"I Love Usagi and I Love Working on Usagi" - An Interview with Stan Sakai

Stan Sakai is a legend in the comics world. For the past 34 years, Stan has worked on his own creation, Usagi Yojimbo, through multiple publishers and industry turnover. His signature rabbit ronin has crossed paths with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, taken off into outer space, and even fought against monsters crafted by H.G. Wells. I could not believe my good fortune in being able to sit down and talk with one of my all-time favorite creators while he was appearing at San Diego Comic-Con, and he'll be appearing this weekend at the Rose City Comic Con. 

Over the course of our chat, Stan and I spoke about the changes in his work, keeping Usagi in stories, and an eye-popping tease at the very end that really deserves a mike drop, as you'll see.
Rob McMonigal: First of all thank you do much for agreeing to this, I’ve been a fan for years and years. That brings me to my first question: Did you ever expect to be drawing Usagi, what is it, 30 years now?

Stan Sakai: It will be 35 years next year, and I did not expect it. We didn’t think about the long-term. I was just concerned about what can I do next month?

Rob: *laughs*

Stan: But now I am laying groundwork for stories that won’t appear for the next five years or so. I have the luxury of planning things in advance.

Rob: That brings me to my next question. How do you keep coming up with new stories for this rabbit and his friends to keep getting into?

Stan: I have deadlines, so I am always thinking of new ideas. When I think of a story and do research into the story, it spawns more stories and springboards for other stories. I love what I do and it’s interesting for me. Because I own Usagi and because I do all the writing and artwork, I can [create] any type of stories I want to. I can cross genres. I’ve done romance, I’ve done historical, I’ve done action adventure, I’ve done cultural—there’s even a story that follows the entire tea story from beginning to end. It’s not all action adventure—I can do anything! 

Mysteries! I’ve done a series of mysteries. The story arc right now, The Hidden, is a murder mystery. It’s very much a detective story rather than the other mysteries that I've done, which have centered more upon the action aspect. This is more cerebral, the solving of the mystery. It’s also historical, because it revolves around the hidden Christians of feudal Japan, in the time that Christianity was outlawed and Japanese Christians were being persecuted and martyred—it’s an interesting time in Japanese history.

First Fantagraphic Trade Cover
Cover to Issue 1 of The Hidden

Rob: Now in terms of your art style, are you still working analog or have you moved to digital at this point?

Stan: *laughs* I am completely traditional. Even the lettering is hand-lettered on the original art boards. I don’t use digital at all. Even when I do cover paintings or watercolors. For the comics, I have a colorist, Tom Luth, and he’s an excellent colorist. He works digitally. That’s the only part of the Usagi stories that’s digital.

Rob: Now one thing that’s really amazing to me is how consistent the style has been. You can pick up one of the early issues published by--I forget who it was--

Stan: Fantagraphics.

Rob: Fantagraphics, that’s right. And you can move right into the stuff you’ve done for Dark Horse, and there’s not a lot of difference—it feels like the same character, the world looks very much the same. How hard is it—because I know your abilities would evolve and change—but the consistency is really there. Is that something you consciously work on?

Stan: Well, I would hope that the consistency of story is continuous. However, the artwork and the storytelling has changed. Usagi as a character has matured over the years, I think hopefully the way I’ve matured as a storyteller. He’s not as impulsive and even the art style. At the very beginning, his proportions were maybe 3 heads high, now he’s maybe 5 heads high. [Heads in this case refers to the height of the character, measured by how many of the character’s head you can stack up against them if they are standing.] Also, little things like backgrounds or expressions or even—at the very beginning he had a straight nose, and how he has a bump for a nose. I think it can be attributed to my development as an artist and as a storyteller. But it’s so subtle, even I hadn’t noticed it.

From the first issue of Usagi Yojimbo
From the second issue of The Hidden.

Rob: Now I’m feeling like I asked a foolish question!

Stan: *laughs*

Rob: Because you listed all these ways that Usagi are different, but really looking at it--I’ve read comics and studied them for years, so I can notice changes, but I didn’t even realize his proportions had changed that much.

Stan: Like I said, it’s very subtle, and it was unconscious on my part. When someone points out “There’s something different with Usagi,” I often say, “You’re right!”

Rob: Have your thought about doing any more special side projects, like the War of the Worlds mini or more Space Usagi?

Stan: I have one more Space Usagi mini-series that I would love to do. There’s a few non-Usagi projects or non-continuity projects that I’d like to do with Usagi. Next year is the 35th anniversary, so it might be time to do something really special.

Rabbit vs Red Planet in Senso
Rob: In terms of things, do you ever wish you’d been able to do more than one character?

Stan: I love Usagi and I love working on Usagi. And I own the character. My contract with Dark Horse (and any other publisher I’ve had), states that whatever I send in, they publish. I am free from editorial interference as far as art and story goes. The first time Megan, my current editor, sees my artwork is when it’s completely finished. It’s a luxury in our industry. I know that and I appreciate that. I hope that it’s come about because of the years of trust that I’ve tried to build up in terms of the quality of my storytelling, my ability to meet deadlines, because part of being a freelance artist—you need to have discipline. You need to meet deadlines. I hope I’ve built a reputation that I’m reliable and been able to turn in quality work.

Rob: I know that things happen, but it’s very frustrating as a reader when you expect a book to be roughly monthly. Sometimes it’s at a critical point in the story. It’s great to know that if there are going to be six  monthly issues of Usagi, we’ll get six issues of Usagi.

Stan: Now Usagi is not a monthly comic. It comes maybe ten times a year, and that’s a good schedule for me. It takes about five weeks for me to do one 24 page Usagi story. And that also gives me the luxury to work on other projects. I still do the lettering for Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Wanderer, and we’re starting Groo meets Tarzan, so I get to work on that. I also do variant covers—I got to do one for Jim Henson Storytellers’ Fairies and one for the Garfield comic book. That’s a good pace for me.

Rob: I think our time is just about up. Thanks again for taking the time to do this. I look forward to whatever you come up with for the 35th anniversary.

Stan: 35th? Hopefully? A TV series! We’ll end it there.

Rob: !!!

Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo main series is currently published by Dark Horse, with archives available of his earlier work. The next issue of The Hidden is due September 19th. He'll be at Rose City Comic Con September 7th to 9th at table V-01. Can't make the convention? You can visit his website here.