Interview: Stan Sakai: Down the Rabbit Hole with Usagi Yojimbo
by R.J. Carter
Published: April 5, 2001
Stan Sakai is a veteran in the world of comics. For a long time, he was the letterer on the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip, but he's probably best known for his work on the samurai rabbit he created, Usagi Yojimbo. We borrowed a few minutes of Stan's time to get a better understanding of this outstanding anthropomorphic series and get some insights on Stan's creative processes.
Usagi Yojimbo made his appearance in teh 1980s, in the wake of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What quickly followed was the "junk bond" era of comics known as the "black and white glut," where anybody with three adjectives, a noun, and a Xerox copier in their garage could put out a comic. They're all gone, and Usagi is still with us. How did he survive?
Well, Usagi first came out in Albedo #2. That was in November of 1984, and it survived primarily because -- I think -- the stories are good. I hate to blow my own horn, but I think the stories are well written; the art is well done. Also, it was coming out consistently in Albedo and then in Critters, and right away in his own book. So it's been out there for about sixteen years now, and it's been put out fairly consistently since it originally came out.
Incidentally, Albedo #2 just sold on eBay a couple of weeks ago for six hundred and sixty-something dollars.
Were you self-financing and self-publishing the early Usagi?
No, I never self-published. It was first put out by Steve Gulacy who ran a company called Thoughts and Images, and he produced the first few issues of Albedo. From there, I went over to Fantagraphics Books, and then to Mirage, and now I'm with Dark Horse.
You're one of a handful of artists who chooses to use the 'funny animals' to tell seriously human stories. Does the anthropomorphism allow you to do things in a story that you wouldn't be able to do as effectively with human characters?
Definitely! Usagi first started out as a human character named Miyamoto Musashi, who was a samurai who lived in the turn of seventeenth century Japan. But making him into a funny animal gave me more freedom. It was definitely a fantasy series, though rooted in history and culture, but I could do more things with him. There were more story possibilities and idea possibilities with Usagi as a funny animal rather than as a human.
Also, he's just so fun to draw.
Why a rabbit?
Again, he's fun to draw. I was just sketching one day, and I drew a rabbit with his ears tied up into a samurai topknot, and I loved it. He looked great, he looked unique -- it was very simple, but no one had ever done it before. And so I kept him as a rabbit.
do you think there's something about Usagi being an anthropomorphic title that makes it more accessible to readers while still communicating complex stories?
I don't know. For some it is, but for many others it's been a deterrent. People look at Usagi and think it's just a regular funny animal book, and they think right away it's for kids and it's just humor stories. But that's not the case. I've gotten so many letter writers that said they were put off by it at first, they never picked it up, because it was funny animals. But once they started reading it, they really got into the story. So in many ways, it was a deterrent for people to pick it up.
So much of Usagi is steeped in Japanese history and tradition. How do you use this wealth of information that you've accumulated and incorporate it into the series while still making it accessible to readers who don't know anything about that stuff?
Well, my primary purpose for Usagi is entertainment. The research into the culture and history is pretty much just background material. I do a lot of research, and most of it never makes its way into the story. It's pretty much for entertainment than as a teaching tool.
But I think comics can be used to teach. Usagi has been used in classrooms throughout the country. For those who are very interested in the culture and the historical aspects of the research, I also include story notes and a bibliography in many of the issues, so they can do further reading, or just have a bit more information about the subject matter that I've touched upon.
If you were going to teach a course on "How to read Usagi Youjimbo," what kind of courses would you list as prerequisites -- books that absolutely must be read?
There's so much. Basic books on history and culture of Japan. Probably the most important books on early Japanese history are the Kojiki and the Nihongi. These were written in the mid-700s, so they're very old history books. From there, just buy anything. Most of my storytelling comes from movies, rather than comics, so I would recommend films such as Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" or "Yojimbo" and such.
I do presentations on Usagi -- just basic background on what Usagi is, how I create an issue, and so on. I've given it all the way from the pre-school level up to the college level. I even spoke at William and Mary, and John Hopkins.
So colleges are opening up to more comic related material?
Yeah! The Savannah College of Design has a speaker program where they invite comic book professionals to speak. Usagi was used in the Japanese History classes in the University of Portland in Oregon.
Later this month I'm speaking to about 200 high-schoolers. I'm part of a library program that speaks to different schools.
When you started doing Usagi, was this born out of some sort of genealogical study? (Given that you're Japenese-American?)
I'm third-generation Japanese-American. Actually, I was born in Japan. My father was stationed in Japan after the war, and I was born while he was still stationed there.
But I grew up watching Japanese movies. There was a movie theater down the street from where I lived, and every weekend they would show the old sword-fighting movies. I grew up on stuff like that. I loved that!
Were you reading any of the Japanese comic books at that time?
Not really. There were a few that made their way to Hawaii, but most of them -- at my age -- they were just foreign books. I didn't know how to read the language that well. Manga now is pretty much accepted in American mainstream -- or at least in the comic book market. But back then, it was very rare. And also, because you had to read from right to left, it was very difficult for someone who grew up in American culture.
But I grew up on American comic books.
You couldn't have picked a better time to introduce Usagi. Frank Miller had just made everything Japanese and everything ninja very vogue with his comics work.
Since you brought up Frank Miller: He's doing the cover for the Maverick 2001 Annual, and it's a cover with Usagi! It's the first time he's drawn Usagi, and it may very well be the first time he's drawn a funny animal for publication.
So Usagi is written and drawn by a Japanese-American creator; it's set in medieval Japan. Does that qualify it as manga?
I don't believe it's manga. The storytelling style is completely different from the Japanese style. In Western storytelling, there's a beginning, middle and end. In Japanese storytelling, they concentrate so much on the middle, and sometimes the end is even unnecessary or not included in the storyline. I tend to write from a very European, or very Western, point of view and so I don't believe I would consider it manga.
Right now I'm working on Usagi #50 for Dark Horse.
Ah, an anniversary issue!
Well, it's the 50th issue for Dark Horse. About a year ago, we celebrated Usagi's 100th issue, because Usagi came out from various publishers, so there's already been more than 100 issues. But this one is a bit of a milestone.
Aside from Usagi, I'm working on a story for The Simpsons: Trehouse of Horror for Bongo Comics. I'm going to be working with Greg Rucka on a short story for the Oni Color Summer Special, and I'm going to be doing a pinup for The Marquis, Guy Davis's series from Oni Press -- and various bits of freelance here and there for other publishers.