San Diego Comic-Con Interview: Stan Sakai

The creator of Usagi Yojimbo discusses supporting characters, death, settings, and descendants of the ronin rabbit.

Stan Sakai, creator of Usagi Yojimbo, took some time to speak with me at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. This interview took place at the Dark Horse Comics booth on Friday, July 22.

SciFiPulse: You have a huge supporting cast of characters in Usagi. Certain stories lend themselves better to certain characters, but are there certain favorites you enjoy going back to revisit?

Stan Sakai: After more than thirty years, the cast of characters does tend to grow. I do have my favorites. I have Gen the bounty hunter who claims he’s Usagi’s best friend. I also have Inspector Ishida, I’ve just brought him back again and I love his adventures. They’re mysteries and that’s a genre I love. The story I’ve just finished is call “The Secret of the Hell Screen,” which is a murder mystery. The shogunate’s official is murdered and the murder weapon is fugu, Japanese pufferfish, which is poisonous but it’s a delicacy. I’ve also brought back two characters who are favorites but have never met: Chizu the ninja and Kitsune, who’s a street performer-thief. It’s like oil and water. They don’t mix. I was surprised they had never met before. I had fun with that.

SciFiPulse: The second issue of the Hell Screen has just come out. What type of research did you have to do on this element? It’s got such a great physical presence in the story.

Stan Sakai: Thank you. I actually did not have to do a lot of research. I just had some background on it. The Hell Screen is basically a Buddhist motif. In the Buddhist temple there is a big panel or painting showing life in hell for the sinner. If you don’t repent or do good, you wind up in this hell. Basically that’s all I needed. I had some images of the various Hell Screens: close ups, details, of some of the torture. It was great, but basically the story’s a mystery and Inspector Ishida stories are mysteries.

SciFiPulse: I love how in the first chapter of the story you don’t show much of the Hell Screen. Instead you showed the characters’ reactions–

Stan Sakai: –Yeah–

SciFiPulse: –and that was classic storytelling, because what the reader could imagine was much worse.

Stan Sakai: Exactly.

SciFiPulse: Going on a tangent, you’re outstanding with your lettering, much awarded, deservedly so. I haven’t read anything about this in other interviews and it just fascinates me: every character has a unique death rattle.

Stan Sakai: (Strong laughter)

SciFiPulse: It’s not just an ARG! It’s an image of the character’s skull with an exclamation point woven into it. The worst question in the world, and the kind that would make Harlan Ellison explode is “Where do you get your ideas from?” But I have to ask where this came from.

Stan Sakai: Usagi is basically an all ages book…and there is a lot of death. It is about samurai. It was a time in Japanese history when the civil wars had just ended, so there was a lot of violence at the time. The Tokugawa shogunate had just been established. There were a lot of unemployed soldiers, samurai. I came up with the motif of the little death skulls because it kind of cushions the blow. It makes it a bit more fun. (He smiles)

SciFiPulse: You’re right. They are “fun.” As I’m reading the book I’m looking at these little death symbols and thinking, ‘That’s so cute.’ And then I think, ‘Wait–I shouldn’t be thinking that’s a cute death!’

Stan Sakai: (Laughter)

SciFiPulse: It’s often a terrible way for that person to die, but it’s the most palpable way to present it to the audience.

Stan Sakai: There’s one guy who writes a lot of letters to Usagi. He counts each time one of those death skull appears. So I did a cover with hundreds of these skulls (SciFiPulse note: Issue #101) with Usagi on a battlefield because they were rising out of all these bodies.

SciFiPulse: Your backgrounds and settings are beautiful. If you could have an issue with Usagi just walking around I would be a satisfied reader. Is there any particular environment or background that you prefer to do?

Stan Sakai: Well, mountains are easy for me, as opposed to architecture, but then Usagi does go through a lot of towns. I love the architecture of the period, but it does take up a lot of my time. I also like to draw Usagi in various weather conditions. I love the rain, the snow, wind. I try to incorporate the feel of the weather. In fact, with Issue 131 or so…which ends in 160, it takes place in one season. It’s a rainy season, a typhoon season in Japan. All thirty issues are basically typhoon season, so that would be about the late summer and early fall in Japan. It’s just starting off where there’s a terrific drought and the rains come in, on and off, until Issue 160.

SciFiPulse: Away from Usagi, I’ve only recently discovered that you’ve done a cover for Star Wars #1.

Stan Sakai: (Laughter) Yeah, I did.

SciFiPulse: Are there any other franchises or comic book characters that you would like to draw a variant cover for but haven’t yet?

Stan Sakai: You mentioned the Star Wars Variant, but I’ve also done a variant cover for Kong of Skull Island Issue #2 that’s coming out. I also did one for Betty and Veronica #1. It’s a store variant for Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz. I’ve done variant covers, just a few, but I would love to do something for…I don’t know. Groo would be great!

SciFiPulse: Usagi Yojimbo has been going for a long time. Do you have an end plan? I remember when Cerebus was running and its creator Dave Sim said he knew how the series would end. Do you have an end for him or do you want to have him continue with his adventures?

Stand Sakai: Actually, I did have a definite ending for Usagi. Usagi started as a secondary character to The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy story line. That saga was about 2,000 or 2,500 pages, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Usagi was going to introduced at about Page 1000. That story pretty much told why there are funny animals, why there are “animal” animals, and the rise of humans. Once I started drawing Usagi I loved the character so much I put Nilson on the side burner. Right now there is no ending. Which I’m glad, because I have no other job skills.

SciFiPulse: (Laughter) Usagi Yojimbo is returning to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.

Stan Sakai: Uh…yeah. That got leaked out. So now it’s official. I’ve signed with Nickelodeon.

SciFiPulse: Is there going to be an action figure as well?

Stan Sakai: Yes.

SciFiPulse: I know it’s come up often. I’ve been a fan of this book since the 1980s…Usagi the movie–

Stan Sakai: (Strong laughter)

SciFiPulse: I’m so sad that makes you laugh.

Stan Sakai: You know, it’s been optioned so many times, I always say don’t believe anything until you actually see it on the screen.

SciFiPulse: Do you have a preference for how it would be done because of the nature of the book? It could be traditional animation, computer animation, live action…

Stan Sakai: I’ve had everything pitched to me. Traditional cel animation to live action. There was even one that was pitched by a very well known producer that wanted it to take place in modern day Los Angeles with Usagi being CGI.

SciFiPulse: …oh, wow.

Stan Sakai: Yeah. It was pretty wild.

SciFiPulse: You’ve had Usagi do some wild things, like Space Usagi. Have you thought about putting him in other timelines? I’ve seen fans online post wishlists–

Stan Sakai: –Oh, yes.

SciFiPulse: –such as an American cowboy.

Stan Sakai: Oh. That’s interesting.

SciFiPulse: Have you considered others?

Stan Sakai: I have. It’s very loose line of descendants based on the ownership of the original sword. Space Usagi is a direct descendant and can be traced by the sword. I did a few pages of a character named Teri Miyamoto, an investigative reporter and she’s a 21st century descendant. There was going to be a 1920s-1930s pulp character.

SciFiPulse: Like a noir?

Stan Sakai: Yes. Like the Shadow with a big hat, but with the ears.

SciFiPulse: So, possibly, one day…?

Stan Sakai: Maybe. If I ever had the time.

SciFiPulse: The artist’s response: If only there were more hours in the day.

Stan Sakai: Exactly!

SciFiPulse would like to thank Mr. Sakai for taking the time to be interviewed and Dark Horse Comics for setting up the time and location during a very busy Comic-Con.

To find out more Usagi Yojimbo, as well as see the process Stan uses to create the book and purchase items featuring the ronin, go to http://www.usagiyojimbo.com/

Coming October 26 from Dark Horse Comics is the hardcover Usagi Yojimbo Gallery Edition Volume 2: The Artist and Other Stories. It’s available for preorder at  http://www.darkhorse.com/Books/28-167/Usagi-Yojimbo-Gallery-Edition-Volume-2-The-Artist-and-Other-Stories-HC I purchased the first volume at this year’s convention and will definitely be buying the second volume.

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer’s Guide for several years with “It’s Bound to Happen!” and he’s reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He’s taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.

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