

[Początek spotkania wypadł dość zabawnie... Nie było jeszcze prowadzącego (tylko tłumacz), a za gościem zaczęto rozstawiać 5 sztalug. Przez chwilę Sakai przestraszył się, że będzie musiał rysować aż tyle grafik, ale okazało się, że były to przygotowania do konkursu, który rozgrywał się w tle. Z braku prowadzącego Sakai zachował się jak profesjonalista i zaczął sam.]

Jestem Stan Sakai. Najpierw pokażę wam, jak rysuję. Potem znajdzie się czas na pytania.

[Następnie Sakai podszedł do sztalugi, narysował Usagiego i tokage (z charakterystycznym "EEP!", a potem przeszedł do przedstawienia swojego warsztatu scenarzysty. W międzyczasie sporo mówił, między innymi następujące rzeczy...]

Starzeję się.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: dlaczego królik?

Od czterech [lub trzech, nie jestem pewien - przyp.rep.] pokoleń jestem w Ameryce i chciałem narysować serię o słynnym szermierzu Miyamoto Musashi. Zacząłem od związanych uszu, a że bardzo spodobał mi się ten pomysł, zacząłem tworzyć serię o Miyamoto Usagi. A usagi to po japoński królik. Słowo yojimbo oznacza zaś ochroniarza, miecz do wynajęcia. Tworzę tą serię już od 20 lat, ukazało się 18 tomów, jeden o potomku Usagiego - Space Usagi.

Komiks bawi, ale może też uczyć, więc jak najwięcej szukam, czytam. O historii, kulturze, festiwalach...

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy gatunki zwierząt determinują stronę, po której stoją?

STAN SAKAI: Nie, to nie ma znaczenia. Ilu spośród was chce zostać rysownikami? O, wielu... Teraz opowiem, jak robię zeszyt. Zawsze jestem pytany o to, jak znajduję pomysł, a ja nie jestem w stanie odpowiedzieć. Czytam, oglądam nawet telewizję, ale początek znajduje się w szkicowniku. Wcześniej są notki, opisy dialogów, fragmenty akcji... [Sakai pokazuje kilka kartek] To cała historia Usagiego: dwie, trzy strony na całą opowieść. Potem rysuję plany poszczególnych stron. Są szybkie, proste.

Ponieważ jestem zarówno scenarzystą jak i rysownikiem, nie muszą być wyraźne, ja i tak wiem, o co chodzi. [Rysując storyboard strony] Usagi idzie przez las, na drugim kadrze czają się bandyci, potem atakują, a Usagi wyciąga miecz. Na dole mamy scenę walki, jeden z napastników ucieka [z charakterystycznym: "Yow!" - przyp.rep.] Gdybym pokazywał to komuś innemu, rysowałbym dokładniej. Potem szkicuję ołówkiem na planszy o znacznie większym formacie, dzięki czemu potem, po zmniejszeniu, znikają wszelkie nierówności. Zwykle kładę tusz na ołówek, ale czasem zdarza mi się powtórzyć operację jeszcze raz. Szesnaście numerów Usagiego powstało w kolorze. Przy barwnych stronach wysyłałem ksero koloryście, a on malował.

Teraz robi się to oczywiście na komputerze. [Potem Sakai pokazał, nakładając na siebie kilka folii, jak łączy się w druku kolory, by uzyskać ostateczny efekt]. Oto okładka do jednego z zeszytów w USA - przy wydruku najpierw nakłada się żółć, potem czerwień, potem kolejne kolory. Na koniec idzie czarny. Teraz Usagi jest czarno-biały, ale co jakiś czas w tomikach pojawiają się akwarele. I tak właśnie powstaje odcinek. A tutaj mam rysunek, który powstał z okazji przybycia do Polski i ukazał się w tomie tutaj wydanym. Oryginał zostanie zlicytowany.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy wprowadzenie Yotaro sprawi, że Usagi zejdzie na dalszy plan?

STAN SAKAI: Nie. W USA Yotaro odchodzi z sensei w góry, ten wątek się skończył. Yotaro został stworzony dlatego, iż Musashi miał syna o tym imieniu.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Jaszczurki? Skąd się wzięły? Jaka jest ich funkcja?

STAN SAKAI: W Japonii nie ma tokage. Kocham rysować dinozaury i stąd te jaszczurki. Mają swoje miejsce w tym świecie - tu nie ma przecież zwierząt domowych.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Do jakiego stopnia czerpie pan z historii, a do jakiego z tradycji amerykańskiej (np. westernu)?

STAN SAKAI: Urodziłem się w Japonii, mój ojciec służył tam po wojnie i ożenił się z matką, czemu zresztą przeciwny był dziadek. Chodziło o to, że mój ojciec był niskiego pochodzenia, a matka należała do kasty samurajskiej. Moja rodzina wróciła na Hawaje, gdy miałem 2 lata, ale wychowywałem się również w kulturze japońskiej.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Wątki, które znamy z mangi, w przypadku komiksów o Usagim wydają się czytelniejsze. Czy czuje się panem przekazicielem tej tradycji?

STAN SAKAI: Raczej wolę bawić. Historia i badanie jej ulepszają tylko zabawę. Stanowi wyłącznie dodatek, ale błędy w badaniu źródeł mogą popsuć opowieść. Zdarzały mi się zresztą pomyłki, np. w momencie, gdy Usagi gra w go... Jako dziecko grałem w go, ale tak naprawdę ta gra nazywała się gomoku. Plansza jest ta sama, ale zasady już inne. O pomyłce dowiedziałem się w Niemczech, ale w reprincie zeszytu już mogłem to poprawić.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy lubi pan filmy Kurosawy? Jakie wątki z nich pan wykorzystuje?

STAN SAKAI: Czy lubi pan filmy Kurosawy? Jakie wątki z nich pan wykorzystuje?

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy pojawiły się jakieś propozycje z wytwórni filmowych, by stworzyć film animowany? Wiadomo, że była próba ze Space Usagi...

STAN SAKAI: Wiele. Były prowadzone nawet rozmowy o serialach i filmach pełnometrażowych, a jedną z dziwniejszych propozycji złożył sam Oliver Stone. Tymi sprawami zajmuje się mój agent. Pilot Space Usagi został zresztą prawie kupiony. A sam Usagi pojawia się w serialu o Żółwiach, no i są zabawki...

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Usagi i Żółwie. Jak to się stało, że Usagi przeżył, mimo że jest przeznaczony dla dorosłych i nie "zdziecinniał", by prztrwać?

STAN SAKAI: Oryginalne Żółwie Ninja też pisano dla dorosłych, dopiero potem komiks stał się dziecinny. Ja bardzo się troszczę o Usagiego i dlatego też nie powstał żaden film. Chcę mieć nad wszystkim kontrolę. A jeśli chodzi o Żółwie i Usagiego, to obie serie ruszyły tego samego roku i obchodzą 20 lat.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Jakie projekty ma pan na przyszłość?

STAN SAKAI: Lubię to, co robię, ale tworzę też dla innych wydawnictw - na przykład o Simpsonach, Grendela, Star Wars.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Jest 18 tomów. Czy będzie więcej?

STAN SAKAI: Znacznie więcej. Istnieją historie, których nie zdołam opowiedzieć przez najbliższe pięć lat. Historia o walce mistrza Usagiego z innym mistrzem ruszyła w tomie 9, a skończyła się w 15. Jak widać, rozpoczęte historie toczą się bardzo długo.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy wiadomo, jaki będzie koniec?

STAN SAKAI: Na początku miałem pomysł, który by was zachwycił, ale zrezygnowałem z niego. Mieli w nim pojawić się ludzie, a zwierzęta zginąć, Usagi również. Finał miała stanowić pełnokolorowa scena wielkiej bitwy z wybuchającym wulkanem w tle...

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: W komiksach o Usagim pojawia się wiele wyrazistych postaci. Czy któraś z nich stanie się głównym bohaterem jakiegoś tomu?

STAN SAKAI: Tak, właśnie skończyłem serię, w której drugoplanowa postać jest ważniejsza. Ta historia znajdzie się w tomie 19. Chodzi o Gena, Inazumę i Shidę.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Edukacja samurajów zakładała korzystanie z wielu rodzajów broni. Dlaczego Usagi używa tylko miecza?

STAN SAKAI: Głównie tak, gdyż w ten sposób walczył Musashi, który wynalazł technikę dwóch mieczy. Poza tym Usagi nie posługuje się łukiem tak dobrze, jak chociażby Gen.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Jaki jest odbiór pana komiksu w Japonii?

STAN SAKAI: W Japonii żaden amerykański komiks nie odniósł nigdy sukcesu. Kiedyś byłem tam w związku ze współpracą z Osamu Tezuką i rozmawiałem z wieloma twórcami. Oni znają moją twórczość.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Większość postaci jest podobna do ludzi. Jak prowadzi się te bardziej zwierzęce - krety, nietoperze?

STAN SAKAI: To nie jest trudniejsze, staram się jednak nie nadużywać tych bohaterów.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Jak dzieli pan czas między pracą a odpoczynkiem?

STAN SAKAI: Ja nie odpoczywam. Mam dwójkę dzieci. I lubię to, co robię. Rysuję jedną stronę dziennie, więc to pochłania mój czas. Poza tym to ja zajmuję się domem, gotuję dla dzieci, gdy żona wychodzi do pracy.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Dlaczego pana komiksy są bardziej amerykańskie niż japońskie?

STAN SAKAI: Wychowałem się na komiksach amerykańskich i zachodnioeuropejskich. Amerykański sposób opowiadania różni się znacznie od japońskiego, w którym jedna scena zajmuje 40 stron. W USA nie można sobie na to pozwolić.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy wprowadzenie Inazumy zamiast Jei było wynikiem politycznej poprawności?

STAN SAKAI: [śmiech] Nie myślałem o tym. Inazuma to najlepszy obecnie szermierz - nie może umrzeć, zło jest w niej. I na dodatek ściga Usagiego. Sam Jei zrodził się z dowcipu. W Japonii zwracasz się grzecznościowo przez dodanie -san, np. Sakai-san. Stąd Jei-san.A w USA to Jason z "Piątku trzynastego".

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Co pan najbardziej lubi z komiksu amerykańskiego?

STAN SAKAI: Jeff Smith, Frank Miller, Sandman i inne...

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy jest szansa na grę komputerową z Usagim?

STAN SAKAI: Pojawi się w nowych Żółwiach.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy w ramach rewanżu za rysowanie Grendela inni artyści będą rysować Usagiego?

STAN SAKAI: Był taki projekt do moich scenariuszy (na sześć odcinków), ale nic z tego nie wyszło. W grudniu wychodzi jednak Artwork of Usagi, w którym rysuje aż 16 artystów.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Czy zostaną wydane okładki ze wszystkich zeszytów, które nie zmieściły się do wydań zbiorowych?

STAN SAKAI: Raczej nie. Wcześniej publikowano je w limitowanej wersji hardcover. No, chyba że w Polsce, jakby co, mamy wszystkie kopie...

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Pana styl się zmienił. Czy był to efekt naturalny czy świadomy? A może odświeżenie postaci?

STAN SAKAI: To była ewolucja. Ludzie mówili, że Usagi się zmienił, ale stało się poza moją świadomością.

ZAWSZE MNIE PYTAJĄ: Jak pan pracuje? Tylko ręcznie, czy używa pan też komputera?

STAN SAKAI: Niewiele wiem o komputerach. Wszystko, łącznie z liternictwem, wykonuję ręcznie.
4:06 am

Usagi Yojimbo may be based on a samurai of 17th-century Japan, but his roots are right here.

Cartoonist Stan Sakai is a sansei who grew up in Kaimuki and, although he lives in Pasadena, Calif., now, he drew on his upbringing in creating the sword-wielding bunny that is the hero of a series of books popular with tweens and early teens.

"The Kapahulu Theatre would show chambara (sword-fighting or samurai) movies on Saturdays, and I would be there every weekend. Later, I wanted to do a comic book series based on 17th-century samurai Miyamoto Musashi. That series eventually became 'Usagi Yojimbo," said Sakai, who is in Hawai'i this week for a series of library appearances.

Gecko Books in Kaimuki reports that "Usagi Yojimbo" is consistently one of its best-selling series for 8-14 year olds.

Europeans have embraced Sakai's books, too: "Usagi Yojimbo" has been translated into a number of languages, including Polish and Croatian. Sakai's artwork is featured in an exhibit titled "Samurai: Reality and Fantasy" at The Japan Tower, an historic landmark in Brussels.

"The saga of Usagi Yojimbo (Rabbit Bodyguard) takes place in turn of the 17th-century Japan. The age of civil wars has barely ended, and the Shogun has just established power. The samurai is the ruling class throughout the land, following a warrior's code of honor known as Bushido. It is a time of unrest and political intrigue.

"Wandering across this country is a masterless samurai named Miyamoto Usagi."

Thus begins the series of graphic novels about a samurai rabbit living in feudal Japan.

While kids enjoy their adventure, mystery and humor, adults like that Sakai's books are based on Japanese history, culture and traditions. Woven into these tales are facts about sword-making, festivals, the Gempei Wars, the creation myths and pottery making.

Being a samurai, Usagi also encounters his share of violence.

"The turn of the 17th century (in) Japan was a very turbulent period," Sakai said. "The age of civil wars had just ended with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, foreign trade was being introduced, the warrior class was becoming obsolete, and the merchant class was on the rise. It was a violent time."

"However," Sakai added, "the violence in 'Usagi' is kept to a minimum, and it is never gratuitous."

Marcia Ikuta, young-adult librarian for the McCully-Mo'ili'ili branch library, agreed, noting, " 'Usagi Yojimbo' is one of the best series out there, proving that you don't need tights and X-ray vision to be a hero."
Although the series is set in Japan, Sakai says attracting readers in that country hasn't been easy.

"Japan is a very difficult market to break into," Sakai said. "I don't think there has been any U.S. comic series that has made any substantial impact on the Japanese manga market." (Manga are Japanese comic novels.)
Still, Sakai's work has won three Will Eisner Awards (the most prestigious of the American comics awards), two Haxtur Awards from Spain, an American Library Association award, an Inkpot and Parent's Choice Award.

"Lorraine Kawahara, who just retired from Kaimuki High School, had a huge impact in my desire to go into the art," Sakai said. "She was actually my first art teacher, and we still keep in contact. Lorraine was very encouraging and had entered my work in a lot of shows. I dedicated my eleventh book, 'Usagi Yojimbo: Seasons,' to her."

Sakai is wrapping up nearly a dozen visits to libraries on O'ahu and Kaua'i. He was invited by state library system to celebrate its 2002 Young Adult Summer Reading Program called "Heroes @ Your Library."

When The Advertiser talked to him before his trip, he was looking forward to seeing his family, eating local food and seeing some of his fans at the libraries.
3 p.m. today, Hawai'i Kai Public Library
10 a.m. Tuesday, Princeville Public Library, Kaua'i
3 p.m. Tuesday Lihu'e Public Library, Kaua'i
4:03 am

Life on the road can have its share of odd perks. Ask Stan Sakai, creator of the comic book "Usagi Yojimbo," who has been a guest at comic conventions around the world. "When I travel, I like to eat the food of the region I'm in," Sakai says. "I was in Norway when my hosts asked if I would like to try a typical Norwegian peasants' meal. Northern Norway is a sheep-raising area, and during feudal times the lord of the area took the best parts of the sheep.

"That night, I had a boiled sheep's head and a turnip."
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At least exotic food won't be much of a concern when the Hawaii-raised artist returns home for this year's Kawaii Kon. But he will have to deal with legions of "Usagi" fans who've declared the usual intentions -- on the anime convention's online message boards -- to seek autographs and grill him about his work.

Sakai is more than up to the task.

"Anime cons are especially neat," he says, "because there are so many cosplayers (fans who dress as anime and manga characters) with their carefully crafted costumes, and it's just a different crowd from the comic conventions I usually attend."

The worldwide popularity of "Usagi" has Sakai heading off to far-flung parts of the world. The series, first published in 1984, follows the adventures of the rabbit samurai Miyamoto Usagi in an anthropomorphic feudal Japan after the samurai's lord was defeated at the Battle of Adachigahara.

The graphic novels have been translated into about a dozen languages, including Croatian and Czech. "I did a book-signing tour of Poland a couple of years ago," Sakai says. "That is something I could never have imagined when I first started. Usagi has also been seen as toys, clothing and even on TV as a guest on the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' show."

The comic has also spurred pins, an art book, calendars, collectible statues and even a tabletop role-playing game.

While not specifically in "manga" style, the characters and setting of "Usagi" attract both manga fans and readers simply looking for a good story. "My storytelling is influenced more by movies than comics, with directors such as Kurosawa, Hitchcock or even (Alexandro) Jodorowsky. Many reviewers have remarked about the cinematic feel in 'Usagi,'" Sakai says.

But he is familiar with the big names of anime. Aside from spending his childhood with Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, "I grew up with the old manga and anime -- 'Astro Boy,' 'Gigantor,' 'Speed Racer' and 'Princess Knight.'"

He enjoys the works of artist Rumiko Takahashi and film director Hayao Miyazaki, but his true idol and early influence was Osamu Tezuka. Sakai calls him the "all-time master of manga and anime."

He met the artist several times in the late 1980s when Tezuka attended the San Diego Comic Convention. "He was a very nice, sincere man. The funniest thing was that he looked just like he always drew himself -- beret, black jacket and everything."

But it was another famous -- and much older -- Japanese figure that eventually led to the creation of "Usagi Yojimbo."

"I grew up reading manga and going to chambara movies at the old Kapahulu Theater, and wanted to do a comic book series loosely based on the life of Miyamoto Musashi, who lived in the 17th century," he says. "One day while sketching in my drawing book, I drew a rabbit with his ears tied in a samurai chonmage (topknot). I loved the look. It was simple, but no one else had ever done it before. I named this character Miyamoto Usagi -- 'usagi' means 'rabbit' in Japanese."

Sakai's appearance at Kawaii Kon comes on the heels of several far-flung trips, including one to New York and a visit to Spain last month for a comic convention with Sergio Aragones, creator and artist of "Groo the Wanderer," for which Sakai is the letterer.

He keeps journals about his trips, "otherwise I would not remember that it was in Posnan that I had to do a nighttime signing by candlelight after the construction company next to the bookstore broke through the power lines 15 minutes before I got there," Sakai says. "Or that 'windy' in Polish means 'elevator' and is not the hotel giving me a weather report."

Work often overlaps convention appearances, and Sakai uses long airplane flights as vehicles for creativity.

He wrote the story for "Usagi" issue No. 99 while flying to New York, and used the flight back to thumbnail the story. He even brought five story pages to ink while on his trip.

Before coming to Honolulu, he was finishing the art for "Usagi" No. 95, the cover for "Usagi" No. 98, several art plates for the 20th "Usagi" graphic novel and a pin-up for Frank Miller's "Sin City."

But all the globe-trotting aside, Sakai enjoys returning to the place of his boyhood, especially now as a guest of Hawaii's first and only anime convention.

Sure, he'll host an "Usagi" panel and a drawing workshop at Kawaii Kon. But there were other motives for him to return.

"I have to admit that much of it was being able to visit with family, to replenish my crack seed supply and to eat the local food. There are a couple of Hawaiian restaurants around my area, but it's still much better to eat Hawaiian food back home."
3:56 am

I must admit that before Oct. 5, I knew absolutely nothing about Stan Sakai or his popular comic book series about a samurai rabbit called Usagi Yojimbo. My boyfriend, who self-admittedly is about 12 years old at heart (he’s actually almost 30), thought it would be fun to go listen to Sakai’s presentation at the downtown Central Library that day.
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We arrived at the library well before the talk was to begin and sat in the front row of the auditorium, watching the crowd slowly file in. About 100 fans, ranging from the young (about 8 to 12 years of age) to the young at heart, eventually joined us to hear the Japanese American speak and get their comic books autographed.

Shortly before the lecture was to begin, we saw a pleasant-looking middle-aged Asian gentleman come in and stand off to the front side of the auditorium. He reminded me of my favorite law school professor — tweed jacket, khakis, comfortable shoes and an endearing smile. He greeted the library officials and then walked over to us, asking if we wanted our comic book (purchased shortly before the start of the lecture) autographed.

Within seconds, he returned our comic book back to us with an impromptu drawing of his famous samurai rabbit on the inside front cover and his signature. My boyfriend, who was obviously tickled that he would take the time to draw something for us, thanked him repeatedly. We watched him sign a few more books before his presentation began.

For the rest of the hour, the audience of fans listened intently as this cartoonist with a wry sense of humor composed drawing after drawing, explaining the process of creating comics and his 27 years in the business of drawing. He explained that much of Usagi Yojimbo is based on his research about Japan and is very much historically accurate. Literally translated, “usagi yojimbo” means “rabbit samurai warrior.” As he spoke, Sakai drew figures on a large sketchpad so that the audience could see as well as hear about the famous rabbit warrior.

I found it quite charming that he singled out an 8- or 9-year-old girl named Abby who had come in with a drawing of her own for Sakai to sign. He composed a storyboard of her day, drawing upon a few questions he asked her while the audience sat and watched the genius at work. He engaged the rest of the audience, answering question after eager question from his many fans.

As I mentioned earlier, I knew nothing about Sakai or the cult following of his warrior bunny rabbit, but through this wonderful presentation organized by the Seattle Public Library, I can no longer say that is true. I used to equate comic book fans with nerdy band geeks and the like. Alas, I am no longer in middle school and have long since stopped caring about the silly monikers that children use to label others whose interests are outside of the mainstream.

My brief encounter with Stan Sakai reminded me how refreshing it is to break out of one’s comfort zone and try something different once in a while.
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